As war endangers young Ukrainian dancers, Charleston’s dance pros step up | Arts

Polina Chepik has just completed her third day at the Dutch National Ballet Academy.

She has just traveled for five days by many modes of transport to get safely from Kyiv, Ukraine to Amsterdam.

“It was train, bus, train, bus,” she offers wearily.

She shrugged confirming her name, Polina, apologizing for her Russian origins. A soft sheepish smile shines on a graceful face, framed by shiny brown hair that she has carefully pulled back like a good dancer would.

The 17-year-old girl zooms in from her new accommodation, the house of a host family, which she finds very nice. She meets her classmates, whom she describes as very helpful. She resumes her daily dance practice, which she says makes a big difference.

“When I’m in class, all I think about is dancing,” she said. It is outside of class that her thoughts turn to Ukraine, her parents and her 8-year-old sister. Her older sister, who is 24, is in Russia.

“They’re in their apartment, listening to the bombs and the sirens,” she said.

From Charleston to Kyiv

A month ago, Jeanene Russell Perry also had kyiv in sight.

The Charleston resident and choreographer focused on the Ukrainian city for an entirely different reason than the one raging today. Kyiv was to be the final venue for the Youth America Grand Prix, a New York-based nonprofit global dance organization. Perry is currently Chairman of the Board.

“We were literally starting on March 26,” she said. The organization works with nonprofit affiliates around the world on international dance competitions, which are known to attract the best and brightest of each new generation of dancers. kyiv is a particularly rich ground for such talents.

Jeanene Russell Perry (left) with Chloe Misseldin, runner-up in the 2017 Youth America Grand Prize final and current member of the American Ballet Theater company, in a photo taken in January 2022 at the Tampa gala where she was a former guest artist . Youth America Grand Prix / Supplied

She considers the Kyiv National Ballet, which was founded in 1867 and operates out of the National Opera of Ukraine, to be one of the best in the world.

But time is running out for these dancers in Ukraine.

It has been reported that some have joined the fight on behalf of Ukraine. BBC News reported last week that Ukrainian ballet dancer Artem Datsyshyn died on March 19 from wounds sustained under Russian artillery fire in late February.

A ready network, quick action

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, the discussion of large jets quickly turned to survival strategies. The organization has banded together to determine how it could help keep students safe.

“We had to help these kids and we could actually help because of our connection to the dance world,” Perry said.

The organization’s database was full of Ukrainian hopefuls. As the competition was held for Kyiv, it had up-to-date contact details. “We have boots on the ground,” Perry said.

The impressive database is due to much more than the promise of shiny metal. The competition uses judges who are often directors of schools and prestigious dance companies. This is where scholarships are obtained, coveted places are secured and dance careers can take off with great success.

“Our motto is ‘Securing the Future of Dance,'” Perry said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tested the courage of this motto.

“We all looked at each other and said to ourselves: if we are truly true to our mission…that includes Ukraine.”

The board realized that the organization’s extensive network could prove extremely useful in reaching out to dance students and connecting them with schools in other countries that could provide refuge.

“Staff just literally started reaching out,” she said, “We’re posting ‘here’s our hotline. We will help you. We will send people to the border “- which we do.”

They send them to the border by any safe means possible – taxi, bus, train – and order the dancers to pay for the tickets which the organizations will reimburse.

Often guiding dancers from stop to stop, the ultimate destination is a good dance school and a safe bed in a dorm, paying for the trip, with travel money so they can participate in activities with other students.

The organization has so far found internships for 91 students and counting.

dancers in flight

“We’re in real time, aren’t we? »

Perry shares the details of these beginner flight dancers. Frequently, she chokes on the phone, apologizing for the emotion that regularly overwhelms her.

Polina Chepik

Kyiv dance student Polina Chepik has traveled five days by bus and train to live and study in Amsterdam as war rages back home. Polina Chepik/Supplied

A 17-year-old traveled to Germany on a plane to Monte Carlo, with no clothes and just a backpack. A pair of 10-year-old twins were sent with their mother.

