Breaking Ballet Bias: An Interview with Olga Aru, Artistic Director and Founder of Aru Dell’Arte Dance Company
Olga was born in Eastern Ukraine and grew up in the country’s capital Kyiv.
At age eighteen, she started her international career as a professional ballerina and choreographer. Mesmerizing audiences with her charm and strong technique, she performed in Poland, Egypt, and Italy, then went on tour across China, Portugal, and Northern America.
Olga landed in the United States six years ago and proudly calls it her home. In early 2020, she started her dance company in the Nation’s Capital, and that’s when we first interviewed Olga. Since then, she has directed several dance films and produced full-scale ballet productions. In the past season, she choreographed six full-scale productions and staged two world premieres. Olga turns dance into a more visible art form, re-writing stories and including more voices to be heard in each one, and engages in collaborations with local artists bringing an interdisciplinary aspect to her innovative work.
Dance Mogul Exclusive Interview…
Dance Mogul: Earlier, you mentioned that the first year of your dance career was in Moscow, Russia. How was that experience for you, particularly given that you are originally from Ukraine?
Olga Aru: It has undoubtedly been a challenging year for me, living on my own in Russia. I had just turned nineteen and had graduated from the Kyiv dance academy. Unfortunately, the contract I was expecting from one of the theaters in the E.U. fell through, leaving me needing a last-minute job alternative. A friend recommended a ballet company in Moscow that has a decent reputation and offers international touring opportunities. A few days later, I found myself rolling my suitcase through Kievsky railway station, a train hub that used to receive most of the connections from Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Rehearsals lasted all day long, eight to ten hours at the base. I never imagined ballet could be so strenuous and grueling. I barely had time to pack my meals in the morning before jumping into a two-hour commute on an overcrowded subway train. You might ask me now, was it worth it? And I would still say, yes, it was! I met interesting people and saw skilled dancers performing alongside us. The hardship of the work and early conflicts with my boss helped me develop character early on – the same character that the world sees in me today.
Aside from immersing myself in the distinguished art of ballet, I also had to deal with feeling oppressed and frowned upon due to my origin. Many Russians, especially native Moscow residents, carried a sense of superiority that was emphasized and supported by the majority of colleagues. Some even picked on my Ukrainian accent while speaking Russian, which made me wish I had a Moscow accent to blend in and avoid being singled out. The company’s artistic director used specific racial terms to refer to me due to my Ukrainian origin, and he did so in front of the entire cast. After a few times to swallow my pride, I finally defended myself and confronted him in front of everyone. I was harsh in my response, and he never dared to bother me again. The more he pushed me, the more I stood up to him, gaining more support and respect in the company and suddenly making new friends. Thinking about that experience almost makes me sick now. I realize the hatred was built over many years and only worsened with propaganda that twisted minds and fueled even more fire. Once, I ended up in the suburbs after taking the wrong subway line and was mortified to ask for directions. I managed to make it home safely and decided that it was enough, and I desperately needed a change. It was a difficult chapter in my artistic life, but it taught me the importance of standing up for myself and speaking out against injustice. Right then, I received an offer for a principal dancer contract in Poland.
Dance Mogul: What are the most bizarre questions you’ve received from your fans?
Olga Aru: There are quite a few! One of my favorite fan questions is, “Do you eat like a normal person?” And my answer is yes; I love to eat and prefer cooking healthy meals and nutritious snacks to keep me energized through long days of rehearsals. However, the question of what was considered “normal” in the dance world. And that leads us to the history of body shaming. While things have improved in recent years, there is still a long way to go. As a young dancer, I witnessed artistic directors verbally abusing dancers and weighing them in front of everyone. If a dancer gained a few pounds, chairs would be thrown into the air! These experiences were traumatic for everyone involved and did not promote healthy habits. Many female dancers I know have developed an unhealthy perception of themselves and suffered from multiple health issues due to severe weight loss caused by this trauma.
Additionally, the highly competitive nature of the professional dance world often made it difficult for dancers to speak out against this abuse, as there was always someone else willing to take their place. But we can’t dwell on the past as we can’t change what has been done. The only thing we can do now is to create a healthier environment for everyone. And that includes promoting healthy nutrition and nourishment ideas while encouraging dancers to listen to their own bodies. Each body is unique and has specific needs, so working with a nutritionist to educate oneself is always a good idea. It’s all about balancing carbs, fiber, and proteins to have lots of energy and be happy, healthy, and strong. When I was touring the country, concerned parents repeatedly asked me the same question: “Will my son turn gay from becoming a ballet dancer?” It was a lot to explain, but I knew I had to address it. So, for any parents out there reading this, please take note. Firstly, no magical pill can change a person’s sexuality in either direction, and ballet is undoubtedly not an exception. On the other hand, there are such powerful tools as self-growth, understanding, and acceptance of loved ones. Please, let them choose their favorite activities, love your kids for who they are, and don’t sweat over your son possibly getting in tune with his artistic side.
Also, let’s not forget that the era of gender appropriation passed long ago. Using terms like “girly” to describe the arts or calling sports “too manly” is neither cool nor healthy. Male ballet dancers are renowned for their incredible strength and flexibility. All my dance partners could lift me above their heads and hold me up with just one arm. Achieving this strength requires intensive gym training and weight lifting, resulting in an impressive and athletic physique. In addition to physical training, ballet dancers also receive training in acting, which helps them connect their athleticism with their acting skills to create captivating performances on stage. But if that still feels too “girly,” you can undoubtedly go with common field sports, just to be safe!
Dance Mogul: How long can you produce an entire ballet from scratch?
Can you tell us more about what drives you through this creative process?
Olga Aru: The time it takes me to produce a ballet from scratch varies depending on the project. It can range from a month to a year. However, I’m accustomed to working with short deadlines. For instance, my last production, Christmas Legend, took me only 1.5 months to complete, from writing the libretto to staging the final bows. Interestingly, I usually write my librettos up in the sky. It may sound impractical, but it works for me. Flying has always been my safe space and a peaceful and happy place. I board a plane without wifi, grab a cup of Starbucks latte, and take off into my writing cloud. By the time we land, the show is almost done. I add finishing touches to the storyline while the rehearsals begin, and voila! I thoroughly studied the characters and then cast the dancers accordingly, allowing their talent to truly shine on stage, always incorporating a lot of acting into each of my productions. I can work all day long, tapping into new sources of creativity and inspiration. I only need to set reminders to eat and sleep. I love my job in every aspect, and it’s amazing to be able to do what I love!
Dance Mogul: Can you share more about upcoming shows and plans of Aru Dell’Arte Dance Company?
Olga Aru: We are launching a new show called Life Of Movement. The opening night is April 15th and 22nd at Artspace Silver Spring. This new production showcases the beauty and complexity of human movement and its travel through time and space. It features a diverse cast of dancers and explores how movement can express emotion,
tell stories, and connect people. This show promises to be a stunning display of creativity and abstract art. Tickets can be found on Eventbrite and our website. Next winter, we will host more shows of Christmas Legend – Modern Nutcracker Ballet for DC audiences. We are currently planning international touring and will announce more details as soon as they become available.
Group Photo by: Jeprioleau
First black and white, black Photo by: Rai Gatewood
Jens Lee & Olga Aru – Nutcracker CAMP LEJEUNE, NC – COURTESY OF Olga Aru,
Photo by: MFields Photography – Second black & white photo of Olga
Stay tuned for updates!