A one-of-a-kind spectacle!

After experiencing one of the first performances of the KOLO Dance Show, Christine from Spotlight Ukraine described it as “an incredible entertainment experience, but also important for sharing Ukrainian culture at a time when it’s under attack.” Powerfully moved, but also in awe of the creative and technical feat of bringing such a show to the stage, Christine reflects: “It was flawless, a show that everyone should see.”

So, what is it that makes this show so unique, and how did it all come about?

Part ballroom dancing performance, part immersive visual experience, KOLO is a theatrical endeavor that could only have been born out of an intense and authentic passion for dance, creativity, storytelling, and freedom. Five couples dance various ballroom styles to a soundtrack of original music, set against a backdrop of meticulously choreographed, dynamic and evocative video visuals displayed on vast LED screens.  Check out this video for a sneak peak of the KOLO Dance Show – The Spirit of Modern Ukraine.

The Backstory

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Iaroslav and Liliia Bieliei (shown below), the creators and producers of the show, as well as Maksym Buryachenko who produced the video visuals. A husband and wife partnership, Iaroslav and Liliia are award-winning, competitive ballroom dancing partners and have both been dancing all their lives. They are originally from Kyiv, but now live in Los Angeles. Maks still lives and works in Kyiv, and we were grateful that he was able to join the conversation as there was no guarantee that he would have power and internet access.

Iaroslav and Lillia Blieliei

Liliia explained that the idea for a ballroom dance show, for all audiences and ages, had been on their minds well before the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Having danced, competed, trained and taught all their lives, both Iaroslav and Liliia were keen to introduce wider audiences to the beauty of ballroom dancing as an art form (beyond dancing competitions, that tend to attract mostly people who are already immersed in the industry). When full-scale war broke out, this was a trigger for them to turn their ideas into something tangible. Liliia says, “We were all devastated, of course, and we were trying to find ways to help the Ukrainian community and our many friends and relatives who lived there.”

It Started With a Simple Fundraiser

Calling on their friends and connections within the large community of Ukrainian dancers in California, they organized a showcase to raise money in support of Ukraine. The fundraiser took place in March 2022 and, as Liliia describes, “They were all very emotional about this performance because it was happening right at the beginning of the war.”

Fundraiser for Ukraine

In many ways, this was the seed that grew into the breath-taking spectacle of KOLO, but it was just dancing at this stage – none of the visuals or original music that would come later. What made it such a powerful and formative experience for them was that they were all coming together around a shared pain and a shared hope. They were united around the theme of supporting their home nation, and this created a very different atmosphere from any of the performances or competitions they had taken part in previously. As Liliia says, “We were just overwhelmed with how united everyone was at the fundraiser, how this idea connected everybody and created a very special feeling.” They were inspired and fired up to build on what they had started.

Ballroom dancers at Ukraine fundraising event in March 2022.

Putting the Show Together

So they set about planning a theatrical show that would capture this same spirit but on a bigger scale. As Iaroslav explains, “That was our strong motivation to do it – to share Ukraine in our own way with everybody.”

They started by planning out the theme for the show, and got a team together to write the music. They wanted an authentic sound, capturing the mood of traditional Ukrainian songs, but the music also needed to fit with the different ballroom dance styles. Iaroslav emphasizes that they were very fortunate to have such a professional and disciplined team of musicians to collaborate with.

The theme and the music created a spectrum of moods and a certain narrative arc, but the next step was to add visuals as another dimension for conveying these various emotions. They got lucky for a second time when Iaroslav came across Maksym on Instagram. They quickly recognized that he had the creative skill they needed to contribute the digital visual art for the show – and that he shared their passion and vision.

Then came the choreography. With multiple different art forms blending on stage, it was important to make sure that each element was stylistically consistent so that the show would feel like one coherent experience. For all elements, they started with the conflict piece that comes in the middle of the show. They could then add the other numbers around that as they received the music and visuals.

Watch the video for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of KOLO Dance Show.

The result of this process was that the dancers didn’t fully appreciate the spectacle that they were a part of until they saw the video recording of the first performance, with all elements working in perfect synchronicity.

