The Irish dance child star I met in Ukraine... I hope he is safe

Kathriona Devereux is thinking of a young Ukrainian boy she met while filming a travel documentary and wonders where she is now
The Irish dance child star I met in Ukraine... I hope he is safe

Nikita Chernomord Irish dancing on Ukraine’s Got Talent, who featured on Kathriona Devereux’s TV show Small World in 2011

WITH so much darkness in the world at the moment, it’s hard to think of much beyond the mounting suffering, atrocities and death toll in Ukraine.

I oscillate between feelings of despair at what’s happening 3,000km away, and feelings of deep gratitude for the simple things we take for granted here. Breakfast with our families, the signs of spring, peace.

I struggle to process news of a bombed maternity hospital - one week an expectant mother is looking forward to the birth of her baby, two weeks later she’s stretchered, injured and bleeding, from hospital, her image shared around the world as a symbol of Russian cruelty.

Hearing stories of families with small children, elderly parents or people with a disability enduring more than 24 hours of sub-zero temperatures in a border crossing queue is shocking, partly because of how easy and quickly normal life can be unravelled.

Ireland’s accelerated effort to process and welcome Ukrainian refugees has been contrasted by criticisms of racism that a similar open door policy of welcome wasn’t extended to refugees from non-European countries over the years, who instead endured the inhumane system of direct provision.

It doesn’t matter where you come from, people around the world essentially wish for the same thing. To live in comfort, in peace, with their family, friends and communities. With the outbreak of war on the continent of Europe, perhaps we’re recognising the fragility of that wish.

Like many Irish people, I know little about the history and complexity of the country of Ukraine but I do know a little about a very niche Ukrainian community with a connection to Irish culture.

Back in 2011, I produced an RTÉ series called Small World, a travel documentary series that told international stories with an Irish twist. The films unearthed fascinating people and places that had unlikely but unmistakable links to Ireland.

The series went to rural Brazil to tell the story of returning emigrants bringing parts of Galway back with them, travelled to Dubai to follow the Irishmen who dominate the Middle Eastern horse racing industry and visited Fogo Island in Newfoundland to meet families like the McGraths, O’Dwyers and Foleys, who have fished off that island for centuries in the most Irish place in the world - outside of Ireland.

The final episode of the series featured a 10-year-old Ukrainian boy called Nikita Chernomord, who had found 15 minutes of fame Irish dancing all the way to the finals of Ukraine’s Got Talent in 2009. He aspired to be the Michael Flatley of Eastern Europe and we filmed him at his home and competing at the 4th Annual Odessa Open Feis.

I have been thinking about Nikita a lot the past two weeks. He lived in the city of Kharkiv with his mother and I wonder are they still there?

The episode of Small World is not on YouTube but you can watch Nikita’s audition and semi-final performances on Ukraine’s Got Talent on there. You don’t even need to know Russian to understand that the judges were impressed. “Super” means the same in English and Russian.

Nikita should be in his early twenties now and if he is still living in Ukraine, is just one more man in the 18-60 year old age bracket who have been asked to stay and fight the invasion of Russia.

Back in 2011, 20 years had passed since Ukraine gained independence from Soviet rule. The young dancers and their teachers that we filmed with had embraced their freedom and turned to the wider world for inspiration, connecting with old Irish dancing traditions and mastering the hornpipe, the jig and the reel, in the same way young dancers in Ireland might add the plié, pirouette and arabesque to their repertoires.

Dance and movement are fundamental to the human experience. Dancing is a universal human urge. Wherever you go in the world, you’ll find people dancing.

In a way, it should not be surprising that an Irish dancing scene flourished in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, it is just an example of how Irish dancing has become a global dance form.

The same happened to salsa and tango. Immigrants bring dance to new cities, where they become part of popular culture and globalisation spreads them further around the world. The monetisation of classes and the influence and structures of competition culture on a dance loosen connections with its original ‘identity’ and heritage. Nowadays, Irish dancing is less about being ‘Irish’ and more about achieving a specific skill set.

In Odessa, we filmed with Irish dancing teacher Viktor Bednyi, who ran the Narnia School of Irish Dance and who had taught himself to Irish dance by watching videotapes, eventually getting to meet his Riverdance hero - Colin Dunne.

University lecturer by day and Irish dance teacher by night, Julia Zapaorajenko was the organiser of the Feis and flew in Irish dancing judges from Ireland to critique the 135 dancers from all over Eastern Europe who travelled to Odessa to compete.

The Odessa Feis had it all - sparkly costumes, wigs, serious judges, and if it weren’t for everyone speaking Russian, you’d swear you were at a feis in a halla in Ireland.

Looking at Facebook posts, the last Odessa Feis seems to have taken place in August, 2020.

Now I suspect Viktor, Julia and Nikita have worries far beyond mastering their competition steps. But I hope for a future when they might dance again.

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