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Khrystyna Shyshpor — a ballet star at seventeen
Nika Kryzhanivska tells a story of a talented and promising ballet dancer.
Khrystyna Shyshpor is a ballet star. She has won prizes at many international ballet contests. Among her awards are The Rudolf Nuriev Medal collected from the Rudolf Nuriev International Ballet Contest (Budapest, Hungary), and the Bronze Medal from the International Classic Dance Contest in Sanct-Pelten, Austria. At the very end of 2003 she performed in Vienna. Even for a person who has been on stage for many years such a list of achievements would look impressive enough, but the thing is Ms Shyshpor is only seventeen.
A fern flower girl
They say that shortly before they die, many people recollect all the events of their life in a matter of seconds. It could be true but I don’t know anybody who died and then came back to verify it. Strangely enough, after I met Khrystyna Shyshpor and learnt more about her, I thought of those moments before death during which people supposedly see their entire life in a flash. Her father was drafted into the Soviet Army and was sent to Afghanistan. He came back alive but his health was ruined, and he died quite young. He wanted his daughter to become a ballet dancer and probably as he lay dying he visualized his daughter dancing on the stage of a prestigious theatre to the ovation of the ecstatic audience. The power of his vision must have had so much energy that it propelled his daughter to fame. Two weeks before her father died, Khrystyna, then seven years old, slender and surprisingly graceful for her age, wearing the tutu and ballet slippers, danced the Flowers Waltz in the hospital ward in front of her dying father, other in-patients, nurses and doctors. Her father, proud and moved, could not take his eyes off her.
Khrystyna is a person whose nature is woven of sunshine, sparkling joy, ebullience, tenderness and overpowering energy. She was born out of the Great First Love. Her mother says Khrystyna was conceived on the Night of Ivan Kupaylo when she and her husband went looking for a fern flower (Ivan Kupaylo is an ancient mid-summer feast of pagan origin which has become over the centuries merged with the Christian feast of John the Baptist; Ivan Kupaylo was an orgiastic feast; one of the feast’s night rituals was the search in the forest for a fern flower — from the botanical point of view, an impossible thing — was supposed to bloom, if at all, only during that night; the one who discovered the magical flower would have all his or her wishes fulfilled — tr.). The green-eyed Khrystyna was the couple’s fern flower. But their happiness did not last long — Khrystyna’s father left for Afghanistan and during the long months of his absence it was only his voice coming from the telephone’s earpiece that reminded Khrystyna and her mother of his existence.
Several days before her father’s death, Khrystyna had a dream at night in which she saw fighting and death. She woke up, breaking out into a cold sweat and screaming, Daddy!
Ever since her father’s death, Khrystyna felt his invisible presence at her side, supporting her at hard moments and giving her strength. Once, on stage, she lost her balance performing a difficult pirouette, and fell flat down on her face. She froze, sprawled on the boards and the audience froze too. Her immobility and disorientation and darkness lasted a fraction of a second but it seemed to her it lasted for ages. And then she felt as though some powerful force brought her back to her feet, gave her strength to continue as though nothing had happened, filled her with warmth that infused her entire being. And she finished her dance to the enthusiastic applause, knowing it was her father who was her guardian angel.
Her favourite fairy tale is The Beauty and the Monster which she read in her early childhood. She says she was so sorry for the Monster that she wept reading the tale. But at the same time she came to believe in miracles — a miracle of love transforming ugliness into handsomeness. Another miracle happened when at an early age she was recognized as a ballet prodigy — by the age of ten she was regularly performing and touring in Ukraine and abroad, winning prizes, admiration, presents and large bouquets of flowers.
As a child, Khrystyna had so much energy to burn that she danced and jumped not only on the floor but on her bed and chairs and tables so vigorously that even the sturdiest pieces of furniture were soon reduced to an irreparable condition. It was decided to turn this overabundance of energy to a better use, and Khrystyna was taken to a ballet school. Her first ballet slippers were made by her grandma at home. Khrystyna failed her audition. Since she did have a good ear for music, she was advised to join a violin class instead.
Some time later, an ad was spotted in a newspaper inviting children to try their luck at another ballet school, The School of Choreography of Halyna and Dmytro Kayhorodovis. Khrystyna’s performance was assessed as “quite promising,” and she was enrolled. The years of study and training were by far not the easy ones. Quite often it was just sheer physical exhaustion that seemed to be beyond enduring. Some of the exercises seemed too hard to be performed; every movement had to be perfected. Not once Khrystyna rebelled, “I can’t do that!”; “I won’t have it any more!”; “I won’t dance ever again!”; “I’ve got a terrible stage fright!”; “No, I won’t appear in front of the audience!”; “I won’t take part in that contest!” Once in a while she would break into tears, she would scream, she would shout her “no” at those who tried to encourage her to go on, to try harder. She went through all that — with the help of her mother, of her teacher, and of that inner voice — her father’s? — that kept whispering to her, “You can do it and you will do it.”
