An unlikely Cinderella story in the making

An unlikely Cinderella story in the making

This is second of a two-part story about Tatiana, a Russian girl who made the incredible leap from a St. Petersburg orphanage to the Vaganova Ballet Academy, and the ballerina who made it happen.

The story of Tatiana Koltsova reads like a Disney movie script; a beautiful ballerina rescues a young girl from a miserable life in an orphanage with the help of one of the most famous dancers of all time. They get the girl to a safe haven, one of the best ballet schools in the world, where she works hard, against all odds, to fulfill her dream of becoming a ballerina one day.

Only this Cinderella story almost didn’t happen.

Ekaterina Shchelkanova, a ballerina with the Kirov Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, started a foundation to help orphans, like Tatiana, believe that dreams can come true. Ms. Shchelkanova, who goes by Katya, worked tirelessly and enlisted the help of  friends including Mikhail Baryshnikov to give Tatiana quality ballet training.

After a 2012 performance in New York City – on a stage at the Baryshnikov Arts Center no less – 12-year-old Tatiana received an offer to study ballet at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

When the headmaster at St. Petersburg’s Orphanage #46 – the only home Tatiana has known – said no, Ms. Shchelkanova was in disbelief. Though devastated, she did not give up.

“I did not agree with this decision,” she says. “I knew how much it would challenge Tatiana, to live in a different country, to study dance and to learn a new language. She would come back a different person.”

Tatiana, an ophan, now attends Vaganova Ballet Academy thanks to the love of Prima Ballerina Ekaterina Shchelkanova, once a Vaganova student.

Tatiana, an orphan, now attends Vaganova Ballet Academy thanks to the love of Prima Ballerina Ekaterina Shchelkanova, once a Vaganova student.

Determined to find a way for Tatiana to study ballet, Ms. Shchelkanova came up a plan the orphanage director couldn’t refuse. She shifted her focus to the nearby school she attended, the 275-year-old Vaganova Ballet Academy, [the feeder school for the Mariinsky Ballet, formerly the Kirov Ballet]. Its graduates include some of the best dancers of the last century; Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, George Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Diana Vishneva and others.

Vaganova, considered one of the worlds’ best ballet schools, is free to only a certain number of Russian children each year who must first pass a tough audition process. The rigorous program is widely known for being strict and both physically and mentally demanding. The school was founded on the renowned ballet technique created by Agrippina Vaganova, artistic director of the Kirov Ballet.

To prepare Tatiana for an audition – and provide other children with the chance to study dance – Ms. Shchelkanova’s Open World Dance Foundation put together their first summer intensive in July 2012 in Sochi, Russia, a summer resort on the Black Sea about 1200 miles south of St. Petersburg. Ms. Shchelkanova was inspired to help orphans in St. Petersburg, Russia achieve their dream of learning to dance. Russia has the highest number of orphaned children than any other country in the world.*

[Another Vaganova graduate and former Kirov Ballet dancer, Philippines’ prima ballerina Lisa Macuja, is helping children living in the slums of Manilla – including budding ballerina Jessa Balote – receive classical ballet training and an education to give them a better life.]

Tatiana (center) playing around with Vaganova students at the summer intensive program at Sochi, Russia in 2012.

Tatiana (center) being a kid with Vaganova students at the 2012 summer intensive program at Sochi, Russia.

Last summer’s intensive helped Tatiana and other orphans learn how to become ballet students, working in class with other dancers and taking corrections from some of the best teachers in the world. The program, which is being held this summer, allows Ms. Shchelkanova and others to pass on their knowledge and experience to ballet’s next generation She assembled a stellar group of friends and colleagues, who are some of the world’s top dancers and accomplished ballet masters still teaching today.

“We’re in close touch with [Vaganova Academy’s] best teachers and the best dancers in the field,” she says. “We all should share, that’s the main idea of what I’m doing. I think my life is amazing. I had so many incredible experiences, and I want to share them with others.”

The program also attracted young dancers from St. Petersburg, and other areas of Russia. The foundation paid for under-privileged children from Sochi to participate.

Summer Intensive 2013

Currently, Ms. Shchelkanova is preparing for the foundation’s second summer intensive that runs July 16 – Aug. 4, 2013. It will be held at Jacobsen Ballet Theatre (named for Russian dancer and choreographer Leonid Jacobsen) studios in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The faculty who participated in 2012 are returning for this summer’s three-week program. They include renowned Russian ballet professor Irina Trofimova (a student of Vaganova), Ludmila Safronova, ABT coaches Irina Kolpakov and Vladilen Semenov, Anatoly Sidorov (the first Russian dancer to portray James in La Sylphide), Lazaro Carreño (a former Ballet Nacional de Cuba principal and partner of Alicia Alonso. He was one of the last students of the late Russian teacher Alexander Pushkin), Alla Osipenko, Mariinsky Theatre Prima Ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina, who will give a master class followed by a Q&A session, and others.

