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When war hit Ukraine, dancers mobilized like never before

Amid the constant air raid sirens and shelling near her home in Kyiv, 17-year-old Polina Chepyk tried to fill her days with dancing.

Her ballet school had shut down, so she stretched and spun in the apartment she shared with her parents and 8-year-old sister, Anfisa. Chepyk used the back of the sofa as her ballet barre.

“At night you can’t control your feelings,” Chepyk said in a recent phone interview, her English slightly hesitant but expressive. “You can’t put the light on. Sometimes I heard a bomb, thinking it was near us. Maybe it was five kilometers away, but you hear the bomb like it’s in your house.”

With the Russian invasion, Chepyk’s entire life changed. But her dream did not. The daughter of National Ballet of Ukraine dancers, and with an older sister dancing in Krasnodor, in southern Russia, Chepyk wanted to follow their path. Since early childhood, she had devoted herself to perfecting her pirouettes and learning excerpts of the great ballet roles. When war came, she feared that the world of music and grace she longed to inhabit was gone.

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“My dream is stopped,” Chepyk said, “because there is no ballet in Ukraine right now.”

Yet the international ballet community has swung into action, led by the New York-based organization Youth America Grand Prix. Russian dancers Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev, who began their careers at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet before emigrating to the United States, founded YAGP in 1999 to help students gain access to the world’s most selective ballet schools, through scholarship auditions. But since the war in Ukraine began, YAGP has been tapping its network of dancers and educators to help nearly 100 Ukrainian dance students (and often their entire families) flee danger and continue their art, by placing them in training academies throughout Europe.

Chepyk had previously competed in a YAGP audition, so her mother contacted the group in mid-March. Phone calls, text messages and video clips sped furiously across oceans and time zones. Suddenly, Chepyk found herself packing a suitcase with leotards, tights, bottles of her mother’s perfume and “every gift my parents ever gave me, for remembering them.”

Wearing a good-luck ring that her sister had fashioned out of wire, Chepyk took a train to Lvov, a bus to Berlin and finally a train to Amsterdam, accompanied by ballet acquaintances along the way. After a five-day journey, she arrived March 21 into the embrace of a Dutch family with two girls. Chepyk said she has become “their third daughter.”

And she has resumed her beloved dance training at the Dutch National Ballet Academy, where she is in the highest level.

“Sometimes it’s heavy to combine your body and your brain,” Chepyk said with a laugh, reflecting on the challenge of dancing while navigating two foreign languages — English and Dutch — and worrying about her family in Kyiv. “But I’m very lucky.”

After the war began, Polina Chepyk would train at her home in Kyiv. (Family photo)
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The war in Ukraine has hit the tightknit ballet world hard, and dancers have responded with an unprecedented storm of activism. Ukrainian ballet students and professional dancers are being taken in by far-flung academies and companies, swelling their rosters. Dancers are converging across borders for star-studded fundraisers, such as Dance for Ukraine, a gala at the London Coliseum in March that drew the celebrated Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova and other performers from Europe, Asia and the United States. So far, it has brought in more than $180,000 for Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. Viewers can stream the gala online April 14-24 on the digital subscription service Marquee TV. A similar benefit for Ukraine was held April 9 in New York, organized by iHeartDanceNYC.

Ballet is a profoundly international art, as well as a communal one. It depends on continuous, daily interaction with fellow performers, who are typically drawn from all over and who work together on a uniquely intimate physical and emotional level. The dance world is relatively small but relationships are vast, with artists from different troupes getting to know one another through offseason tours, teaching gigs and guest performances.

The emotional resonances of the Russian horrors in Ukraine are inescapable in an art form whose global composition is similar to soccer, for example. Think of teams such as Liverpool Football Club, which comprises players from many countries. Likewise, ballet troupes large and small commonly include dancers from around the world. And the dispersion of Russians and Ukrainians throughout the ballet community is especially wide, given ballet’s deep roots in both countries.

Ballet in the West has been largely shaped by Russianness, through emigres who fled in the early decades of the 1900s, including choreographer George Balanchine; defectors such as Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in the 1960s and ‘70s; and those who left later for economic reasons as the Soviet Union broke apart.

Ukraine also has a firm place in ballet history. Kyiv, after all, was the birthplace of Vaslav Nijinsky, who later trained in St. Petersburg and became one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century. Serge Lifar, the famed 20th-century choreographer who created an influential, modern identity for the Paris Opera Ballet, was Ukrainian born and trained. In 1919, Nijinsky’s sister, the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, opened a school and a dance company in Kyiv, amid a thriving modern-art scene.

The Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in early March. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
But the ballet world’s rapid mobilization in support of Ukraine was prompted by something much more recent, according to Lynn Garafola, a dance historian and author of “La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern.” She points to the Black Lives Matter movement as helping set the ground for solidarity.

“Black Lives Matter primed the ballet community for self-interrogation,” she said. “It responded in a very strong way with a lot of thinking and discussion, across the board, trying to establish new norms for diversity and inclusivity and equity. So people were already thinking in ways that were more ethical. And that’s what has come to the fore here.”

