Nelia Ivanova and Svitlana Shlikhter were full of smiles when a nearly packed audience of about 300 people gave the Ukrainian ballet dancers and other performers a round of applause during a recent show in Awaji Island in western Japan.

Following their evacuation to the island three months after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Ivanova and Shlikhter have been living in a calm and stable environment, which they say was what they wanted most as professional dancers.

"We appreciate the people in Awaji for supporting us, and hopefully we can send a message of peace through our performances," Ivanova said after the Jan. 28 event in Awaji city. "We truly hope the two-year-old war in Ukraine and the tragedies it has brought will end soon."

Following four performances of the show through Jan. 28, the former dancers of the Lviv National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater will appear in another show featuring six performances starting March 23 in Awaji. On Feb. 9, they performed in collaboration with indigenous Ainu dancers during the Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido.

Ukrainian ballet dancers Nelia Ivanova (2nd from R), and Svitlana Shlikhter (far L), and Japanese dancers Emi Hariyama (3rd from L), and Haruki Yamamoto (far R), appear for a curtain call during a show at a hall in Awaji, Hyogo Prefecture, on Jan. 28, 2024. (Kyodo)

The 23-year-olds moved to the island on May 14, 2022, with the help of Emi Hariyama, an award-winning Japanese ballet dancer and former Berlin State Ballet member who has performed and taught around the world including Europe, the United States, Russia and Ukraine.

"We could not dance for a month after the outbreak of the war. Rehearsals and live shows resumed but we had to go to a bomb shelter every time the air raid sirens went off," Shlikhter said. "It was difficult, psychologically, to keep dancing on the stage."

Hariyama says she wanted to help dancers in trouble, this time from Ukraine, because their plight reminded her of the hard life she had endured in Moscow as a student at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Hariyama asked Yasuyuki Nambu, the Awaji-based CEO of Pasona Group Inc., if the staffing service agency could employ Ivanova and Shlikhter and have them involved in Awaji World Ballet, a ballet promotion project she launched in June 2022 in partnership with the company.

Nambu agreed and he also hired three other Ukrainian evacuees -- two ballet instructors and one dancer -- and Haruki Yamamoto, an Awaji native who was forced to suspend her studies at a ballet school in Kyiv due to the war. Yamamoto graduated from the school after completing her programs online.

With two more Ukrainian dancers planning to move to the island, Hariyama is poised to increase the group's performances and enrich their contents by including elements of Japanese folktales.

"We would like to create shows featuring Lady Kaguyahime, the Crane of Gratitude, and Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), for example, that could be appreciated globally," she said.

Hariyama also wants to expand her ballet classes -- which currently cater to children and adults from the island, Kobe and other parts of Hyogo Prefecture -- and eventually set up an international ballet school in Awaji to attract students from across Japan and elsewhere in Asia, or even beyond.

Awaji city officials have welcomed the Ukrainian evacuees, saying the ballet project will help revitalize the island, both culturally and economically, and raise its international profile.

For their part, local authorities are providing the evacuees with prefectural government-run accommodation for free. Ivanova and Shlikhter said they are living together comfortably in one such apartment.

"We, as the local administration, would like to extend as much support as possible to Ukrainian evacuees so they can live stably in Awaji Island," said Tetsuya Yamamoto, chief education official at the Awaji city government.

"Hosting them is a valuable experience for the city," he said. "Besides getting opportunities to see world-class ballet, we would like citizens, young people in particular, to learn the tragedy of war and understand the importance of settling disputes through peaceful means, not by force."

Including those in Awaji, about 2,100 Ukrainian evacuees are currently living in Japan. As of Nov. 30 last year, there were a total of 810 employment cases and the number has been increasing, says a labor ministry official.

Many of the evacuees had highly skilled jobs at home such as lawyers and information technology engineers, and those in the ballet industry are no exception, according to experts on foreign labor issues.

"Japanese society tends to see foreign workers as undertaking unskilled and low-paid jobs, but such perception does not apply to people from Ukraine or even those from Asia now," said Taro Tamura, chief director of the Institute for Human Diversity Japan.

"I hope that hosting Ukrainian evacuees will serve as a trigger for Japanese companies to properly assess skills foreign workers possess and make full use of their talent in joint efforts to develop more highly value-added products and services," Tamura said.

He also urged the central government and local authorities to boost assistance for foreign workers such as Japanese language training and counseling for life-related issues.

In that respect, Tamura hailed Pasona, the Hyogo and Awaji governments and local residents for accepting the Ukrainian dancers and instructors as "partners" for jointly promoting regional revitalization.

In what will be the first show of the Awaji ballet project abroad, Hariyama's troupe plans to perform as a guest during the Dance World Cup finals starting June 27 in the Czech Republic.

Shlikhter said she is so focused on her activity in Awaji that she is not sure if she wants to return home even after the war ends. Ivanova nodded and said, "We cannot say or promise anything about the future, but we would like to keep dancing here for now."

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