Young Ukrainian dancer in the US uses ballet to 'get rid of this pain'

Yeva Hrytsak is surrounded by her parents during her December visit to Dnipro, Ukraine.

(CNN)Yeva Hrytsak, a ballet student at the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City, remembers the "unthinkable" phone call she received on February 24, 2022, from her family in Ukraine four days after arriving in Switzerland, where she was temporarily studying at Zurich Dance Academy -- a phone call that threw her life into turmoil.

Hrytsak, 17, was some 1,200 miles from her hometown -- Dnipro -- with her family suddenly engulfed by war.
"What if I cannot see them again? And I just started to cry," she told CNN. "I just I didn't know what to do. How can I help, what can I do? I felt like a little girl."
      Four days earlier, Hrytsak had boarded a plane in Kyiv to pursue her dream of dancing on an international stage. She says she was on one of the last flights out of Ukraine before she realized, "all the airports are bombed. I cannot even take plane and go home."
        But that same day, Hrytsak says she made an important discovery about the power of dance. For the next twelve months, ballet would become her salvation.
          "I went to school and then I did a class," she said. "That's when I realized that I can just like distract myself, just tune it (war) out, even if it's for a brief moment."
          Hrytsak did her best to tune out the war at home, honing in on her dance instead until December, when she took the dangerous journey back to Ukraine.
          "I knew that it's not safe," she said. "I knew that there is always a risk, but for me it was very important that I do this. I saw with my eyes what's going on in my country."
          The teen documented her hometown via photos and videos. It's a place she barely recognized after nearly a year of conflict.
          "It was tough to see army everywhere around the city," she said, referring to Dnipro. "There is like the places that I used to have fun and I remember like from my childhood, and then I see this place is destroyed."
          Back in the US, Hrytsak rejoined 10 Ukrainian ballet dancers at Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), says Larissa Saveliev, founder of the group, the world's largest student ballet scholarship competition.
          Parts of Hrytsak's neighborhood in Dnipro lay in ruins.
          "It doesn't matter if it's the earthquake or if it's a war," said Saveliev, a former ballerina from Russia who once danced for Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. "They have to train."
          Saveliev defected to the US in the early 1990's and started the YAGP a few years later. On the one-year anniversary of the war, she reflected on her family and what the invasion means to her.
          "It's painful for me to see what's happened with Ukraine because I have a family there," she said. "I'm torn in all different directions. I have family who doesn't talk to each other again."
          CNN caught up with Saveliev and Hrytsak at a New Jersey dance studio. Although the conflict looms large on both their minds, together they find solace in dance. Ballet slippers and a tutu seemingly wipe away any of Hrytsak's worries and transform her into a stunning performer who exudes grace and eloquence.
          A ballet barre replaces conflict and borders when the pair unite. Speaking in her native Russian, Saveliev coaches her protégé on technique, hailing her as "the most beautiful out of all Ukrainians out of 251," referring to the amount of Ukrainian dancers YAGP has placed with dance companies around the world since the war began.
          "These are young men and women who have probably never ventured out (of Ukraine). Some of them didn't have a passport," she said.
          Saveliev says the connections she has established with ballet schools all over the world since the 1990's placed her in a unique position to help evacuate the young dancers out of Ukraine as soon as the Russian invasion began.
          "We sent an email to partner schools with a profile of the kids and said, 'guys, those are the young dancers and we have got to get them out,'" she said. "All of the schools immediately said, 'absolutely.'"
          She described the first few weeks of the invasion as a "mass exodus." She says she would receive phone calls in the middle of the night from worried parents. Those parents, she said, are "willing to do anything if it means getting their children to a safe place and further in their careers."
          As the war enters its second year, Saveliev expects to place more Ukrainian dancers in the US. Her group has received additional funding from organizations like The Howard G Buffett Foundation, which invests in conflict migration and public safety.
          "We were just trying to deal with the situation how best we can," she said. "Nobody get the memo how to place ballet students in the middle of the war, at least I didn't."
          Hrytsak is auditioning for other ballet schools around the country, hoping to continue to dance on the international stage. Although she remains thousands of miles away from Ukraine, part of her remains in Dnipro.
            "The more I think about war, the more I feel really like sad and heavy inside," she said. "The ballet, that's what helped me and supported me to get rid of this pain."
            Correction: This story has been updated to correct the timeline of Yeva Hrytsak's journey to the United States. It has also been updated to correct the name of the American Ballet Theatre.