In Ukraine’s Cultural Capital, “Giselle” Goes to War

Lviv, Ukraine—Here in the cultural capital of Ukraine, the statues have been wrapped in plastic. The windows and facades of the neoclassical buildings that have led many a writer to describe this city as a “jewel box” have also been covered. This may be enough to protect them from the shrapnel from Russian bombs and shells, but it won’t be enough to shield them from a direct hit. Taken as a metaphor, these veiled figures convey a message: Art and culture are under wraps, at least until the invasion of Ukraine is over.

In early May, Lviv’s opera house, a Beaux-Arts wedding-cake building that inhabits both the physical and cultural heart of the town, hosted a ballet, the first public performance there since the war began. The ballet—Giselle, a work of 19th-century French Romanticism—had nothing to do with the war, but the fact of the hostilities was never far off. The mother and grandmother of the principal dancer, Daryna Kirik, had survived the horrors of the Russian occupation in Bucha, where residents were shot on the street and war crimes are alleged to have taken place. An announcement preceded the curtain raising: The performance would be halted in the event of an air raid.

On the opening night at the opera house, there was no alarm, but as Lviv has settled into an uneasy normalcy, punctuated by sirens and the occasional Russian strike, culture has had to adapt, to go underground and huddle in bomb shelters with the city’s residents. That night, ballerinas in white tulle costumes glided onto and off the stage without a hitch, and the director of the opera, Vasyl Vovkun, hailed the event as a triumph of light over darkness.

Despite the occasional performance or recital, however, institutions like the theater, the opera, and the ballet have shifted onto a war footing. Their buildings have been repurposed as supply hubs and homes for internally displaced people. At the opera, volunteers have made hand-sewn protective garments to be sent to the troops, and the company is raising funds for a front-line medical clinic through paid online concerts. Across town at the Philharmonic, medical supplies are stockpiled for transport to the worst-hit areas of the country. Volunteers in a shuttered library piece together camouflage netting out of strips of cloth.

What does war do to a culture? I was in Ukraine in March, during a fearful period when every empty concert hall portended doom. Kyiv was under attack, and, so the logic ran, it was only a matter of time before Lviv, too, would have to resist the invaders from the East. The Russians generally bombed in the very early hours, and each day, as the sky darkened, rumors and dire warnings would begin to fly. “Trust me, a friend of a friend at the British Ministry of Defense insists the Russians will target foreign cell phones with missiles.” “My father has heard from military sources that tonight they will strike.” And so on.

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