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How Russia's invasion of Ukraine is reverberating on the world's ballet stages

Ukraine, Russia and ballet in exile
Russia's invasion of Ukraine scrambles global ballet community into action | 60 Minutes 13:29

For decades now, Russians have known the drill. When there's bad news brewing, such as the death of a leader, or a convulsive event, such as the Chernobyl disaster, State TV switches its programming and begins airing Tchaikovsky's ballet, "Swan Lake." Nothing to see her folks. But also note the choice of distraction. Ballet is centrally important to Russian society and to Russian image. Dancers slicing through the air and challenging laws of physics and gravity represent civility and grace. But, last February, when Russian military troops invaded Ukraine, Russian ballet troupes had their western tours cancelled and Moscow's Bolshoi theater has shuttered shows by directors critical of Putin's war. As we first reported last year, this brutal war plays out on the most delicate of fronts, leaving ballet in exile. 

When ballet dancers are described as God's athletes, well, you could offer up Olga 

Smirnova as supporting evidence. She treads on air, coming in on little cat feet. She's a Russian prima ballerina—one of the world's leading dancers. But days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Smirnova pirouetted and stepped off her stage at the renowned Bolshoi Theater, with dramatic flourish. She took to social media to express her outrage. And then fled the country, the modern-day version of Nureyev or Baryshnikov defecting.

Jon Wertheim: When you sat down to write that social media post, what did you want to communicate? What did you want to say?

Olga Smirnova: I just couldn't keep it inside. I was so ashamed of Russia. This is the true. I'm not ashamed that I'm Russian, but I'm ashamed because of Russia started this action.

  Olga Smirnova

Jon Wertheim: I want to read what you wrote. You said you were against this war with every fiber of your being." But I now feel that a line has been drawn that separates the before and the after."

Olga Smirnova: It's how I felt. 24th of February, this is, was the line, Because it's all changed. All changed. The reputation of Russia and Russian people, even if you are not a soldier, you're just Russian. It, it's all, it still make a shadow on you.

Jon Wertheim: Being Russian.

Olga Smirnova: Being Russian. And it's, it's really painful.

Predictably, Smirnova's post went viral. She was, after all, a leading light at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. From the Russian word for "big," Bolshoi is the world's largest ballet company and the most prestigious. The theater is physically close to the Kremlin—a short walk away—and also aligned inextricably with the Russian government. Tsars loved the Bolshoi. For decades, Communist leaders used the Bolshoi theater for political stagecraft, holding rallies and giving national addresses there.

Alexei Ratmansky: This is something that celebrates Russia. Every important guest who would visit Soviet Union would be invited to the Bolshoi, see the performance. And that was a pride of, of Russia at any time.

  Alexei Ratmansky

Alexei Ratmansky trained at the Bolshoi school and was for a time its artistic director. He was born in Russia, but grew up in Kyiv, where his parents still live. At the time of the invasion, he was in Russia choreographing two ballets. He left the country immediately, unwilling to continue working in a world so tied to the Putin regime.

Alexei Ratmansky: As I was going in a taxi to the airport, I felt these two ca-- sand castles falling apart behind my back. 

Jon Wertheim: Those sand castles were the work-- the work you had done

Alexei Ratmansky: Yes, yes, yes. It was an agony. It was a very hard day.

And, of course, a catastrophic day for Ukraine. Indiscriminate bombings and missile strikes raining down upon the country, crushing lives and dreams... not least those of an ascendant ballerina from Kyiv, Polina Chepyk, age 17.

Jon Wertheim: You wanted to be a ballerina for years and years. What was it like when suddenly you couldn't-- couldn't go to school, couldn't dance?

Polina Chepyk: I was shocked. And I'm like, "Oh my God." And first about what I'm thinking that I left my pointe shoes in college. It was my fir—

Jon Wertheim: That was your first thought?

Polina Chepyk: Yes.

Jon Wertheim: You left your pointe shoes at school.

Polina Chepyk: Yes. I left everything actually.

  Polina Chepyk

War didn't stop her in her footsteps. She resumed dancing at home, using whatever she could as a barre. But after a few days, her parents—both former dancers—focused on getting Polina out. They called on a famously well-connected figure in the tight knit ballet community: New Jersey-based Larissa Saveliev.

Jon Wertheim: You're getting this barrage of emails from-- from parents and from dancers. What-- what are they-- what are telling you? What are they asking you?

Larissa Saveliev: Oh, "please help… get us out of here." They're willing to give up everything else, but they have to dance. And the parents were-- you know, "It doesn't matter what we do, they have to dance."

Jon Wertheim: This was their-- their lifeline almost.

Larissa Saveliev: This is it. They just-- they-- they could not imagine not dance.

In the 1990s, she founded Youth America Grand Prix, a ballet competition and scholarship program, pairing aspiring dancers with ballet schools worldwide.

Now, in a humanitarian crisis, she—and the international ballet community—scrambled to action. Saveliev tapped her vast network, relocating more than a hundred young Ukrainian dancers to new schools and host families.

Larissa Saveliev: We give each child a number, just to move faster. And we say, "okay, number 55 is, like-- just get a spot in Stuttgart, okay. Okay, number 54 just get a spot in-- Dresden."

Jon Wertheim: Cross it off the list.

