Some 60 Ukrainian dancers are preparing to travel from The Hague, Netherlands, to Washington, D.C., where they will perform Giselle, with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, at the Kennedy Center.

The dancers are refugees who fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion. With help from local officials and dance professionals, they formed the United Ukrainian Ballet Company. The artistic director is Igone de Jongh, a former prima ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet.

The stories of how these dancers fled Ukraine by train, bus, car and by foot are harrowing. Vladyslava Ihnatenko was dancing with the Odesa Opera House when the Russians invaded. She decided to leave when she could hear explosions from her apartment.

An exception let male dancers leave Ukraine

"The most hard moment was when I took the train from Odesa to leave and it was crowded of children and also old people with animals. And everyone was of course shocked," Ihnatenko tells NPR by phone from Holland.

At first, almost all of the dancers who made it to Holland were young women. Most Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave the country. But with the formation of this new company, Ratmansky says, the government made an exception.

"The Ukrainian Minister of Culture thought it was an important initiative, so they gave permission to the men," he says.

Principal dancer Oleksii Kniazkov was one of them.

"I'm not a soldier, a warrior. I don't know anything about these things," Kniazkov tells NPR by phone from Holland, "but I can dance, and I hope it will be more useful for support Ukraine."

Like all of the other dancers in the company, Kniazkov left family and friends behind. His mother is in the Donetsk region.

"It's like the most dangerous place now, but she wants to stay at home. She doesn't want to go from there," he says. He recently learned that a garden near his parents' house — and where he played as a child — was bombed.

Ratmansky, a former dancer, has choreographed for such major companies as the Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Danish Ballet, New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. He was the artistic director for the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004 to 2008. He was born in St. Petersburg, grew up in Kyiv and trained in Moscow. His mother is Russian and his father is Ukrainian.

Both he and his wife have friends and family in Ukraine. He says every morning, before he and the dancers get to work, they check their phones. "We are all dreading the news from Ukraine because we just learn where and how many people were killed by Russians."

But he says the emotions are not getting in the way of the work, "because dancers are very disciplined." He adds, "It helps to work, to concentrate on something else. And we also feel that we are doing it for Ukraine."

The company has dancers from across the country, 'like a small Ukraine'

Last year, the United Ukrainian Ballet performed Giselle in London, with sets and costumes loaned from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and music provided by the English National Opera.

Dancer Vladyslava Ihnatenko hopes this year's trip to the Kennedy Center will remind U.S. audiences the war is still going on.

"We can show and tell people our story and also [let] more people know about the situation," she says. "It's really good when people are asking how is it in Ukraine and how they can help us."

The United Ukrainian Ballet is made up of dancers from across the country — different theaters, cities and regions. Knialdov says it's "like a small Ukraine" that shows "the union of our country." [Copyright 2023 NPR]