“They are fleeing the bombings and their lives have been so disrupted emotionally, physically, artistically. They are looking for a safe home and practicing their art, which might somehow heal them.”

Polina Chepik was at Kyiv State Ballet College and had previously participated in the Paris 2018 competition. She was due to do so again in March, until the Kyiv event was canceled.

According to Perry, all of the students they have placed have been warmly welcomed and supported by students and faculty, with countries like Spain and Germany also opening their homes.

Polina Chepik

Polina Chepik at the Academie voor Theater en Dans, or Dutch National Ballet Academy, in Amsterdam. Provided.

Students have landed at many top schools, including the Princess Grace Academy of Monaco, the Berlin State Opera Ballet School, the Munich Ballet Academy and the European School of ballet in the Netherlands.

When the board met via Zoom to put a plan in motion, Perry found that every member was quick to put it into action, sending checks, with the intention of helping.

“The community of donors and supporters has been so phenomenal,” said Perry, who reaches beyond her own network.

A former dancer who studied at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Perry has long focused on uplifting the next generation of dancers.

Before moving to Charleston with her family two years ago, she taught for more than two decades at the Charlotte Ballet and the Charlotte Ballet Academy. When Youth America Grand Prix invited her to join the Board of Directors, she immediately signed on, knowing their reputation well – and their commitment to securing the future of dance.

Larissa Savaliev, founder and director of Youth America Grand Prix, has also been heavily invested in the organization’s efforts on behalf of Ukraine.

“What is happening in Ukraine right now is deeply personal to me, as my family has both Russian and Ukrainian roots – and I am so happy that YAGP can help these displaced Ukrainian dancers find a new dance home,” she said.

The Charleston Connection

Now based in Charleston, Perry sees a bigger future for the organization here. She also recently hired another local, Catherine Brack, as director of development.

Polina Chepik

After fleeing Kyiv, dance student Polina Chepik started dance lessons at her new school in Amsterdam. Nika Ritshel/Supplied

And it’s the new home of a pageant judge, James Fayette. The former New York City Ballet principal dancer is married to Jenifer Ringer, who is also a former principal dancer with the company and a Summerville native. According to Perry, the couple moved to town a year ago to join the faculty of the Charleston Conservatory of Dance.

On February 24, Perry hosted the first Youth America Grand Prix fundraiser in Charleston at his downtown home. That same date suddenly shifted their focus from local goals to Ukrainian imperatives.

In New York, Savaliev deeply appreciates these quick pivot efforts.

“I am extremely grateful to Jeanene Perry, who has been amazing in leading our organization through this difficult time and in raising funds to enable us to help nearly 100 young Ukrainian artists at a time when they need help the most. .”

Perry said the organization had identified 200 additional students in Ukraine and was working on internships and safe passage for them.

“It’s shocking to me because culture in the world is what brings humanity together,” Perry said. “So when they bomb art schools and art institutions, it doesn’t just affect this country. It affects the world because culture is our humanity.”

Polina Chepik came to Amsterdam with very little means. His mother gave him a Saint Nicholas card. While on Zoom, she searched for a translation for the words on it, finding “worker of wonders.”

The dancer’s family also gave her a glowing stone heart, which appears to be rose quartz. She holds it upright, her eyes sparkling as she admires its beauty and radiance. She says she keeps it close to her.

Chepik will be in school for the next three months and then look for work.

All the while, with the saint’s card and a strong heart in her hand, she prays for a miracle.

She hopes to be able to return to Ukraine for the summer holidays. But with that sad, overwhelming smile, the young ballerina admits it. With bombs and sirens still within earshot of his family, that doesn’t seem so likely.

Those interested in supporting Youth America Grand Prix efforts in Ukraine can visit the organization through its website at

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