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Encore: Schools across Europe work to house Ukraine's young dancers


A major ballet competition was supposed to take place this month in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. It was canceled after the Russian invasion began. 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 this 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.


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...


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.


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.


Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.