Recently I reviewed Ballet for Life, a benefit gala organised by Iana Salenko, prima ballerina at the Staatsballett Berlin. After the war in Ukraine began, the Kyiv-born dancer felt the urgency to do something to support her native country, especially for the children affected by the atrocities of war. The idea of a gala came to her mind and together with her colleague Oleksandr (Sasha) Shpak, who is also Ukrainian, and the support of many, the event took place in grand style at the Admiralspalast in Berlin, this year for the second time. Some days after the gala I had the pleasure to meet Iana and Sasha. This interview is the result of our conversation, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you start dancing at the Staatsballett Berlin?
Iana: I started in 2005. Previously I had studied at the Academy of Dance in Kyiv and then I improved my skills at Vadim Pisarev’s school in Donetsk. I studied there for five years and I got my first job at sixteen.
Sasha: I began in 2007. I started in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and then at age fourteen I went to Russia to Perm Ballet Academy and graduated from there in 2005. Then I won a scholarship at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, so I stayed there for two years.
How do you find your positions here as dancers?
I: It was not easy to become a prima ballerina, it took some years, but I am very happy to be in this position and to be in Berlin. Before Berlin I was in Kyiv, where I was a principal ballerina.
S: Staatsballett Berlin is my first company, I came here from the Cranko School. Since then, five different directors have changed so it has been stressful, however also interesting as we have experienced many things over a short period. For example, working with many different choreographers that were brought in by the different directors.
You are both parents. How do you combine parenting and dancing? What challenges do you find in these two demanding roles?
I: The kids inspire me so much every day. They are even a motivation to do what I do as a dancer. Before having children I worked a lot, but I didn’t have any other goals outside of dance. When I was stopping I was asking myself, and now? What do you want to do? My children make me feel alive and I live with a different energy. I also find it very important to come home after work and have kids that ground me; away from the studio, rehearsals and the stage. Also emotionally, for example after a show, it feels very good to be with my children. They bring me back to the real essence of who I am. As artists we are often very sensitive and insecure, we have many doubts and internal conflicts. Since I have my children I see how much strength they give me.
S: I also have a son of four-and-a-half years old, and yes, he really grounds me. Even when I am very tired I still find the energy to be and play with him. It’s a matter of natural instinct, to take care of someone you love despite the physical and mental fatigue you might feel.
Who’s on your list of favourite artistic directors, choreographers you’ve worked with, and in general?
I: There are many. I just have a few in my mind such as Marcia Haydée. I was so inspired by her; how she was talking and her way of teaching. I learned a lot from her. Her presence in the studio was very special. Then Nacho Duato with whom I really enjoyed working. I performed “Sleeping Beauty” in his neo-classical style, then the “Nutcracker.” I really liked that experience with him because I am a very classical dancer and he brought me somewhere else with his movements and choreographies. It made me think differently about my body and its abilities; dancing somehow in a bigger way, with different movements, trying to search into my self. That was also very inspiring. Victor Ullate was also very good. He made “Don Quixote,” but the way in which he taught us flamenco dance was incredible and I also learned a lot from him.
S: I loved working with Mauro Bigonzetti on “Caravaggio,” such an amazing experience. The whole process was beautiful. Then with Angelin Preljocaj and his assistant Claudia de Smet for “Snow White” and “The Nights,” I really enjoyed it. I loved working with Marco Goecke who made a great creation for us. To be in the studio with Marco is like being in a different world. To be part of the creation was a very special experience. Yes, I agree with Iana, working with Victor Ullate was also a very good experience because of the energy, charisma and the style he brought to us. Heinz Spoerli as well from Zürich was also a very pleasant process. All these artists have so much to offer, sometimes there are challenges but we learn always a lot and they enrich us forever.
When and how did you come up with the idea to host a benefit-gala?
I: I came up with the idea out of a feeling of shock due to the war. I started to ask myself how I could help somehow, and the idea of a benefit-gala came to mind. Many artists have organised benefit events to support Ukraine and I thought that since I was so close to the Ukrainian Ambassador here, who loves dance and came to see many performances, I could do something as well with his help. He told me that I had his full support so I needed someone who could organise it. I asked around and people suggested Sasha to me; who is also Ukrainian and already had experience with event production. The fact that we were also dancing together and sharing our experiences related to the war, brought us to work together closely and with ease.
S: When the war began I couldn’t concentrate on work and I felt incredibly helpless. I was talking to my mum and I could hear the bombs exploding and the shivering of the windows. My city Kharkiv, was fully bombed. So I took some days off to help at a volunteer station to collect humanitarian aid. I was packing boxes to send to Ukraine and then I received a message from Iana with the idea of the benefit gala, and of course I said yes, and we did it in four weeks! The event was held under the patronage of the Ukrainian Embassy, and we did all the rest and it worked out well. Of course the letter of support from the ambassador helped us to get support from many institutions. Our team was the four of us; Iana, Arshak Ghalumyan, Vitaliy Kravchenko and I. And we had to organise it in four weeks because the Admiralspalast had a free space only then.
What causes, institutions or organisations were supported through the event revenue?
S: The money stays in Germany in a not for profit and NGO association Open-Verein e.V. founded by a group of Ukrainians in 2013, close to Freiburg. Their first idea was to promote East-European culture in West-Europe, but in 2014—when Russia started the war in Ukraine—they focused on humanitarian and medical aid for the Ukrainian war regions Lugansk and Donetck. This year Iana and I became members of this association to help children who lost their parents because of the Russian war in Ukraine. It will be a standalone support to children in need. In the Ukraine there is the Ukrainian Veterans Foundation, which is a government organisation founded in 2017. This association will help us to find those kids in need.
I: I find that this is a way to be somehow as ‘adoptive’ parents, supporting these children for the years to come. I personally know a dancer in Ukraine who voluntarily went to war and died leaving behind him a woman and two children. There are many cases like this and they need economical support.
Do you believe that dance can have a social and political impact?
S: What we do is something for Ukraine, so it is social and political. This venue, and dance, is a statement and a way to support those in need due to the terrible repercussions of this war. What Russia does in Ukraine is atrocious, inhuman and unbearable. The brutality which has been going on for many years is not ok at all, and this has to be clear to the entire world. Everyone should support Ukraine because what is happening is simply unacceptable.
I: I believe dance can stimulate people to be more sensitive, more humane. It has the power to move people from the inside and inspire empathy.