Seven young Ukrainian dancers recently joined the Dutch National Ballet Academy to continue their dance training for the time being. Five of them were ‘put forward’ by the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), which is currently partnering with academies all over Europe and the United States to give professional ballet students who have had to flee the war in Ukraine the opportunity to continue their training elsewhere. Through an initiative by Larissa Saveliev, artistic director of the YAGP, more than a hundred young Ukrainian dancers have now found a safe haven. Saveliev’s niece Jana van Aalst, who is helping to find host families for the students, says, “They’re extremely grateful. These kids live and breathe ballet”.
This spring, the YAGP was to hold its first-ever semi-final in Kiev, for which more than two hundred young dancers had applied from all over Eastern Europe. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine put an end to the competition. “In an e-mail to inform the participants of this and on social media, we then said straight away that Ukrainian students should contact us if they needed help in finding a ballet academy where they could continue their training”, says Sergey Gordeev, Head of External Affairs at YAGP. “The YAGP was founded in 1999 to bring together ballet academies and talented youngsters from all over the world, so it was only logical that we should take action in this situation too. We understood immediately that not being able to dance any more would have a huge impact on these children and youngsters”.
Tapping the whole network
From then on, artistic director Larissa Saveliev and the YAGP team were flooded with phone calls, sometimes in the middle of the night as well. Dancers, often aged between 12 and 18, called from border crossings in Poland, Hungary and Romania, asking where to go – sometimes carrying little more than the clothes they were wearing. Sergey Gordeev says, “We called on everyone in our network – YAGP representatives worldwide: partner schools as well as private individuals – to arrange a place at a ballet academy, but also to help them with things like accommodation, dancewear and finances”.
Jana van Aalst, a niece of YAGP director Larissa Saveliev, who is a Russian living in the Netherlands, is one of the private individuals to take action for the YAGP initiative. She has now arranged host families in Amsterdam and the Gooi region for a great number of children and youngsters who have found a temporary place at the Dutch National Ballet Academy or the European School of Ballet. And that’s not all. “Following the appeal by the YAGP, I approached everyone in my private and business network. Very soon, I had a list of people who were open to taking a child or youngster into their family. But even people who had no possibility or space to do so wanted to help in some way. I received bags of clothing and people offered financial help. And when I said on the neighbourhood app that of course the kids had to be able to get around as well, some bikes turned up for them within a couple of hours. We’ve now managed to get laptops for them to work on, and starting this week we’re organising English lessons for them as well”.
Jana says it was natural for her take action. “When such a humanitarian crisis occurs, you can’t just stand by and watch. My aunt, myself and so many other Russians are in shock. We think what’s happening at the moment is so terrible and unimaginable. First of all, of course, for the Ukrainian population, but also for the people in Russia, who are completely cut off from communication, and risk fifteen years in prison, or worse, for each word of criticism. When I phone someone in Russia, I can hear that my call’s being tapped”.
Torn apart, yet grateful
She’s had two NBA students, Maria and Sofia, living in her own home. They’re coming to stay again for a while in the May holiday. “Incredibly sweet and helpful girls, who’ve been tremendously impacted by the war, of course. Their families, and those of the other children, are torn apart. Their fathers are fighting in Ukraine or are anyway off the radar, their mothers and siblings are sometimes still hiding in shelters or have gone to different countries. But despite everything, they’re extremely grateful. These kids live and breathe ballet. A few weeks without training is a disaster for them and they were really afraid it would endanger their future. Now they start every day highly motivated and are so happy to be going to the academy. Ballet means everything to them”.
New children are still contacting the YAGP, says Sergey Gordeev. “We’ve no idea when it will stop”.
More than four million people have now fled Ukraine, around half of whom are under the age of eighteen.