And she did. A sixteen-year old girl, Khrystyna Shyshpor, performed solo parts on the stage of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, the first time in the history of the theatre such a young ballerina was entrusted with performing solo in classical ballets.
Serge Lifar Contest
Soon after she turned sixteen, Khrystyna Shyshpor took part in the prestigious Serge Lifar International Contest held in Kyiv (Lifar, Serge, 1905–1986, Russian-French dancer and choreographer of exceptional stage presence, who revitalized the Paris Opera Ballet and was the primary figure of modern French ballet; born in Kyiv, he was premier danseur in the ballet company of the Russian impresario Sergey Diagilev before becoming director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1929 — tr.). Dancers competed in several age groups. Hers included a hundred dancers from many countries of the world. There were four stages of competition through which only a handful got to the final stage. Khrystyna Shyshpor chose to perform the parts of the Black Swan from Swan Lake, Esmeralda, and a part from The Corsair, and a modern dance, Inspirations. During one of the performances, one of the reinforced toes of her ballet shoes got misplaced, but luckily at that very moment her partner appeared on the stage. While he was performing his solo part, she rushed backstage, had a shoe replaced in several seconds, and though it was not her size which caused a lot of inconvenience, she finished her performance with flying colours, performing several fouettes. It earned her an ovation and the gold medal.
On her later visit to Paris, she had the honour of meeting Lifar’s wife and touching the gold ballet shoe from his museum. Khrystyna took a tour of the places where Lifar lived and which he visited; she went up the Eiffel Tower, took pictures. Of all that she saw in Paris the Church of Notre Dame made the greatest impression on her. It could be expected since her favourite ballet part was that of Esmeralda.
“For the first time in my life I appeared on the stage of the Opera House when I was ten. There was a festival held then, Children and Stars, and I danced, with other girls, “The Flowers Waltz” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. We danced to the music of a live orchestra. I performed 32 fouettes which is a difficult thing to do even for an experienced ballerina. The conductor himself and the first violin applauded me and it’s a great honour for a dancer to earn such applause. And what a great bouquet of flowers I was given! I hid my face in it and thought, Yes, ballet is my destiny. I was so happy then.
It was the first time I fully realized what I actually wanted to do in life most of all. Before that I had never thought in terms of devoting myself fully to dancing. It just came to me, little by little, gradually.
Performing on stage is like living in a different world which I enter without any fear — I never have stage fright — and with elation. Nothing else remains — but the stage. I feel confident I’ll do fine — without such confidence it’s pointless to appear on stage. You must not think, like, Sorry, could I dance for you? You must think very positively, I’ll show now what I can do, and it’s up to you to decide whether you like it or not.
When on stage, I’m fully transformed into those whom I portray, I live their life to the full, I’m the dance, music, light, ardent emotions, I’m movement. All those steps and movements that have been practised an untold number of times when performed on stage become something entirely different — they are magic that never repeats itself. Rehearsals and actual performances in front of an audience are two entirely different things. There’s a feedback coming from the audience, people’s reaction, applause, their “bravos!”, flowers — all of these things inspire greatly. I love every flower that I get as a token of appreciation…
My favourite ballet is Peter Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and the favourite part in it is the one of Odetta-Odilia which is really a very difficult one to perform, it’s so involving, and every time I do it, I do in a slightly different way. There’s something special in Tchaikovsky’s music, something that tells of things enigmatic and eternal…
Once, during the performance of Swan Lake, I felt that the ribbon on one of my ballet shoes began to be getting loose. The moment I left the stage I began sewing it back — I always had a needle and thread with me during performances, just in case. It took just several seconds. When it came time for me to go back on stage, I realized, after a little while, that it’s getting undone again. The thing repeated itself several times, and by the end of the performance I ran out of thread and was on the point of losing my shoe at every step I made. But yet I knew everything would be all right. There was something in Tchaikovsky’s music, in me — a sort of special energy that kept me going.”
Khrystyna Shyshpor radiates so much joy, enthusiasm, cheerfulness, energy, vigour and youth that even being by her side makes the world look a better place. I did feel she was born out of love, love that abides forever.