More than 80 young Ukrainian dancers have found a safe haven at prestigious ballet schools throughout Europe with the help of a nonprofit called Youth America Grand Prix.

What You Need To Know

  • Youth American Grand Prix is the world’s largest ballet scholarship competition

  • It has been working to get Ukrainian dancers places at top ballet schools

  • The first-ever Kyiv regional competition for YAGP was canceled after Russia invaded

  • To donate to help dancers, visit here

The YAGP has worked to secure spots for dancers in schools such as the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco, Zurich Dance Academy and the Dutch National Ballet School. In an interview for "LA Times Today," Los Angeles Times staff writer Jessica Gelt told host Lisa McRee about these young dancers and their escape from their home country.

Youth America Grand Prix is the largest ballet scholarship competition in the world. After the 2022 Ukraine semi-final competition was canceled, founder Larissa Saviliev began getting calls from dancers seeking help.

"They've actually held competitions in so many places, but never in Ukraine," Gelt said. "And interestingly, they were scheduled to hold their first competition in Kyiv in early March, and they had 200 kids signed up to compete. These are kids who want to make dance their vocations, their lives. They've dedicated every spare hour to the study of the art form. And then the invasion happened. The founder of Youth America Grand Prix, who happens to be a former dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet with a Russian parent and the Ukrainian parent, found out about the invasion, and she had to cancel the competition. She sent an email to these 200 kids saying, 'I'm so sorry. If there's anything I can do to help, let me know.' Next thing she knew, her cellphone number had been given out, and she was getting calls from kids in the middle of the night from dancers who had ended up at the border. All of a sudden, she launched this plan to begin helping these kids and placing them in these ballet schools."

Saviliev sent students their acceptance letters so they could use them to cross the Ukrainian border. YAGP also helped coordinate routes to their new schools on free busses that border countries are operating. One of the students who Gelt spoke with fled Ukraine with her mother and is now studying in Germany.

"The mother's name is Oksana and her daughter is Kateryna," Gelt said. "Oksana had to leave her husband and her 7-year-old daughter behind because men can't go, and her daughter was too young. They ended up going to Germany, and she took her daughter and left her at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart. It was this insane three-day journey. She dropped her daughter, and then she had to take the three-day journey back into Ukraine to be with her 7-year-old. I did check in with her, and she got back safely, and she is just so genuinely touched and heartened that her daughter is safe at a school and learning. She didn't want to separate her family. It's been a very difficult journey."

Martin Korol, a 17-year-old dancer from Kyiv, left Ukraine alone. Gelt spoke with him from his new home at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco.

"[Martin's] mom had to stay behind and be with her aging parents," Gelt explained. "He showed up at the Polish border with nothing but his backpack and 50 euros. He waited over 24 hours to get over the border. He had that acceptance letter and Youth America Grand Prix helped arrange. But you can't just take a bus there. He had to fly along with taking busses and cars. The director of Princess Grace Academy in Monaco picked him up and took him shopping for ballet clothes and other clothes. Martin is an incredible dancer."

Three young dancers were accepted to the Dutch National Ballet school. Gelt shared the stories of Sofia Chycha, 15, Maria Bondarenko, 18, and Dimitry Sitnitsky, 17. 

"All three were placed in Amsterdam. The founder of YAGP's niece actually acted as the host for these three students, so they stay together. They made a frantic three-day trip over the Romanian border. Their car broke down on their way and put them back by 24 hours. They were scared to leave their homes in Kyiv because the bombs were falling. They couldn't go out after 8 at night because they could be mistaken for military. We sent a photographer to take some pictures of them in Amsterdam. There are some really beautiful pictures in the story of two of the girls rooming together, riding their bikes together in the safe haven. There's a gorgeous picture of Sofia dancing."

The students are grateful to have reached safety and for the ability to continue training. In order to help more dancers flee the invasion, YAGP has set up a hotline for those who need help or want to donate.

"You can go to [YAGP's] website, and they have a donation page that you can click on and donate directly to this effort to help continue getting these dancers safe haven," Gelt said. "So far, there've been over 80 dancers that they've helped. They said that they will continue doing it as long as they can. They're going to need that money because after the kids are placed, there's the whole housing situation, like making sure that they have a long-term situation and a way to stay safe as this conflict continues." 

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