Echoes of BLM lie in the questions that dance artists have been asking themselves since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Garafola said, such as: “What can I do about it? What does it mean?”

Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Putrov perform “Don Quixote” at the Royal Opera House in London. (O.Putrov)
Romanian-born ballerina Alina Cojocaru, formerly of the Royal Ballet, and Ivan Putrov, a Royal Ballet principal from Kyiv, trained together in the Ukrainian capital as children. Before joining the Royal Ballet, Cojocaru danced professionally in Kyiv for a year, where one of her first partners was Artyom Datsishin, “a tall, very quiet person and very talented dancer,” she said in a recent video call with Putrov from London. Datsishin later became an internationally known star of the National Opera of Ukraine. Two days after the Russian invasion began, he was hit by shelling, and he died three weeks later of his injuries.

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Datsishin’s death, which made headlines around the world as an especially poignant symbol of the war’s brutality, helped spur Cojocaru and Putrov to organize the Dance for Ukraine charity gala. Cherished ballet landmarks were also coming under threat, with a bomb landing “right near the theater where Alina and I did our first ‘Nutcracker,’ in Kharkiv,” Putrov said.

The gala came together in two weeks, and was an easy sell to their colleagues. “We already knew so many people from all over the world. We are just one phone call away from someone in Cuba, France, Germany and America,” Putrov said. “We’re so interconnected, and perhaps that’s why the response has been so fast throughout the ballet world.”

Ballet’s interconnections have been the lifeblood of YAGP, with the art form’s finest teachers coming together each year to judge young hopefuls from around the world. YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev, who is half Ukrainian — her mother was from Odessa — had been looking forward to having the first YAGP audition in Kyiv last month. The event took years to plan, was postponed due to the pandemic and then the war erupted.

“We reached out to the Ukrainian kids saying, ’If you need help, let us know,’ ” Saveliev said by phone from New York.

“Oh, my God. Honestly, I don’t even know how to describe it.” She was bombarded by requests: “Please, tell me where to go.” Her mobile number found its way from family to family. She was on the phone at all hours.

“The dancing is just so important. The families say, ‘We don’t care where we go. We’ll go wherever it’s good for our daughter or son to study.’ Then you end up being responsible for Mama, Grandma and little brother.”

Saveliev and her team in Ukraine appealed to schools throughout Europe. They have placed more than a dozen children in Stuttgart, Germany; nearly that many in Dresden, Germany, and Amsterdam; several at Princess Grace Academy in Monaco and so on.

A woman who runs a small boarding school for ballet in Genoa, Italy, took in 15 Ukrainian kids, Saveliev said. Because the fit was tight, “she bought bunk beds.”

The arrangements were carried out mostly through a WhatsApp messaging group of teachers and the YAGP team, where photos and video clips were shared. “We’d give every child a number,” Saveliev said, “and Stuttgart might say, ‘Okay, I’m taking No. 35, cross him off the list.’ ”

Ordinarily, these schools are highly selective, she added. “But this is a humanitarian situation. No one is looking at how good your pirouettes are. A lot of schools took the kids without seeing any videos. It was all happening so fast.”

Now it’s more difficult to place kids, Saveliev said, because so many school dormitories around Europe have filled up. Visa issues have gotten in the way of sending students to the United Kingdom and the United States.

It’s not only the children who need help finding safety and a way to continue their art, but their teachers, too. Ksenia Istomina, a ballet teacher in Kyiv, refused to leave Ukraine until she had worked with YAGP to find placements in Europe for 20 of her ballet students, sending them to Switzerland, Portugal, Italy and other countries. Finally, she fled with her 88-year-old grandmother, also taking her students Elizabeta Masalova, 14, and her sister Maria, 12, as well as their mother, Olga. Olga Masalova’s husband remained behind with her mother in Lutsk.

The group of five is now living outside Barcelona, where the girls are enrolled at the same ballet school where Istomina will teach, once she secures a rental car.

“All of our life is around ballet,” Olga Masalova said in a recent phone interview. “It is difficult for us to be here, but we are safe, and our girls have opportunity to have classical lessons.

“It is very important for them,” she added, “because they are happy when they do this.”

European organizations are not the only ones welcoming Ukrainian dance artists. Some have found refuge in the nearby republic of Georgia, where Nina Ananiashvili, the Georgian-born former star of the Bolshoi and American Ballet Theatre, directs the State Ballet of Georgia. She has a profound understanding of what Ukrainians are going through, she wrote in an email — and she is determined not to let their ballet dreams and heritage die.

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“Georgia had the same tragic experience,” she wrote, describing Russian aggression in Georgia in the 1990s and again in 2008. “We have seen all horrors then: raped and killed women, children, tortured prisoners, destroyed Georgian cultural heritage.

“Ukraine is fighting this war not just for their homeland. They are fighting for us, too,” she continued. “Whatever happens to Ukraine will be applied to Georgia.

“As for the Ukrainian tradition of ballet,” she added, “it will live, because we all are here to support its survival.”
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