Ukrainian ballet company brings ‘Nutcracker’ to life in Plymouth Meeting

This weekend, a ballet company from Ukraine will perform “The Nutcracker” in the Philadelphia area, bringing the sparkling dream to life after enduring a nightmare at home.


The Donetsk Ballet Company of Ukraine is based in one of the hot spots of the recent military crisis over the Crimean peninsula. Ukrainians clashed with Russian loyalists in Donetsk, an industrial city of a million people.

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The ballet company recruits 40 ballet students from around the region to perform with 18 Ukrainian professionals. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for Newsworks)

“The dancers had to disperse throughout Eastern Ukraine. They had to leave Donetsk,” said Nancy Malmed, executive director of International Ballet Exchange, which helps coordinate the company’s tour. “There was gunfire … 500,000 left the city.”

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The ballet company regularly tours internationally, having performed every year in the United States since 1989. But this year, because of the fighting in Ukraine, it nearly didn’t happen. The company’s artists reconvened in Donetsk about a month ago, as military tensions relaxed. They staged free performances for the city, then left for the tour.

The dancers and choreographers of the company refused to speak about conditions at home, for fear of political reprisals.

Eighteen core members of the company are touring several mid-Atlantic venues, each of which is providing a locally choreographed children’s corps to fill out the production.

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Forty local ballet students fill the children’s rolls in the Nutcracker ballet. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for Newsworks)

The Ukrainian dancers got their first taste of the Philadelphia corps at George Washington High School, where they performed for several hundred students bused in from area schools.

Many of those kids came from Malmed’s Wissahickon Dance Academy in Germantown. They were trained by a former dancer with Donetsk Ballet, Viktor Yeliohin, who has been preparing American children to dance with the company for 23 years.

Yeliohin also was with Donetsk Ballet when it was touring America in the summer of 1991, just as the Soviet Union collapsed. The future of the Ukrainian company was in jeopardy, so most members of the company decided to try their luck in America. Yeliohin quickly found a few teaching jobs to extend his visa.

“If I already have job here, it’s the best way to start future for my son here in the United States,” said Yeliohin, whose son is now attending college. “He was 3 years old. He was very young. Here he can have new life.”

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Director Viktor Yeliohin rushes children around, choreographing the lights, and cheering for the performers backstage. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for Newsworks)

The Donetsk Ballet will perform “The Nutcracker” on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, 201 E. Germantown Pike, Plymouth Meeting.

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