Larissa Saveliev: "Cross it off the list"

  Larissa Saveliev

When a slot opened for Polina, she stuffed leotards and tutus into a suitcase along with a bottle of her mom's perfume, a reminder of home. And then she headed to Kyiv's train station.

Polina Chepyk: And my parents are in the window of train. They said "Goodbye. We love you. Everything will be fine." And I was crying. And we were all crying. I was thinking maybe I would need to take my suitcase and go back to my family because my heart was broken really. 

Jon Wertheim: How did you overcome that? What-- what-- what made you not get off that train?

Polina Chepyk: Because it's open door for me. It's-- a door for my dream.

Seventeen-year-old that she is, Polina documented the lonely odyssey on TikTok. Trains and buses. Five days and 1,200 miles. Kyiv to Lviv, Poland to Berlin. Finally, to Amsterdam where she landed at the Dutch National Ballet Academy, one of the leading schools in the world.

Jon Wertheim: When you got to the new school and started dancing again, how did that feel?

Polina Chepyk: Oh, I was very happy. Yes. I-- my mind-- changed. Because I was thinking about my parents all the time, for my family, for my sister. And when I go to the ballet class, the-- this world changed for me. I have another world-- a world of ballet.

Her adjustment was made easier when she found other Ukrainian dance students who, thanks to Larissa Saveliev, also found safe harbor in Amsterdam. Polina fell into a routine immediately. On the cusp of a professional career, she prepared for final exams. She was jittery beforehand. She emerged relieved, triumphant and eager to report back to mom.

Jon Wertheim: What did you tell her?

Polina Chepyk: That-- I was nervous, but when I start-- you-- I do everything right. 

  Oleksii Potiomkin

If the war has made refugees out of some Ukrainian dancers, it's made soldiers out of others. When the war began, Oleksii Potiomkin, a Principal Dancer with Ukraine's National Ballet, turned in his tights for military fatigues. Here he is in downtown Lviv, having just returned from duty as a medic.

Jon Wertheim: What was your life like before the war?

Oleksii Potiomkin: Before war I must-- I preparing-- new premiere in ballet-- Ukrainian ballet. You know, like, real, normal life. And just one moment it's, like, changes. But I need to do something. I can't sit just at home in shelter and watch TV, how my friends-- die and-- everyone do something. 

Jon Wertheim:  what have you seen these last few months?

Oleksii Potiomkin: Every day, it's really scary. They crushed everything. Destroyed-- houses--  of civilians people. It's brothers-- son-- fathers, sisters.

While he says he's shaken by what he's seen unfold on the battlefield, he's also appalled by a war taking place on another front at the Bolshoi.

Oleksii Potiomkin: Like Bolshoi now, it's toxic theater. Nobody want to work with you.

Jon Wertheim: You said toxic?

Oleksii Potiomkin: Toxic, yes. In Russia art, it's politics. It's-- Russian government use-- use it-- ballet-- it's like weapon.

The weapon was deployed at the Bolshoi as recently as this past April when the theater revived a production of Spartacus in support of the Russian military invasion, unnerving many in the dance world, including longtime head of the Dutch National Ballet, Ted Brandsen.

Ted Brandsen: Well, it was a very-- clear statement that "we have to support our boys who are on a military operation to save Ukraine from the Fascists." Which is a totally ridiculous concept, of course.

Jon Wertheim: This allegory, Spartacus, about the-- the slave revolt, is-- is somehow being co-opted by--

Ted Brandsen: Yeah.

Jon Wertheim: The-- the aggressive superpower?

Ted Brandsen: Absolutely. Now, it's not-- it's not-- it's not for nothing that this became one of the signature ballets of the Soviet Emp-- of the Soviet time..

  Ted Brandsen

Abroad, the ballet community has staged benefit concerts to raise funds for Ukraine, while Russia's famed companies, the Bolshoi and St. Petersburg's Mariinsky, have had their touring dates canceled. 

With the Iron Curtain down… artists have to pick a side. Alexei Ratmansky left Moscow for American Ballet Theatre in New York, where he is Artist in Residence, and where we spoke with him remotely this past April.

Jon Wertheim: It sounds like you-- you don't buy this idea that, look, individuals shouldn't bear the responsibility for-- for the acts of the state? That ar-- artists should just be artists.

Alexei Ratmansky: No, I don't think the artists are separate from politics. And besides, it's not, for me it's not politics. It's about humanity. It's about responding to war crimes, responding to the crimes of your government, of your president. It just made things clear which things are important and which aren't. And you make a choice. You decide where you want to belong.

For Olga Smirnova, that choice came together in a matter of days after she condemned the war. She left Russia and landed on her feet at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, just around the corner from Polina's school.

Jon Wertheim: It must have been incredibly difficult to leave the Bolshoi.

Olga Smirnova: If you make a choice, you have consequences. But, this is how it works. I had to leave everything. Like, my home, my theater, my repertoire, my partners, my parents, sister, brother, everything. But I don't have regrets.

Jon Wertheim: No regrets.

Olga Smirnova: No. Because at least I can be honest with myself.

American philanthropist Howard Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, watched the story when it was first broadcast last year. His foundation granted more than a million dollars to help support the exiled Ukrainian dancers.

Produced by Michael H. Gavshon and Nadim Roberts. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Matthew Lev.

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