by Mary Nearpass
Several months ago, when she booked her tickets from Ukraine to the United States, Irina Komarenko thought her trip would be relatively routine. She would fly from Donetsk to Moscow, then to New York City and on to Philadelphia, where Komarenko, principal dancer for the Donetsk Ballet Company for over 22 years, would be teaching a ballet intensive for three weeks at the Wissahickon Dance Academy (WDA) in Germantown, from June 23 through July 11.
As the clash between Russia and Ukraine erupted, however, and the civil unrest in Ukraine intensified, Irina’s route was changed time and time again. First, flights to Moscow were cancelled. Then the airport in Donetsk was closed. Finally, to get out of Donetsk ahead of a planned rail shutdown on June 14, Irina boarded one of the last trains to Kiev, a route that can take up to 12 hours. From Kiev she embarked for the U.S., where a group of ballet students in Germantown were eager for her arrival.
Many of these ballet students were watching from the wings last December as Komarenko, 40, who has toured in Italy, France, Norway, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Canada, China and Switzerland and danced all of the major roles in the Donetsk Ballet’s repertoire (which include “Don Quixote,” “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Spartacus,” “La Bayadere” and “Le Corsaire”), captivated Philadelphia audiences with her performance in “The Nutcracker.” They continue to be beyond excited to be studying their art with her.
In heavily accented English, Irina told me, “I was born in a small mining town in Ukraine. As a little girl, I began taking gymnastics for five years until the age of 11, when one of the teachers suggested I might want to turn my direction toward dance. So at age 11, I entered the prestigious, professional municipal school of dance. I had to move 700 miles away from my parents and family. I was very lonely at first.”
The main difference between American ballet and Russian ballet, according to Irina, is that “the Vaganova style of dance (which stresses strength, flexibility and artistic expression) is much more vigorous and demanding. Upon completion of my training in 1991, I became a member of the Donetsk Ballet Company. We are a 50-member team of professionals, and 18 get to return to America in September after going to the American Embassy in Kiev to get their visas to dance this coming December.”
Irina went on to say that American dancers do not have the job security that she enjoys in the Donetsk Ballet Company. “American dancers have to have signed contracts, which run out, giving them pressure to continually find new work. I am happy I do not have to worry about renewing contracts all the time.”
This is the third year that WDA has brought Komarenko to Philadelphia to teach in its summer ballet program. It is part of the International Ballet Exchange (IBE), a non-profit organization established in 1998, whose mission is to bring high-quality, classical ballet education to school students from diverse racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
The hope is that students will learn the joys and face the challenges of ballet instruction, and that they will develop skills needed in all academic areas such as discipline, mental and physical fitness, goal setting, teamwork and self-respect. The Summer Ballet Intensive, created and directed by Nancy Malmed, founder of WDA, is an annual three-week program for intermediate and advanced ballet students.
It is open to intermediate and advanced ballet students aged 10-22, and distinct for its international mix of teachers. It runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and culminates in a studio performance and reception. This years’ performance took place on Friday, July 11, with selections from classical ballets and other choreography, showcasing students’ progress during the three-week program.
Irina spent six years as a principal dancer for the Indianapolis Ballet from 1999-2006.
The Vaganova method, which she teaches, is a ballet technique and training system devised by the Russian dancer and pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova (1879–1951). It requires five years, from 13-18, of moving away from home, and completely immersing oneself in the rigorous training the Vaganova method requires.
Komarenko taught intermediate and advanced ballet during the three week intensive. She was joined by the WDA faculty, which includes Yosbel Delgado, former soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet; Donald Lunsford, artistic director of Philadanco II; Svetlana Lutz, who taught character dance; and Meghan Dwyer, who taught yoga.
“Knowing that Irina made such an enormous effort to get here to teach the ballet students was already motivating the students,” said Malmed. “I knew they would give her a warm welcome and work very hard for her.” Malmed, who established WDA over 25 years ago, is a professionally trained ballet dancer with a Master’s Degree in Dance from Temple University.
Ed. Note: Our writer was asked — not by me — not to ask any questions of Irina about the current crisis in Ukraine. More information at 215-849-7950, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.wissahickondance.com.