Finding hope where there once was none

Finding hope where there once was none

This is first of a two-part story on a Russian girl’s journey from a St. Petersburg orphanage to becoming a budding ballerina.

During her illustrious career, Russian ballerina Ekaterina Shchelkanova danced many starring roles as a soloist with the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) and American Ballet Theatre. Today, she’s embarking on perhaps her greatest role, giving orphaned children the chance to dance and, with it, hope for the future.

It’s well past midnight and Ekaterina Shchelkanova, inside her father’s home outside St. Petersburg, Russia, is wide-awake. She excitedly talks by Skype with a new friend some 5,400 miles – and eight time zones – away like it’s next door about her new calling.

“I usually stay up quite late,” says Ms. Shchelkanova, a petite beauty who’s accustomed to keeping a night owl’s schedule as professional dancers do. During her sparkling career, she danced most of ballets greatest roles on stages around the world. Though she has segued from performing to a teaching career, late evenings remain her norm.

Her energy is now deeply rooted in the organization she started two years ago, Open World Dance Foundation, to help give orphans in her native St. Petersburg hope for a better life. And she’s running a successful summer intensive program, giving students Vaganova ballet training from the heart of her hometown.

There’s much to talk about this night, starting with the incredible story of Tatiana Koltsova, a tiny 12-year-old whose only home was St. Petersburg’s Orphanage #46 and who dreamed of becoming a ballerina. On a visit there just over a year ago, Ms. Shchelkanova (who goes by Katya) met Tatiana, a fair-haired child, who was orphaned by parents addicted to drugs. The ballerina saw the girl’s potential as a dancer.

“What Katya’s doing is magical and fantastic,” says Franco De Vita, principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre in New York City. “She’s not only helping the talented ones, she’s helping all these little children. She’s bringing something special into the lives of these orphans.”

Ms. Shchelkanova runs the foundation with her partner Anton Boytsov, a former Kirov Ballet dancer. She’s passionate about the incredible work her organization has accomplished – not just with Tatiana – in a relatively short time.

The story of how Ms. Shchelkanova came to help needy children is tightly interwoven in how she reached the pinnacle of ballet success.

Ballerina dreams

Like so many little girls growing up, Ms. Shchelkanova wished to become a dancer. She was fortunate to grow up in St. Petersburg, home to the world famous Vaganova Ballet Academy. At two-and-a-half years old, she knew she wanted a stage career and even asked her parents for pointe shoes. Originally, her parents wanted her to become a musician and she played the violin. With her parents support, she attended Vaganova Academy – her first ballet school – at age 10. Upon graduation in 1988, she was hired by the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) as a soloist – a rarity as most graduates start in the corps de ballet. She danced the Kirov’s repertoire for several years, then decided to spread her wings and move to New York.

She struggled for a time with the practical challenges of uprooting and adjusting to a new life in a new country with an unfamiliar language.

One day, she found herself in class with the beloved ballet teacher David Howard [considered a teacher to the stars and a former Royal Ballet soloist] and had a chance meeting with Russian superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. During their conversation, he asked what company she was dancing for. Ms. Shchelkanova replied she wasn’t dancing.

“I didn’t have money at that time to take [professional] classes,” she says. “I was lost for a while. Misha [Baryshnikov]said, ‘You must dance. You’ve been to such an amazing school.’ He encouraged me. That was the most important thing. With a simple few words, he changed the destiny of my life. I didn’t ask him for help. He had a feeling to give me encouragement.”

She figured out a way to take classes and grew more confident in herself. Eventually she joined American Ballet Theatre where her repertoire consisted of solo and leading roles in ballets including Giselle, Don Quixote, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Le Corsaire, Cinderella, Lilac Garden, Paquita, La Bayadere and others. She worked with choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris. In 2001, she helped create one of the roles for Tharp’s Broadway musical Movin’ Out. The following year, she made her screen debut in the role of Hunyak in the Oscar-winning musical Chicago where she worked with movie stars including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere. In 2006, she was asked to become the art director of the Children’s Dance Festival in Berlin. She’s been teaching since 2001 and has been a ballet mistress at The Royal Ballet of Canada, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and other companies.

