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Schools across Europe give shelter and fresh opportunities to Ukraine’s young dancers

The Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) is a big deal in the dance world. Dancers audition for scholarships to attend prestigious schools. For ballet companies, it’s a kind of pipeline as they look for the next generation of professional dancers. Competitions are held in cities around the world. When Russians invaded Ukraine, the Kyiv competition was cancelled.

Now, YAGP organizers are busy trying to find schools that will take in the young Ukrainian dancers who were registered to compete. YAGP’s Director of External Affairs Sergey Gordeev rattles off a long list of the schools that are helping, “Munich Ballet Academy, John Cranko Schule School of Stuttgart Ballet, Dutch National Ballet School, European School of Ballet in the Netherlands, Norwegian National Ballet School…”

So far, he says, they’ve placed more than 60 dancers since the invasion. “These dancers are literally finding themselves at the border, trying to cross into wherever there is peace and to continue their art, which means everything to them,” he says.

17-year-old Martin Korol was scheduled to compete in the YAGP. Instead, he fled, with nothing but a backpack and a little money. Along with crowds of other people, he and a dancer friend headed to the Kyiv train station. “It was so difficult to leave Kyiv. So difficult,” he says.

While they were on a train to Odessa, Korol’s ballet teacher called YAGP organizers to see if they could help them. Then Korol took a train to Lviv, intending to walk to the Polish border. As Gorgeev explains it, a driver of a bus headed to Berlin saw that Korol was a minor and offered him a ride. A YAGP representative let him know they’d found a spot for him at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco. She told him to stay on the bus until he got to Berlin. Then he flew to Monaco.

The Youth America Grand Prix found 17-year-old dancer Martin Korol a spot at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco.
Martin Karol
YAGP and the Princess Grace Academy covered the cost of his journey. “It’s fantastic, emotional. But inside my head is so… nightmare,” Korol says, overwhelmed. “It’s like another world to me. I’ve never been to Europe.”

Korol is extremely worried about his parents and grandparents. His grandparents are in Kharkiv, a city that has been completely destroyed.

After our interview, he wrote in an email, “My parents very need money for eat, they won’t be able to hold out for long, they’re not paying their salaries.”

Luca Masala, the Artistic Director of the Princess Grace Academy, says Korol is “not in panic, but you can see that he’s very confused.” He describes Korol as a tall, lyrical dancer who seems willing to work hard in class. Still, “To be artistic in such a dramatic moment, it’s hard. It’s hard at this age,” says Masala.

The other students at the Monaco school have welcomed Korol. Masala says, “They made a little scholarship for him and, without me saying anything, they bought him some bathroom things, you know, things that he would need.” The school is currently hosting three dancers from Ukraine with, “two more arriving next week.”

The YAGP was founded in 1999 by Larissa Saveliev, a former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet and Stanislavsky Ballet. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1994. Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, she’s been reaching out to everyone she knows including, “every friend and relative, including my own niece in Amsterdam, to house these kids. YAGP will continue to do everything we can to help Ukrainian dancers affected by this crisis,” she writes in an email to NPR. YAGP also set up a hotline for Ukrainian dancers to call if they need help.

15-year-old Sofia Chycha and 18-year-old Maria Bondarenko are studying at the Dutch National Ballet Academy.
Jana Van Aalst/Jana Van Aalst
Saveliev’s niece, Jana Van Aalst, opened her home in Amsterdam to two dancers, 15-year-old Sofia Chycha and 18-year-old Maria Bondarenko who’ve been invited to take classes at the Dutch National Ballet Academy.

“My family’s from Ukraine and my father’s family is from Russia. So, it’s very emotional so I want to help,” says Van Aalst.

Sitting together during a Zoom call, Chycha and Bondarenko smile. Bondarenko’s pony tail drapes over her shoulder. Chycha wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. They say the attack on Ukraine started before they left.

“When we heard the bomb sounds, we immediately go to the bomb shelter,” they say, finishing each other’s sentence.

With Sofia’s mother and uncle and another dancer, they drove by car for three days to get to Amsterdam.

They’re worried about the family they left behind but grateful they can keep dancing.

“This is my dream to become a professional ballet dancer,” says Bondarenko.

But dance classes might not be the most important thing right now. Princess Grace Academy director Luca Masala says the pandemic and now the war are taking their toll on his young students.

“My job today, honestly, is mainly to bring into these kids a faith in something, a future,” he says, “They need to believe in something better.”
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