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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

United for Ukraine: Showcasing Ukrainian resistance through art

Students perform a dance celebrating Kalyna, a red flower that symbolizes resilience.
Students perform a dance celebrating Kalyna, a red flower that symbolizes resilience.

Students and community members packed the Mahaney Arts Center to witness the third annual United for Ukraine event. The show was organized by Middlebury College’s Ukrainian students in partnership with the Mahaney Arts Center and the Music department, with support from the Office of the President, the Innovation Hub, the Committee on the Arts, the Center for Community Engagement and the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs. 

The two-hour performance on Feb. 17 showcased Ukraine’s rich and extensive history of resilience through different art forms, including traditional dance, poetry, music and film. This year, the show featured the New York Crimean Tatar Ensemble. The group is the only band playing traditional Crimean Tatar music in the United States and is based in New York City. 

Regarding the show’s artistic focus, organizer Mariia Dzholos ’24 said, “Our art shows and captures a lot of the history of what has been happening to us. In Ukraine, as you can see, art has always existed as a response. And art captures so, so, so well what has been happening to us.” 

Art has allowed students to put the war in a bigger context, showcasing the long history of Ukrainian strength against oppression. 

The night started with an introduction from Ukrainian students Dzholos and Rostyk Yarovyk ’25 and was quickly followed by a dance performance by 15 students clothed in crimson shoes and long white dresses. The dance highlighted Kalyna, a bright red flower that symbolizes resilience in Ukrainian culture. 

Next, the student band Chapel Hill performed two Ukrainian songs. The songs radiated Ukrainian pride, with powerful vocals from Greg Marcinik ’25.5. Afterwards, Kseniia Lebid ’26 took to the stage and read “Testament,” an 1845 poem by influential Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko that remains relevant today with its message of Ukrainian resistance.

Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Jeffrey Buettner and the Middlebury College Choir graced the stage, performing “The Carol of the Bells” in its original Ukrainian language. Anna Grytsenko ’26 shared a powerful story of her great-grandfather and her family’s history in Ukraine, emphasizing how Ukraine has been facing imperialistic and violent behavior for generations. 

“In the 1930s, being in fear of Ukrainian uprisings and strong national identity, the Soviet regime ordered troops to confiscate all Ukrainians food, tools and land,” Grytensko told the crowd.

As a result of the artificial famine and a complete siege, more than four million Ukrainians died within a span of three years. During this time, her great-great-grandfather had his own land that he raised his happy family on.

“At the age of 35, he took his own life. He had no hesitation because the Soviet genocide of Ukrainians left him no hope, no solution after 5 out of his 7 children died,” Grytsenko said. 

Her words shared a vulnerable but powerful atmosphere of sorrow and anguish that settled over the audience. 

Offering a tonal shift, the New York Crimean Tatar Ensemble performed an emotional and lively sequence of songs that brought vivacious energy to the stage. It was one of the most captivating moments of the night, the silky strokes of the violin mixing with the smooth clarinet and keyboard created a beautiful sound throughout four songs. 

Afterward, professional dancer Sofia Tretiak ’27 performed a traditional Ukrainian dance, enchanting the crowd with her flowy blue dress before reading a poem. The dance was followed by more music from the Chapel Hill band and a poem read by Dzholos titled “Everything Will Be Fine.” 

A viewing of a music project from artists based in Ukraine detailed the horror many Ukrainians faced on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia began its assault. The night ended with seven Ukrainian students reciting “Three years now, we’ve been talking about war.” The end of the performance was met with whoops of approval and a standing ovation from the crowd. 

“Showing my culture here has been my habit, and I wanted it to be continued,” said Dzholos, who has been involved in all three United For Ukraine events. “Seeing leadership, willingness, ownership, and pride to show our culture to others, for my younger Ukrainian classmates… I think I would say for me that is my highlight.” 

 “A lot of people see [the war] as something that happened two years ago and something that, you know, some people say that it’s just a proxy war between NATO and Russia. But people don’t know about what it is for Ukraine, said fellow organizer Lebid. “This year, the show is about rejecting the most common myths around the war, and showcasing how today’s war is just a part of Ukrainians' very long history against Russian imperialism.” 

International media portrays a specific narrative that the Ukrainian students wanted to broaden, showing the beauty and richness of their country and its people. 

“I think we would not have a better world if people only cared about what’s happening in their backyard,” added Dzholos. “Seeing people whose lives are in peace, right here, in this community of students, seeing them and coming and willing to learn, not only educates but also helps, whether that’s calling your congressman, or making a financial donation if their means allow, that helps us to defend ourselves and resist Russia’s invasion. But also it helps the world to be more united.”   

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