The Westside School of Ballet welcomed three professional dancers after they left their homes, friends and career behind in Russia.
American dancers Joy Womack and Adrian Mitchell are both former Westside students and are joined in Santa Monica by Mitchell’s wife Andrea Laššáková, who is from Slovakia and was also a professional dancer in Russia. This weekend they will take to Santa Monica’s Broad stage for a special performance with other guest dancers and current Westside students.
The three of them are part of a mass exodus of foreign dancers leaving Russia and are a living representation of the artistic and cultural casualties of war.
Mitchell and Laššáková walked across the border to Estonia on foot carrying their dog and belongings with them after driving from Saint Petersburg. Womack, who was filming in Poland at the time of the Russian invasion, flew back to her home state of California leaving behind her Russian apartment with all her possessions.
All of the dancers had achieved dazzling careers in Russia, a country that lives and breathes ballet. Womack, who is now 28, moved to Russia to train when she was 15 and made national headlines when she became the first American female to be invited to dance under contract with the Bolshoi Ballet in 2012. Mitchell and Laššáková were both dancers at the prestigious Mikhailovsky Ballet Company.
When the invasion began, all three dancers agreed that they could not remain in a country perpetuating egregious human rights abuses and especially not in the industry of ballet, which is so closely intertwined with the Russian government.
“Ballet in Russia is so beloved and so connected to the government. We had major politicians coming to our performances. I know Joy danced in the Kremlin for Bolshoi, which is pretty much Russia’s ballet company. It is like the mascot for Russia,” said Mitchell, adding that even the Russian ballets themselves are a form of government propaganda as, for example, Laurencia and Spartacus are ballets of rebellion made to celebrate overthrowing the czars in the Russian Revolution.
The three dancers are horrified by the war in Ukraine and recognize that the disruptions to their lives are not comparable to the destruction of life faced by the Ukrainian people.
“While the three of us have gone through a tough time, the people of Ukraine are going through something all of us can’t imagine,” said Mitchell. “This is one of the most terrible heart wrenching things I’ve ever seen.”
At the same time, their hearts also go out to the people living in Russia who are suffering and unable to speak freely about the war or access factual reporting on the conflict.
“I would caution against an anti-Russian sentiment, because certainly the Russian people are not behind this and it’s very easy to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater—that’s a natural emotional reaction—but sadly knowledge and access to information is a privilege that is not readily available to the common Russian person,” said Womack.
Through the turbulence of leaving their lives behind and hearing heartbreaking stories from many of their Eastern Europeans friends, the Westside School of Ballet has been a place of solace for the dancers. For Womack and Mitchell it has also given them the feeling of returning to an old home.
Womack began her training under Yvonne Mounsey at Westside in 1999, while Mitchell began studying there in 2004. In the upcoming Broad Stage showcase, Womack and Mitchell will be performing the “Spring Waters” pas de deux and Mitchell and Laššáková will be performing Russian choreographer Oleg Vinogradov’s “Barber’s Adagio.” Womack will also be performing a solo from “La Esmeralda.”
“Ballet class is almost like a form of meditation, you can let go and just work and then of course once you get on the stage you can let go and just dance,” said Laššáková. “Sometimes when I dance I feel like I wasn’t even there, it was like magic happening.”
For Laššáková ballet has always meant sacrifice and separation from home as she left her family in Slovakia at the age of ten to go train in Poland. She said that in every hard time her love for ballet was able to help her overcome the pains of separation.
During this time of tragedy and uncertainty, all of the dancers are grateful to be able to come into the studios at the Westside and continue practicing the art that they love and have dedicated their lives to.
“I don’t really know what’s coming next, but at least I have this moment and I have that grand allegro combination or this plie or this heel to focus on turning out… I’m grateful for that moment because once you perform it’s gone and so every moment leading up to that moment on stage, whether it happens or doesn’t happen as you want, is bliss, even if it’s difficult,” said Womack.
On May 7, “A Petite Soirée” reception and awards will take place at 6 p.m., followed by the 7:30 pm “New Horizons” with special performances; and on May 8 “New Horizons” Spring Performance will take place at 2 p.m. Both events will be at the Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St and tickets may be purchased online at www.westsideballet.com.
Photos 1, 2, 3 credit Todd Lechtick. Photo 4 credit Ira Yakovleva, courtesy Adrian Blake Mitchell.