September 10, 2001, may not have been the most auspicious day to come to the United States, but that’s the date that Vlada Kysselova and Hennadii Bespechnyi landed in America. Ballet soloists from Kiev, the couple came to dance and teach with the Ballet Spartanburg. “We got the opportunity through friends of my husband’s in Russia to go to Ballet Spartanburg,” Kysselova explains. “At that time, it was very hard to get to U.S., so when we got the opportunity to go anywhere in U.S., we jumped at it.”
Although Vlada, then 28, didn’t speak a word of English, dance was a language in which she was fluent. When she was little, her grandmother, who worked for years at the National Theater of Opera and Ballet in Kiev, would bring her backstage after performances. “One time she snuck me backstage during the performance, which is not really allowed,” recalls Kysselova. The six-year-old was awestruck. “The bright lights, all those pretty girls in pretty costumes and pointe shoes, it just hit me.”
It wasn’t long after that Vlada’s grandmother enrolled her in ballet lessons. “After a year, my teacher, who was a soloist at the Opera Ballet, told my grandmother that I had a talent for ballet and suggested I try out for [professional] ballet school,” the dancer says. In Ukraine, there was just one professional ballet school in Kiev for the whole country. She took two years of preparatory courses before auditioning at age 10. “It was very hard, and more than 20 girls trying out for one spot.” After three rounds of trials, in dance, acting, and a physical exam, Vlada was accepted.
Her parents were less than thrilled with her career choice. “I was a good academic student,” Vlada notes. “But at that time in USSR, ballet was a good job—you could travel and you received an annual salary.” A ballet career, however, only lasts 20 years, so she also earned a bachelor’s degree from Kiev State Linguistics University and a master’s from the Ukrainian Academy of Dance at International Slavic University.
At age 18, the young dancer pirouetted her way to a soloist position with the Kiev Theater of Classical Ballet. The summer after she graduated, in 1991, the USSR collapsed. Despite the political chaos that ensued, Vlada was content. “I had my position at Ballet Theatre in Kiev, I had a good salary. Almost nothing changed for us as dancers,” recounts Kysselova, who also performed with the National Theater of Opera and Ballet and toured as a guest soloist with the Ballet Classique de Paris.
Shortly after she and her now former husband arrived in Spartanburg, two board members of Ballet Spartanburg, who were fans of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, introduced the couple to the orchestra’s Russian conductor, Edvard Tchivzhel. He, in turn, connected Vlada with Lena Forster, who had studied dance under George Balanchine and had helped Tchivzhel defect from Russia. Along with Lena and Jurgin Forster, Vlada and Hennadii founded the International Ballet in Greenville in 2003.
As International Ballet’s artistic director, Kysselova devotes her time to teaching. IB students, including Vlada’s five-year-old daughter, Nadia, learn more than just ballet. “I also try to teach them life lessons” says the ballerina, whose passion for her art is palpable. “[Through ballet] you learn so early the discipline, dedication, hard work. How to control your body, your emotions. How to force yourself to do what seems undoable—and that applies to everything you do in real life.”
“Vlada is the quintessential ballet coach and teacher for technical and artistic mastery,” states Lena Forster. “She has the knowledge, experience, and education to approach everything she does—from the training of professional dancers to the staging of full-length classical ballets—with precision and exceptional craft.”
Kysselova loves staying in touch with her students, some of whom go on to dance professionally. Case in point is Cara Marie Gary, who is with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. “I consider Cara Marie as my first daughter because we spent so much time together going to competitions,” Vlada shares. Gary will be back in Greenville in December as the principal guest artist in the IB’s version of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Vlada and Hennadii as one of three mainstage productions that the company performs each year at the Peace Center.
“To me, dance is not just a bunch of movements. It’s like a language to tell a story,” declares Kysselova. “Dance speaks to something deep in each of us.”
Photograph by Will Crooks