Katya playing with three girls at one of the many orphanages the former ballerina helped improve dance teaching at to give children hope.

Katya playing with three girls at one of the many orphanages the former ballerina helped improve dance teaching at to give children hope.

A few years ago, Ms. Shchelkanova was reflecting on her early career when Baryshnikov’s counsel helped redirect her path. At that time in her life, she knew she needed to reach out to children in a more meaningful way.

“I started thinking about how ballet is a very hard profession,” she says. “It’s painful, mentally and physically, and can be cruel, but I love it. I’m very thankful to my school and to my parents who were supportive. I started thinking, ‘What if someone didn’t have parents and didn’t have support? What do they do?’”

Ms. Shchelkanova started researching the number of orphans in Russia, a country that leads the world in a staggering number, estimated anywhere from 800,000 to 2.5 million.  Russian orphanages are known by their number; there are 120 in St. Petersburg. Ms. Shchelkanova knew she had to get involved, and when she mentioned the idea to her friend, Baryshnikov, he encouraged her to follow her instinct.

In the beginning

She started visiting St. Petersburg orphanages, and no matter which one she went to the feelings were the same. “It’s scary to see how many children are being left without any love,” she says. “Some of them are developmentally delayed, some of them are beautiful and terrific and smart. I don’t understand how someone who had this child can leave them. When you’re there, you have that emotional feeling that you don’t want to give into. You cannot cry there, though you want to. I talk with the children and I play with them. They all really want to touch you. They are lacking tactile feelings and being held. It’s really hard saying good-bye.”

On one visit, she, Boytsov and her friend, Olga Poverennaya, a soloist with the Mikhailovsky Theatre, met an 11-year-old boy who said he wanted to be a professional dancer. Knowing it was already too late for the possibility of a career, Ms. Shchelkanova knew he would benefit from learning ballet.

The first thing she did was start a dance class in that orphanage. Within two weeks, the staff noticed major changes in the children. They were doing better in academic classes, their grades improved, they were more disciplined, and they felt a sense of unity doing something together.

“When we talked with a psychologist about this, she said because of dancing we were able to accomplish more in two weeks than what they can do in a whole year,” Ms. Shchelkanova says.

Rather quickly, she discovered that although Russian orphanages are required to have a dance or music teacher at their schools, most instructors didn’t know much about dance or how to best work with children.

She wanted to organize a training program for these dance teachers, but she wasn’t sure how it would come together and she didn’t have any funding. She set up her foundation and then asked some former colleagues at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School to come to St. Petersburg to teach their distinguished weeklong teacher intensive course geared for children aged 5 to 11. The group who came to Russia in November 2011 included ABT’s Executive Director Rachel Moore, the JKO School’s De Vita, faculty member Raymond Lucans (both De Vita and Lucans co-authored the ABT National Training Curriculum), physical therapist Julie Doherty, and JKO school’s director of education Mary Jo Ziesel.

“It was incredible,” Ms. Shchelkanova says. “We taught 64 teachers without a penny being paid for this course. I was translating everything from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday. I was so excited. That whole week we barely slept. It was wonderful to see how much interest people had. A lot of the instructors love children and have an honest interest in wanting to help.”

De Vita says he was forever changed by what he experienced in Russia.

“What Katya’s doing is spectacular,” he says. “When you hear about it, that’s one thing. But when you’re there in St. Petersburg, like we were in the teacher’s training in the studio and she brought in some of the orphaned children, it breaks your heart. Then you really understand what she’s doing.”

About a month after the training, Ms. Shchelkanova started visiting the newly ABT-certified teachers at the orphanages to see how the children were doing.

Tatiana’s story, a miracle

On a visit to Orphanage #46, Ms. Shchelkanova sat in on one of the classes and noticed “this incredible girl,” she says.  “Her name was Tatiana and she looked like she was born to dance. We asked the staff about her and they said, ‘Oh, no she’s not serious about dance, she’s a regular child.’ But I took my chance and talked to her. She said, ‘I want to be a ballerina. I really want to dance.’”

