Iana Salenko und David Soares, Principal Dancers at Staatsballett Berlin, discuss the war against Ukraine and what it means for their work and the ballet world.
As in most ballet companies, dancers from all over the world work together at Staatsballett Berlin. Amongst them are people from Ukraine as well as from Russia, from Belarus, Moldavia and Poland, or from Brazil, Cuba and Japan. How does a political event as disruptive as Russia’s war against Ukraine influence the climate in such an international workplace? tanzraumberlin posed this and other questions to the Principal Dancers Iana Salenko, who was born in Ukraine, and David Soares, who recently left Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. They have a very humanistic message.
Interview: Elena Philipp
Iana Salenko, how are the Company and your daily working life at Staatsballett Berlin affected with a war raging in your country?
Iana Salenko: I am professional about it. I am certainly talking about the war with my friends at the Company. It is personal for me; friends and family are suffering.
You yourself have been engaged in volunteer work. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?
Iana Salenko: At the beginning of the war, when there was panic and dancers were fleeing Ukraine, I was the main contact assisting with job opportunities and finding places to stay. I organized a group of around 300 people, mainly consisting of artists, but also some children, helping them to get out of Ukraine. At the moment, however, I’m not really actively doing volunteer work anymore. The people who wanted to leave have found their places and are content, I hope.
You mentioned that the war is personally painful for you. You were born in Ukraine, trained in Donetsk and started out as a soloist at the opera houses of Donetsk and Kyiv before coming to Berlin in 2005. How have your former Ukrainian colleagues been faring?
Iana Salenko: I was in contact with them, and some left, while others stayed because they have their family in Ukraine and their work. The decision is a very personal one. Some stopped working altogether, they said they simply could not dance any more under those circumstances. For others, the situation opened new doors. A young dancer who was looking for a job outside Ukraine told me that she had four offers, and she could choose amongst them.
David Soares, you trained at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography and were a Leading Soloist at The Bolshoi Ballet after that. What made you leave Moscow in March 2022?
David Soares: My decision to leave Russia was a very difficult one to make. Moscow has been my home for many years. I had friends there that became like my family, my job was the dream job of every ballet dancer – to dance at The Bolshoi Ballet! – and I matured there, not only as a dancer, but also as a person after coming from Brazil at such young age, becoming part of the company and growing my career. No, it wasn’t an easy decision at all, but I made it because I didn’t agree with what was going on.
So your reasons to leave were politicial?
David Soares: As said before, I didn’t agree with what was going on and I didn’t want to be a part of it, so I left Moscow. I had plans to leave The Bolshoi Ballet and to embark on a new career path in Europe anyway, but I wasn’t in any hurry and wanted to make sure that the next ballet company would be the best one for me. This war changed my plans, and I guess everybody else’s, too. The pain I’m going through now is nothing compared with what the Ukrainian people are going through, having to leave their homes to find a secure place for themselves and their families in other countries. But I knew that if I stayed in Moscow, the doors for me to leave might close forever.
How did you find your place at Staatsballett Berlin?
David Soares: I had worked with Staatsballett’s designated Artistic Director Christian Spuck in Moscow before and we had already been talking about me coming to Berlin in 2023 or 2024. When all this happened, Christian was the first person I called and he opened the doors for me. I was received very warmly, also by the members of the Company.
Are Russian colleagues of yours also welcomed warmly? Or is it not as easy for them to find a job at the moment? Especially at the beginning of the war, some directors, conductors and opera singers were no longer invited due to their close ties to Putin’s regime. What are your views on this discussion?
Iana Salenko: Some Galas indeed had the motto “no Russian names”. But I’ve not got any personal issues with Russians per se. In my circle, it doesn’t matter who’s Russian, Ukrainian or Belorussian. We’re artists. It’s up to politicians to solve the problem.
David Soares: Excluding colleagues just because of where they are from would not only be unprofessional, it would be inhuman. It’s not their fault that someone in power has started a war.
Russian works are at the core of ballet as an art form. “Swan Lake” or “Onegin” are part of Staatsballett’s repertoire. What would a ban of Russian art have meant for the ballet world? And for you personally?
David Soares: Ballet’s history cannot simply be forgotten or removed from the program. We use it everywhere around the world. Removing it would be like cutting off our air. It’s how we walk and talk, how we do everything.
Iana Salenko: If it really would help anything, we would stop. But in Ukraine, our colleagues perform even when the sirens are wailing. They want a normal life, as anybody does. You can’t just stay home and be depressed; you have to be happy and enjoy life.
David Soares: The arts are a profession that embraces everyone, regardless. We can give people a bit of joy, relieving them from the madness by creating a fairy tale.