There is one particular piece in the show that uses the song “Kyieve mii” (“Kyiv of mine”), and they all felt an extra strong desire to get this number just right. Iaroslav says they felt a collective sense of, “Let’s show Kyiv in the best possible way.” They revised the visuals for this piece six or seven times before they were happy.

Collective Vision and True Collaboration

Four of the five couples in the show are Ukrainian, and they have all been dancing for their entire lives, so they are experienced dancers at the very highest level. Liliia and Iaroslav, therefore, wanted the choreography to be a very collaborative process, and all of the dancers were heavily involved in the details and the moves “because we trust them and their expertise.”

This was an ethos that ran through the entire production process – a powerful sense of unity, collaboration, and collective strength: as Liliia says, “Every one of our dancers is perfectly capable of being an independent unit, but because they agreed voluntarily to be in the show, that just makes the team stronger. I think this is very much a Ukrainian mentality: that everybody wants to be independent, but they can come together to achieve something.”

While the dancers were working on the choreography in the US, Maks and his team were creating the visuals in Ukraine, and some of the costumes were also made in Ukraine. The team was extensive and geographically dispersed, but this collective sense of unity and respect is what held them together as they crafted this incredible spectacle.

Maksim Buryachenko self portrait shown above. See artwork from Maks and follow him on Instagram @kiramax.art (https://www.instagram.com/kiramax.art/)

Maks says that what really made the difference was that everyone who was working on an aspect of the project was in love with what they were doing. Lillia echoed this sentiment: “The people who were illustrating are really in love with their craft. The people doing the video, like Maksym, he’s in love with what he’s doing. The dancers absolutely love to dance, and this shows that everybody comes there with a soul and we are really united.”

“Kolo” Meaning “Circle”

This sense of oneness echoes the name of the show – “kolo” is the Ukrainian word for “circle”, which can also be used to refer to a circle of close friends.

The idea for the name came from a quote that I couldn’t stop thinking about during the pandemic: ‘Good times create weak people. Weak people create hard times. Hard times create strong people. And strong people create good times.’ I really like the symmetry and circularity of that phrase. Everything is circular – history repeats itself many times. When it comes to Ukraine, we had better times, and then the worst happened, and the people came out stronger. We fought for independence, and now again to preserve our independence. Unfortunately, Ukraine has had quite a few cycles already.

Liliia Bieliei

Executive Producer

“Kolo” is a very authentic Ukrainian word, but it’s also easy to read and pronounce in English, which was important for making the show feel accessible and relevant to all audiences.

A Sense of Urgency

One of the most impressive and astonishing things about the show is just how quickly they were able to bring such a complex spectacle together – especially with some of the team having to work within the constraints of being in Ukraine during those intense first months of the war. It was just nine months between having the initial idea and premiering the full show.

Liliia explains that part of the reason for this tight deadline was that the investors wanted to get the show out there as quickly as possible – “We got some grey hair because of that!” – but it was also driven by the motivation and sense of urgency within the team. They wanted to create something contemporary and timely that shares the true identity of Ukraine with a wide audience. Iaroslav says, of the entire KOLO team: “When we have a team of people with this level of motivation, we can make it much faster.”

Maks says those of them who were working from Ukraine were especially motivated to work during those periods when they actually had power and light: as Liliia translates, “If they have basic things like light, they can create. It really motivates them and inspires them to work and create something.”

An Uplifting Show For All Ages

Although the show was, in many ways, triggered and motivated by the war, Liliia and Iaroslav didn’t want it to be dark or negative. It is not a political message but an immersive and emotive experience, celebrating Ukrainian culture, music, dress, and spirit.

As an audience member, Christine says, “You get a sense of the struggles, the darkness, and the history, but also hope. I left the performance feeling hopeful. So it really is a beautiful blend, and so artistically done.” Maks agrees that working on the show from Ukraine really did feel like a celebration of victory – as if they had already won the war. He says the main things they wanted to show through the visuals were gratitude for life and hope for victory.

