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 Kiev 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 Kiev train station. "It was so difficult to leave Kiev. 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.
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.
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." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A major ballet competition was supposed to take place in Kyiv, Ukraine, this month, but it was cancelled when Russians invaded the country. Now organizers are helping dozens of young Ukrainian dancers find safe haven at schools throughout Europe and the U.S. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The Youth America Grand Prix is a kind of pipeline for ballet companies looking for the next generation of dancers. Students compete for scholarships to study at prestigious schools. When the competition in Kyiv was cancelled, organizers quickly started calling their contacts at ballet schools around the world.
SERGEY GORDEEV: Munich Ballet Academy, John Cranko School at Stuttgart Ballet, European School of Ballet Netherlands.
BLAIR: Director Sergey Gordeev says they've placed more than 60 dancers in schools since the invasion began.
GORDEEV: These dancers are finding themselves at the border, trying to cross into wherever there is peace and to continue their art, which means everything to them.
BLAIR: Seventeen-year-old Martin Korol was scheduled to compete this month in Kyiv. Instead, he fled with nothing but a backpack.
MARTIN KOROL: It was so difficult to leave Kyiv - so difficult.
BLAIR: And long. Korol took a train to Odesa. Then he took a train to Lviv. He was planning to walk to the Polish border. A bus driver headed for Berlin saw that he was a minor and picked him up. Meantime, a representative from Youth America Grand Prix got in touch to say he had a spot at a dance school in Monaco. They told him to stay on the bus till Berlin. Then he flew to Monaco. Youth America Grand Prix and the Princess Grace Academy paid for the journey.
KOROL: It's so fantastic, emotional, but inside my head is so nightmare.
BLAIR: Because he left his parents and grandparents behind. His grandparents are in Kharkiv, a city that's been destroyed.
LUCA MASALA: He's not in panic, but you can see that he's very confused.
BLAIR: Luca Masala is the director of the Princess Grace Academy. He says Korol is a lyrical dancer who seems willing to work hard in class.
MASALA: To be artistic in such a dramatic moment, it's hard. It's hard at this age.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLAIR: The other students at the school have been helping Korol get settled.
MASALA: They've made a little scholarship for him, a little help, a financial help for him. And they bought without me saying anything some bathroom things, you know, things that he would need.
BLAIR: Some 870 miles north in Amsterdam, Jana Van Aalst opened her home to two dancers from Ukraine.
JANA VAN AALST: My family's from Ukraine, and my father's family is from Russia. So, you know, so it's very emotional. So I want to help.
BLAIR: Fifteen-year-old Sofia Chycha and 18-year-old Maria Bondarenko are studying with the Dutch National Ballet Academy. Sitting together during a Zoom call, they smile. Maria's ponytail drapes over her shoulder. Sofia wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. They say the attack on Ukraine started before they left.
SOFIA CHYCHA: When we heard the sound...
MARIA BONDARENKO: Bombs.
CHYCHA: ...Bombs, we go in...
BONDARENKO: Bomb shelter.
CHYCHA: ...Bomb shelter.
BLAIR: 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.
BONDARENKO: This is my dream, to become a professional ballet dancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERGEI PROKOFIEV'S "MONTAGUES AND CAPULETS")
BLAIR: For dance director, Luca Masala, classes are not the most important thing right now. He says the pandemic and now the war are taking their toll on kids.
MASALA: My job today is mainly to bring into those kids a faith in something, a future. They need to believe in something better.
BLAIR: That might take a while.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERGEI PROKOFIEV'S "MONTAGUES AND CAPULETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.