Hundreds of ballet dancers and students fled Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. With opportunities scarce, many will have to keep moving if they want to keep dancing.
AMSTERDAM — Kate Myklukha pushed herself up onto the tip of her left foot, then stretched her arms out in front of her as if hugging a tree.
As a pianist at the Dutch National Ballet here played a jaunty tune, several of Myklukha’s classmates wobbled from side to side, struggling to hold the delicate pose. But Myklukha held her balance, then spun around and dipped into a knee bend, before gracefully waving an arm skyward.
During that short sequence last month, Myklukha, 17, looked as if she had been a member of the ballet’s junior company for years. Yet, she had arrived in Amsterdam only two and a half weeks before, having escaped the war in Ukraine.
In an interview before the class, Myklukha said she was struggling not to think about what was happening in Ukraine. Whenever she heard a loud noise — from a passing train or a tram rushing through Amsterdam’s cobbled streets — she got scared, she said, reminded of bombs and sirens back home. Her grandparents were still in Kyiv, and she was worried about them.
But in class or onstage, she got a rare break from those thoughts. “I only think about dance,” she said. “It’s like therapy.”
Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had a vibrant ballet scene. There were five major theaters across the country, each with a ballet school, and other theaters and private academies too. Their graduates often headed to important companies, including the Royal Ballet in London and the Bolshoi in Moscow. Elena Filipieva, the ballet director of the now shuttered National Opera and Ballet Theater of Ukraine in Kyiv, said in an email that there were about 400 students studying at Kyiv’s two main schools when war broke out.
The invasion has upended the lives of many dancers, who have seen the war and its destruction close up. Some have taken up arms in their country’s defense or have been working to get medical supplies to the frontline. (One died after being injured when Russian shells hit Kyiv.) And many have fled the country, fanning out across Europe — both for safety and to keep dancing. Most of these have been women; Ukraine’s government in February barred men 18 to 60 from leaving.
Many dancers have yet to find a permanent home. But Oleksii Potiomkin, 33, a principal at the National Opera and Ballet Theater who spent time in Ukraine’s amateur defense forces, said from Lviv that it was good dancers had left to train. “They are the future of Ukraine,” he said. “It’s important to maintain the culture.”
When the war started, Myklukha was just a few months into her career as a soloist in at the National Opera and Ballet Theater in Kyiv. She had just danced as the princess in “The Snow Queen,” she said, and thought she had her “life planned for five years, or 10.” When the invasion began, she found herself stuck at home alone, until her mother traveled 20 hours from the eastern city of Kharkiv to be with her. At first they mostly stayed inside, listening to air raid sirens unless their dog needed a walk.
“We didn’t want to leave because it was our house, our whole life,” Myklukha said. But after a week, they decided they had to go, and took a train to Poland, standing for the whole two-day journey. Myklukha didn’t carry anything except her dog and a teddy bear, she said, because a bag would take up precious space on the train. In Amsterdam, dancers gave her clothes so she could take classes.
Many dancers have stories like Myklukha’s about leaving home, but she is among the lucky few to have found a new position abroad. Most are simply taking classes at companies like the Staatsballett Berlin and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, and performing in galas to raise money for Ukraine. Students, too, have landed in spots across Europe, but often find themselves without their parents or a permanent home.
Much of the help for Ukrainian dancers so far has been ad hoc. Christiane Theobald, the artistic director of the Staatsballett, said she started getting emails from dancers on the fourth day of the war, mainly asking if they could take classes for a few weeks to stay in shape. Soon, she’d received around 200 requests. “It was like an exodus,” she said.
Dancers have such short careers, Theobald added, that she felt compelled to help, not least because the Ukrainians had just lost a chunk of their performing lives to the pandemic.
Ted Brandsen, the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet, said two other Ukrainian dancers had joined his junior company alongside Myklukha: Polina Loshchylina, 18, who was also at Ukraine’s National Ballet in Kyiv before the war, and Victoria Glazunova, 19, who had just secured a dream contract at the Bolshoi but quickly decided she couldn’t face staying in Russia, got a bus to Finland, then stayed with friends in Italy before making it to the Netherlands.
Glazunova said if the Ukrainian dancers ever get to return home, they will have “improved so much” from dancing in companies across Europe. For now, she saw her future in Amsterdam trying to get into the Dutch National Ballet’s main company. All the Ukrainians there had the drive and skill to achieve that, she said: “We’re like workhorses. We work day and night.”