Craig Smith and Andrea Harvey

This seems to be something that is deeply rooted in the Ukrainian spirit – this positive attitude of hope, thankfulness and resilience. Iaroslav says, “Ukrainian culture is really positive, and so worth sharing and promoting. This is one of our missions with this dance show, for people to share and be included in this culture in a very modern way.”

This positive attitude of hope, thankfulness, and resilience seems to be something that is deeply rooted in the Ukrainian spirit. Ukrainian culture is really positive and so worth sharing and promoting. This is one of our missions with this dance show, for people to share and be included in this culture in a very modern way.”
Iaroslav Bieliei

Executive Producer

With this in mind, they have created a theatrical experience that is exciting and engaging for everyone – all ages and all backgrounds. Liliia explains that Maks has created visuals that are just as captivating for children as they are for adults, and in combination with the live music and the highest caliber of ballroom dancing there really is no chance of getting bored! In this way, they have achieved their original vision of sharing the beauty of ballroom dancing with a much wider audience, as well as inviting everyone into the vibrancy of Ukrainian culture. As Iaroslav says, “We just want more people to actually see it and talk about it.” In many ways, the fact that the show exists at all is a statement about the unwavering identity of Ukraine and its rich and distinct culture.

Tykhon Zhyvkov and Yana Zhyvkov

Maks says those of them who were working from Ukraine were especially motivated to work during those periods when they actually had power and light: as Liliia translates, “If they have basic things like light, they can create. It really motivates them and inspires them to work and create something.”

Andrii Voloshko and Kateryna Kyrylenko

A Transformative Experience

And it’s not just the audiences that are being profoundly affected by the show – it has been transformative for its creators, too. Liliia describes an almost transcendent sensation of love and unity that she felt during the show – something that she has only otherwise experienced on her wedding day! For Iaroslav, it has given him a deeper appreciation for how different people from diverse backgrounds can see things very differently – whether it’s art, politics, or life in general. Each will bring their own perspective, interpretation, or understanding.

The KOLO experience certainly marked a pivotal point for Maks. Before the war, he was mostly creating visuals for digital marketing and his artistic illustrations were just to “please his inner child”, but when the war started he felt that he needed to do something to help or inspire people in some way. He started to draw in his notebook and post his illustrations and videos on Instagram, and his first video gained a million views – clearly, there was a hungry audience for what he was doing! Many of the Ukrainian people were emotionally paralyzed at this point, and art had a vital role to play in inspiring or motivating them.

But of course, Maks also had to work, so he decided that he would give the art two more weeks and then go back to focusing on his job. Before the two weeks were up, Iaroslav had gotten in touch via Instagram and everything had changed. For Maks, this was a strong sign that he should continue to create art in this way, and make it a job for life.

Fighting For Something Good and Beautiful

It is fitting that Liliia, Iaroslav, Maks and the team have decided to present and celebrate their home country and culture in such a vibrant, positive, and visually beautiful way. As Maks says, “Ukrainians are very much about beauty. They’re beautiful people, inside and out, and ballroom dancing is also a very interesting way to represent it because it’s about grace, beauty, and emotion.” This form of artistic expression certainly manages to encapsulate a whole spectrum of moods, from love and joy to anger and defiance. As Maks observes, “Ballroom dancing has become like a frontline for people to see the beauty of the Ukrainian nation and that they are fighters of light.”

As Liliia puts it: “The nation is extremely strong and they deserve better times.” In the end, we all share so many of the same values and we are all connected, so when some of us are hurting or struggling, it affects us all. Right now, Iaroslav says, “Ukrainians are fighting for something good and beautiful in this world, so let’s support the beauty.”

A show you won’t want to miss!

Here’s what audiences are saying about the KOLO Dance Show.

KOLO Dance Show is a unique and a truly immersive experience that you don’t want to miss. Check out the video below to hear what audiences have to say about the KOLO Dance Show.

The next stop on the national tour is Los Angeles. The show will be performed September 23, 2023, at The ALEX theater. Dates for shows in San Francisco, New York, Miami, Chicago, and Washington DC will be available soon. Get more information about show dates and how to buy tickets at koloshow.com.

Photos and video courtesy of KOLO Dance Show. Use of these images without prior written consent from KOLO Dance Show is strictly prohibited.