Auditions for Open World Dance Foundation summer program are being held at several U.S. dance schools and arts centers. The final two auditions will be held in New York City on Feb. 23 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and in the Houston, Texas area on March 23 at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

While the summer program is for serious dance students, others including parents, friends and chaperones are invited to attend any of the classes.  “We believe that for ballet to survive we need to have an educated audience,” Ms. Shchelkanova says. “We encourage people to come who don’t dance professionally but who love dance. We’re at the stage right now where ballet has a lot of interest but without education. Our foundation is striving to support and make sure that quality training continues. We need to deepen our understanding and appreciation of [ballet] traditions.”

Ms. Shchelkanova with Tatiana when she was accepted into the prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy.

Ms. Shchelkanova with Tatiana when she was accepted into the prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy.

Preparation equals success

After last summer’s program, Tatiana was ready to take Vaganova’s entrance exams. She won acceptance into the school last fall, on a day she considers her happiest. She did well her first semester, spending a lot of time studying for academic classes with tutors and Ms. Shchelkanova. Now, in her second semester, she’s progressing well.

Ms. Shchelkanova is so committed to Tatiana she took the step of adopting the girl for weekend visits and vacations – something the government allows – to make visiting with her easier. “I make sure she studies and does her homework. I talk with her everyday. On weekends, we read together and do math and all of her subjects.” Even Ms. Shchelkanova’s mother takes Tatiana for the weekends and studies with her when the ballerina travels out of St. Petersburg.

Ms. Shchelkanova with young ballet hopefuls Zinaida (left) and Katya.

Ms. Shchelkanova with young ballet hopefuls Zinaida (left) and Katya.

The foundation is involved in many aspects of student training and in September held an open master class given by Ms. Lopatkina. It was at the class where Ms. Shchelkanova spotted two young orphans, Ekaterina, 9, “a pale blond with an angel face,” and Zinaida, 8, who has “an Esmeralda face, beautiful feet and is very musical.”

She recently visited the girls at Orphanage #2 where they live. “They knew we were coming and kept asking, ‘When is this woman coming to see us?’” Ms. Shchelkanova is trying to get them into a five-day a week Vaganova program for children preparing to audition for the main academy, which takes children 11 and older.

Her work continues.

As for Tatiana, she recently returned to see friends at Orphanage #46, the only place she’s known as home. Just a few hours into her scheduled weekend visit, she called Ms. Shchelkanova asking to be picked up. The orphanage – located just seven miles from the Vaganova Academy – might as well be a world away.

“We don’t care if she ever becomes a star,” Ms. Shchelkanova says of Tatiana. “The most important thing is she’s not going to be a parent who will give her children away. She won’t be doing drugs or be an alcoholic. She’s going to be a normal, well brought up, good, strong member of tomorrow’s society.”



* Russian orphanages: The Grim Reality

Russia has the highest number of orphans per 10,000 children than anywhere in the world. An estimated 800,000 Russian children are orphaned, but it could be as high as 4 million if children at risk and street kids are also counted, officials say.  Many orphanages are places of cruelty, psychological abuse and punishment, according to a 1998 study by Human Rights Watch. About 30 percent of Russian orphans have no parents. The majority has parents with drug and alcohol addictions. They’ve had parental rights denied or gave up their child.

  • From birth to age 4, children abandoned to the Russia government live in “baby homes” under severely heartbreaking conditions. If a child isn’t adopted before age 5, they’re sent to an orphanage where most children are 5 to 16.
  • Russian orphanages are known by their number – there are 120 in St. Petersburg.
  • By age 16, orphans are released to live on their own or attend vocational school. Many live on the streets with no coping skills coming from an institutionalized life and turn to drugs, alcohol and prostitution. (There is no foster home system in Russia.)
  • Some children who survive the baby houses are considered oligophrenic or mentally retarded. Even bright orphans are often mislabeled with this because they’ve been abandoned by their parents.
  • As of Jan. 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans. U.S. families adopted about 1,000 Russian children in 2011.




(Top photo: Mariinsky Theatre’s Ulyana Lopatkina leading a master class at last summer’s Open World Dance Foundation intensive in Sochi, Russia.)


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