The Dutch National Ballet hired another Ukrainian, Liza Gorbachova, for its corps de ballet; and eight students — the youngest is 10 — have enrolled in its school. To help meet costs, which push the ballet far beyond its budget, the company started an appeal for funds.
Rachel Beaujean, the company’s associate artistic director, said that the dancers would have to prove they were good enough to stay in the long term. “At the end of the day,” she said, “we also have a responsibility to the company.”
But the academy will try to keep its students. “I don’t think they have to go through another change in their lives,” said Ernst Meisner, the artistic coordinator of the Dutch National Ballet’s junior company.
Much of the work of finding Ukrainian students new homes has been led by the New York-based Youth American Grand Prix, an organization that runs competitions to help dancers secure scholarships. It had been scheduled to hold its first-ever event in Ukraine in March. Larissa Saveliev, the organization’s co-founder and a former dancer with the Bolshoi, said that when Russia’s war began, she emailed the 50 or so dancers who had signed up to say, “If you want help, let me know.”
Soon, her cellphone number was being passed among dancers in Ukraine, and she was being called day and night, often by students who had arrived at the Polish border, alone, some without passports. Saveliev said they would simply ask, “Where should I go?” She tapped her contacts, then sent them around Europe to schools, including to La Scala in Milan and the John Cranko school in Stuttgart.
Some two months into the war, the calls haven’t stopped, Saveliev said. “At the start, it was a humanitarian effort,” Saveliev said. “All we were thinking was, ‘Let’s find these kids a bed.’ Now we have to think about their education.”
Saveliev said it was difficult to bring students to the United States because of the lengthy visa process, though she was able to place two students, who already had visas, in American schools. “We have at least 50 schools willing to host Ukrainian dancers; we just can’t get them here,” she said. “We’re trying.” (Britain’s ballet schools have also been unable to take on students, because of strict visa rules, Saveliev added.)
Despite the visa situation, at least one American ballet company is trying to help. On May 4, lawyers working for Miami City Ballet, submitted a visa application for Yuliia Moskalenko, 28, a principal at Ukraine’s National Ballet, to join the company.
Lourdes Lopez, the Miami company’s Cuban-born artistic director, said in a phone interview that the visa process had been “long and complicated and difficult.” She’d had to hire immigration lawyers and get the support of Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, as well as a letter from the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky to prove to American authorities that Moskalenko was of “extraordinary ability,” the requirement for a dancer in circumstances like this. When Lopez received the “last piece of the puzzle” — a letter of support from the American Guild of Musical Artists — the lawyers were able to submit the application.
Lopez said she had done so much work because Ukrainian dancers risked being ignored in the war’s fallout. Dancers fleeing renowned Russian companies like the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, in St. Petersburg, she said, “have that pedigree — they’ve got that stamp — that allows them to go anywhere.”
Moskalenko said in a telephone interview from Utrecht, the Netherlands, that she was taking class with two dozen other Ukrainian dancers hoping to perform at galas who had yet to secure contracts. She said she felt enormously lucky to get the Miami offer — “This opportunity came out of nowhere,” she said, “I had to catch it” — and hoped she could become an ambassador for Ukrainian ballet.
Weeks into her stay in Amsterdam, Myklukha said in a telephone interview that she was beginning to feel at home in the city. In April, she performed in “Raymonda” 11 times, and was rehearsing contemporary works far from her classical background, about to take part in a tour of the junior company.
She had heard that the Lviv National Opera in western Ukraine had started staging ballets again (it’s scheduled to perform a ballet gala on May 14 and “Giselle” on May 22) and thought Kyiv’s ballet companies could soon too.
She was excited that ballet seemed to be returning in her country already. “But I’m afraid to go there now,” she said, even if a chance to do a guest performance arose. “What do they need to do when an air raid calls?” she asked. “Where do they need to go and hide?” It wasn’t clear for whom they would perform or how many dancers would be in Ukraine to dance.
Asked if she dreamed of her homeland’s future, she said one picture came to mind. The war had ended, and all the buildings in Kyiv had been repaired. “I am with my family, together,” she said. “And it’s on Sunday because I have my day off, and we go to the park, and we eat ice cream.”
“But,” she added, “I don’t dream so often, now.”