Displaced ballerina from Ukraine to dance for peace in Tokyo

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yuliia Verlan practices in Musashino, Tokyo, on Monday.

A Ukrainian ballet dancer who evacuated from her country amid the ongoing Russian invasion will perform at a charity ballet recital in Musashino, Tokyo, on April 30.

Yuliia Verlan, 34, arrived in Japan only on April 16, but she has already begun practicing at a ballet studio in Musashino.

Verlan appeared highly motivated for the recital, Unlimited Charity Concert, which will be held from 4 p.m. on the day at the Musashino Civic Cultural Center.

“I’d like to dance with a prayer for peace,” she said.

On Monday, The Yomiuri Shimbun visited Verlan at the ballet studio run by Rumiko Okamoto, 67, a close acquaintance of hers for years. She was standing in front of a large mirror, with her back straight and lightly repeating steps. She was wearing ballet shoes she had managed to bring from Ukraine when she fled from the war. The tights she wore were provided by a Tokyo ballet store.

“I’m really looking forward to the recital. I’d like to show all I can do,” she said, with the appearance of joy at being able to dance again.

Verlan studied at a ballet teacher course at a university in Kyiv, from which she graduated in 2010, and joined a ballet company in Kyiv. She has performed overseas as well and taught children mainly in Kyiv in recent years.

She became close to Okamoto through a choreographer who knew both of them. When Verlan made several visits to Japan from 2017 to 2019, she gave lessons to students of Okamoto’s ballet studio. Verlan also danced in a ballet piece Okamoto created, based on the tragic mass murder of intellectually disabled people in 2016 at a welfare facility in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.

After the Russian invasion started in February, Verlan hid in an underground shelter in her house in Kyiv. Yet the attacks intensified and houses in her neighborhood were destroyed one after another, so she escaped the capital on March 15. Taking several trains, she made it to Budapest. She then sought a safer haven and came to Japan, counting on Okamoto’s assistance. Currently staying at a hotel in Musashino, she is going through procedures to move into public housing owned by the Tokyo metropolitan government.

The upcoming charity ballet recital is an annual event Okamoto has been organizing every year since 2000 to support intellectually disabled people. Okamoto asked Verlan to take part in the event. At the beginning of the recital, Verlan will speak of her escape from Ukraine, followed by her performance of a prayer expressed through dance. More than 30 of Okamoto’s students will also join the performance. Together they will all offer flowers to mourn the victims who died in the war.

From now on, Verlan will teach ballet at Okamoto’s studio while learning Japanese.

“Japan is my second home country. I feel safe and am grateful to so many people. I’d like to dance [at the recital] with a wish that the war will end soon,” Verlan said.

“I hope many people will come and watch the dance and find something that touches them. I’d like to make it a good opportunity for all of us to pray for peace together,” Okamoto said.

The proceeds from this year’s recital will be donated to the Ukrainian Embassy in Japan.