United By Dance: The Birth of Open World Dance Foundation
In 2010, Ekaterina Shchelkanova and Anton Boytsov walked into an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. They encountered a group of young kids who were generally underdeveloped due to a lack of human interaction. One of these children, a young boy, ran up to them to inform them that he wanted to be a ballet dancer at the Mariinsky Theater just like they had been. His excitement about meeting them was clear, but the two soon-to-be founders knew that he could no longer be allowed into the Vaganova Ballet Academy, which would be his best, and possibly only, chance of getting into the world-famous dance company. Even though it was too late for the boy, as Shchelkanova later said, “…he helped us understand that everyone benefits from having hopes and dreams. This began our project of sharing the traditions, philosophy, and gifts of Russian ballet with others.” On this day in 2010, Open World Dance Foundation was born.
Founder Ekaterina Shchelkanova always knew that she wanted to dance. She attended the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg as a student, and then went on to be a soloist with the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky). Later, she moved to the U.S. where she danced with American Ballet Theatre and played the role of the Hungarian woman who is executed in the film “Chicago”. Amongst her other achievements, Shchelkanova co-produced and starred in her own movie, modeled for Salvatore Ferragamo and Bvlgari, and held several director and teaching positions with dance companies and schools around the world.
The other founder of Open World Dance Foundation, Anton Boytsov, also attended the Vaganova Ballet Academy as a child and went on to join the Mariinsky where he remained employed until October of 2012 when he retired. During his time with the Mariinsky he also worked coaching the Russian Olympic figure skating team, helping Evgeniy Pluschenko win a gold medal at the 2006 games. He has partnered many of Russia’s great ballerinas and now travels around the world, teaching alongside Shchelkanova.
Open World Dance Foundation works to provide qualified dance teachers to St. Petersburg’s orphanages because even though dance classes are required to be taught by the state, the provided teachers very seldom know what they are doing. The implementation of structured ballet classes helps orphans to overcome underdevelopment, and also raises the grades and achievements of many of the affected orphans. The foundation has paired up with A.B.T.’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School to train the new teachers for the orphanages.
Since its conception, Open World Dance Foundation achieved the admittance of two young, orphan girls into the Vaganova Ballet Academy, which is quite a feat considering the acceptance rate for the school and the physical criteria for the bodies of the girls admitted. For a girl, the school wants a small head, long arms, legs that are at least 52 percent of the body, and nice feet, as well as the general slim physique. The first girl who was accepted is Tatiana Koltsova, 14, who has attended every summer intensive hosted by the foundation from 2012-2014 and will be attending the intensive this summer. Zinaida “Zina” Novikova, 12, was the second orphan accepted into the renowned school. Zina received her first pair of ballet shoes at the 2013 summer intensive that took place in St. Petersburg.
During the past couple of years, Shchelkanova and Boytsov have been increasingly involved with young students in the U.S. as well. They have been predominantly teaching in New York, Texas, and Florida where they’ve gained more of a following for the foundation. The duo has not only helpled Russian orphans get admitted into the Vaganova Ballet Academy, they also helped Long Islander Mikhaila Whiteman audition into the Vaganova school’s trainee program where she currently trains. The foundation also coordinated the admission of a Latvian student, Denis Pestryakov.
The foundation has helped get students into Vaganova from three different countries as of today and has provided training for students from over nine countries. The Open World summer intensive provides the unification of so many different students through dance, which is just what their slogan states: “United by Dance”. The summer intensive features some of the only remaining students of Agrippina Vaganova herself, who was the school’s teaching legend and influenced the way much of ballet’s technique is taught today. The foundation encourages friendships between these different students, something that is invaluable in a time of tension between the United States and Russia. In fact, during the 2013 summer intensive in St. Petersburg many attendees signed a letter promoting unity that was then delivered to the American Consulate there.
John Lennon said, “Imagine there’s no countries… Imagine all the people living life in peace…” That’s exactly what Open World strives for in all the work they do. As the foundation gains more following, more work to unify the U.S. and Russia will be seen combined with continuing to provide top-level training. The foundation started out with more of an emphasis on the dance part of their motto, but as the conflicts of today and the past few years continue to develop the emphasis on unity grows stronger. Shchelkanova and Boytsov hope to grow the network of the foundation because an organization like this can truly show the world that we all can be “united by dance”.