CN D Magazine

#3 jun 23

For Exiled Ukrainian Dancers,
a New Life in France

Claudine Colozzi


Svitlana Kalashnikova in La Mort du cygne, Photo Olivier Houeix

Since the invasion of Ukraine started at the end of February 2022, France has welcomed a large number of dancers, many of them women. Local solidarity has helped them settle into a new reality and keep dancing.

“I was thinking of becoming a dance instructor. I’d already taught a few classes. I never thought the war and moving to France would make it happen as soon as it did.” Svitlana Kalashnikova, a 40-year-old principal with the Kharkiv Opera, left Ukraine at the beginning of March 2022 with “the bare minimum” after a missile destroyed part of the building she lived in. She settled in Mimizan, in the Landes region, with her husband Lorenzo Stanizzo and their two children – Leonardo, 7, and Victoria, 2 and a half. They have since attempted to start afresh and rebuild their lives.

Thanks to photographer Olivier Houeix, Kalashnikova was introduced to the Malandain Ballet Biarritz, and she took part in a gala that was organized with Kyiv City Ballet in June 2022. “When you’re a professional dancer and suddenly, you’re forced to stop dancing, it’s scary to think your body might not be able to get back into shape when you start again,” she says. Attending rehearsals in the studios of the Biarritz-based company and on the stage of Gare du Midi allowed her to get reacquainted with the demands of the job.

Just like Kalashnikova, many dancers chose to leave as soon as the war started, though it’s hard to know exactly how many of them are in France. Many stayed abroad for a few months, then decided to go back to Ukraine. French public institutions quickly opened their doors to those who were in the country, after their workplaces were brutally shut down because of the war. At the Ballet de l’Opéra national de Bordeaux, staff immediately tried to help. “Oksana Kucheruk, a former principal here who is now our ballet mistress, trained at Kyiv’s national ballet school,” explains Eric Quilleré, the company’s artistic director. “She was approached by a dancer who stayed with us for a few months, before going back to Ukraine.”

Others were soon in touch. On April 3 and 4, 2023, a company gala brought in international soloists, including two principals from the National Ballet of Ukraine, Natalia Matsak and Sergii Kryvokon, to share the stage with Bordeaux’s own first soloists. “Taking class with these Vaganova-trained artists was beneficial to all, as the dancers were able to share their craft and knowledge,” says Quilleré.

Cédric Andrieux, who until this year oversaw dance studies at the National Conservatory of Dance and Music in Paris (CNSMDP), noted similar benefits when the Conservatory hosted young Ukrainian dancers. “We received many video applications,” he says. “We initially selected six female dancers, who were able to take the entrance exam to join full-time.” These new recruits soon fit right in with the other students. “Even though they’d been brutally expatriated, they showed impressive strength and tenacity.”

The Kiev City Ballet in Swan Lake, during a gala for Ukraine organised by Malandain Ballet Biarritz, June 2022. Photo Olivier Houeix

Alongside public institutions, individuals found spontaneous ways to help, too. Dancer Jeanne Morel, who specializes in  committed early on to helping her Ukrainian “sisters.” In the early days on the war, appalled by what was going on in Eastern Europe, she reached out to Elena Pikhulya and Nataliia Mogolivets, the directors of a yoga and dance school in Lviv. Morel, who specializes in aerial dance and dance in extreme conditions, then moved heaven and earth to support women who came to France, often with children. 

Morel ended up helping about a hundred exiled dancers by liaising with people who could help them. She provided contracts, classes so they could go on teaching, and advice on how to set up their own companies. “I know that beyond logistical help, dance is a way to keep them afloat,” she says. “If they stop dancing, they’ll go to pieces.” For over a year, Morel went out of her way, calling everyone she could think of – if only to secure a studio for half a day or a few hours of teaching. “Dancing is a vessel for hope and peace,” she adds. “We are brought together by this passion, which saved all our lives. Dance is our best friend.”

In Mimizan, setting foot in a studio again to teach was a great comfort for Kalashnikova, she says: “I opened my own school and I teach children and adults, but I’d like to keep dancing and choreographing too.” Together with her husband Lorenzo, who is a pianist and a composer, and other artists, she plans to stage more performances like Éventail de styles, a production they presented at the Parnasse Theatre on February 24, 2023. “I’ve been dancing since I was 5. Dance is my whole life,” the Kharkiv principal says. “It isn’t easy to start from scratch when you’ve been in a company, when you’re used to touring, but I’m ready to do it here so that my children can grow up in a safe environment.”

In the mid-1990s, while she was still a student majoring in journalism in Lille, Claudine Colozzi interned at the dance magazine Les Saisons de la danse, where she learned to sharpen her critical perspective. As a journalist, she works for magazines, teaches, and writes on a variety of topics while continuing to feed her insatiable curiosity for dance. She has written documentary books for young audiences, such as L’Encyclo de la danse (Gründ), Dans les coulisses de l’Opéra, La danse classique and Passion hip-Hop (Nathan).

Malandain Ballet Biarritz

Ballet de l’Opéra national de Bordeaux