Ms. Shchelkanova asked the orphanage staff about continuing dance classes for Tatiana. They said it wasn’t possible and that she wasn’t doing well in school.  “But she was very musical and very beautiful,” and the ballerina forged ahead.

Tatiana, recovering from chicken pox, slips on her first pair of pointe shoes that belonged to Ms. Shchelkanova.

Tatiana, recovering from chicken pox, slips on her first pair of pointe shoes that belonged to Ms. Shchelkanova.

For Christmas that year, Tatiana had asked for a pair of pointe shoes. Instead, she received a pair of ice skates. After hearing about this, Ms. Shchelkanova returned to visit and gave Tatiana a pair of her own pointe shoes, one of her first pairs as a Kirov Ballet dancer. At that time, Tatiana had chicken pox and was kept at a medical facility within the orphanage. Undaunted being sick, Tatiana slipped on Ms. Shchelkanova’s size 3½ pointe shoes – in what can only be described as a Cinderella moment – and excitedly danced around. “She said, ‘I’m so happy you brought them.’ From that moment on, I knew we were going to make progress. She trusted me, and I knew she had made a connection with me.” On every visit, the little girl hugged Ms. Shchelkanova so tightly – not wanting her to leave – the ballerina thought her ribs would crack.

She knew Tatiana had enormous potential given the right opportunity, but of course had no formal training. The young girl didn’t know how to point her feet or concentrate which is critical in ballet class.  “I thought, ‘What do we do now? How do we encourage her dancing and training? We needed to create an opportunity so she could believe in something and know that dreams can become a reality.”

About a month later, Ms. Shchelkanova was in New York and met with Baryshnikov at his arts center. She told him about Tatiana and showed pictures of her. “He said, ‘Do you think she can be a serious student?’ I told him she’s a child, but I’d like to give her a chance.’”

About 10 minutes after leaving his office, Baryshnikov called her, offering to stage a concert at his center for her Open World Dance Foundation. “I told him it sounds very royal, but we don’t have any funding from anywhere. He said, ‘Well, let me think about it.’”

With help from her friends, Katya (center back row) and the cast including professional dancers from Dance Without Borders at the BAC April 2012.

Ms. Shchelkanova (center back row) and the cast including professional dancers from Dance Without Borders at the BAC April 2012.

Baryshnikov Arts Center provided support for the a one-evening show called Dance Without Borders. It was held April 21, 2012 at the Howard Gilman Performance Space at the BAC. “He’s so open and supportive and has a huge heart and an incredible wish to help,” Ms. Shchelkanova says.

She also got many other friends and colleagues involved in the gala, putting in lots of late nights. The children of Orphanage #46 shared the stage with JKO School students. Stars such as Opera Diva Anna Netrebko and principals from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and Boston Ballet performed including Veronika Part, Joaquin De Luz, Ask La Cour, Carlos Molina, Vilia Putrius and others. Susan Jaffe choreographed two numbers especially for the gala.

“We had help from quite a few people who are wonderful and do amazing things,” she says. “It’s a blessing to have people like this.”

After the show, ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and De Vita offered Tatiana a scholarship to study at the prestigious JKO School.

“When I saw this little girl perform,” De Vita says, “something captured my eyes right away. It wasn’t just her gorgeous body proportion, her legs and feet, but she has an incredible stage presence. It was something very special.”

Ms. Shchelkanova and Tatiana.

Ms. Shchelkanova and Tatiana.

Turning point

Elated with the extraordinary offer, Ms. Shchelkanova knew studying ballet in America would catapult Tatiana into a better life. She would study ballet at the JKO School and take academic classes at a nearby professional children’s school which ABT agreed to help pay for. All of the arrangements were made and hopes ran high.

“We came back to St. Petersburg and presented this to the director of the orphanage,” Ms. Shchelkanova says. “And she said, ‘No. Tatiana is just a regular child like everyone else. Why should she go?’”


(Top photo: Tatiana Koltsova and others performing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2012. Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Shchelkanova.) 

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