The Dance Scene and the Ukraine War: Prima Ballerina on a Mission

The Staatsballett Berlin trundles into the vast ballet theater on the fifth floor of the Deutsche Oper shortly before ten o’clock. They go over the rehearsal preparations and fill up their water bottles before the training begins. On this day, new faces might be seen for the first time.

Ukrainian can also be heard in the corridors. For the first time, a soloist who previously danced with the Kyiv Opera Ballet is participating in the morning class. She exudes confidence and commands everyone’s attention. You have no idea what she’s been through in recent weeks. She gives it her all when it comes to exercises. She seemed to be relishing the return of her authority. The training is a first step in the direction of normalcy.

Even after the travel, staying in shape is critical.

Anastasia Paly stands at the barre in one of the smaller studios, concentrating on her tendus and pliés. The 26-year-old Kyiv native has spent the last seven years dancing with the Odessa Ballet. On February 24th, she departed her homeland, spent two weeks in Romania, and then traveled to Berlin, where she was able to stay with friends.

She maintains a calm demeanor as she recounts her escape. She does, however, express how distressing the situation is for her. Her parents are still in Kyiv, and she is really concerned about them. For a month, she was unable to train. However, she places a high value on staying in shape. Paly sent an email to the Staatsballett requesting permission to participate in the training. She is now on the lookout for a European engagement.

Salenko assists with translation.

Paly receives an encouraging nod from Iana Salenko, who has stepped in to translate. Salenko, a Kyiv native, began her career with the Donetsk Ballet, then transferred to the Kyiv National Opera as a principal dancer in 2002. In 2005, she moved to the Berlin State Ballet, where she has been principal dancer since 2007.

Marian Walter, her coworker, is her wife; the couple has three sons, the youngest of whom is six months old. Her mother now lives with her in Tegel and assists her with the children’s care.

On February 24, Salenko awoke to see her mother screaming on the stairwell. Her spouse informed her that Russian forces had entered Ukraine. The rest of her family is in Kyiv, and they get bad news from home on a daily basis. In the background, she occasionally hears sirens blaring.

Standing stationary isn’t an option. Iana Salenko is a Kiev native. She has been a member of the Berlin State Ballet since 2005, and since 2007, she has been a member of the… Doris Spiekermann-Klaas (photo credit: Doris Spiekermann-Klaas)

She says, “I grappled with my feelings.” She was furious in the early days of the conflict, feeling helpless and defenseless, but she knew she couldn’t sit by and do nothing. She has a new job now. She is dedicated to assisting fugitive Ukrainian dancers.

She is frequently the first point of contact for these colleagues, as well as a kind of employment broker, given to her strong international contacts. She recently ran a campaign for a young Mariupol dancer who has now been hired by a Bulgarian ballet company. She cried tears of pleasure when she learned about it. “I’m overjoyed that I can assist others.”

With a smile, the Kyiv soloist waves at her. Salenko persuaded her to visit Berlin as well. She does not, however, only look after dancers who want to work with the Staatsballett. She has made touch with around 300 refugees, many of them are tiny children.

She leaves voicemails and gives advice to the stranded on a daily basis. Iana Salenko’s distress is palpable. She claims she only slept for two hours last night, but that’s fine with her. She is engrossed in her new duty and refers to it as her “mission.”

This involves soliciting donations for Ukraine’s humanitarian relief. This is something that the prima ballerina does as well. She has also planned a charity event called “Ballet for Life” with her colleague Oleksandr Shpak, which will take place on April 21st in Berlin’s Admiralspalast. Salenko kicks off the evening with a solo on the Ukrainian band Okean Elzy’s song “Obiymy.”

Many people fleeing Ukraine due of the war first come to Berlin, which is mirrored in the State Ballet’s microcosm. Around 200 refugee dancers from Ukraine and Russia have already contacted the firm.

Christiane Theobald, the ensemble’s provisional director, was unsure what the ensemble would perform on February 24. “At initially, I had no notion that there would be a dancer exodus. On the fourth day of the war of aggression, the first emails arrived.”

Munich, on the other hand, is in an entirely different scenario. So yet, the Bavarian State Ballet has received only a few enquiries. This is most likely owing to the fact that the company was run by a Russian until recently. Igor Zelensky has resigned as a result of intense pressure — reportedly for personal reasons.

Theobald pushed open the doors.

Theobald made the swift decision to welcome refugee dancers. There is an access restriction: anyone who attends the course as a guest must first undergo a PCR test. She has already secured a financial sponsor to cover the charges. The course can accommodate up to twelve participants before the capacity limit is reached. “If there are more, we’ll have to provide separate training,” Theobald explains. “But for the time being, we’re getting that balance right.”

The ensemble’s eagerness to assist is outstanding. Within the troupe, which includes Russian dancers, there are no conflicts. Ksenia Ovsyanick, a Belarussian dancer, confirms this: “We dancers are all on the same side.” Ballet, which many regard to be an outmoded art form, has become politically charged.

Many Ukrainians are hoping for long-term relationships.

Many Ukrainian dancers have gone on in quest of new opportunities. The Vienna State Ballet’s director, Martin Schläpfer, has hired two new dancers. Svetlana Bednenko has landed a job with the Rheinische Ballett. “Networking of foreign ballet directors worked right away,” adds Theobald.

In the interim, the BBTK (Federal German Ballet and Dance Theater Directors Conference) and the Dachverband Tanz Deutschland established the portal www.help-dance.org, which provides assistance to refugee dance professionals.

Dancers from other countries break away from Russia.

Foreign dancers who were previously employed by ballet groups in Moscow or St. Petersburg have now departed as well. David Motta Soares was one of the Bolshoi Ballet’s premier soloists. He chose to flee Russia after hearing from his parents in Brazil about the Russian army attacking Ukrainian cities. People are reluctant to speak up, he claims, not just at the Bolshoi Theater.

He traveled to Italy on March 4th, sought asylum with a friend, and then contacted Christian Spuck, the future Artistic Director of the Staatsballett Berlin, right away. He had already made an offer to Soares and had given him a contract as first soloist.

Two more Brazilians, a man and a woman, who formerly danced at the Bolshoi, have been engaged by the State Ballet. There are still three female-only posts to be filled. Spit has a word in the matter. Perhaps he’ll follow his colleagues’ lead and hire a Ukrainian dancer. With this, the State Ballet may set an example.

By Editor

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