“We wanted to tell America and the whole world about what is happening in Ukraine,” said 17-year-old dancer Maria Honyukova of the Light Balance Kids dance troupe, describing the group’s recent triumph on the premiere of a popular new U.S. television talent program. “And we also wanted to convey to the audience that light always wins.”
When the house lights went up after the video-game-themed number in which the performers seemed to defy the laws of physics while dancing in darkness wearing illuminated costumes, the live audience for America’s Got Talent All Stars sprang to its feet and cheered.
“It was your best performance you’ve ever done,” said competition judge and recording executive Simon Cowell. “I cannot tell you how brilliant that was.”
A moment later, fellow judge and comedian Howie Mandel lauded the kids for bringing light from “arguably the darkest place in the world” before pressing the show’s Golden Buzzer, sending them immediately to the finale in eight weeks’ time and setting off fountains of golden confetti across the stage. More than 9 million people were watching the January 2 program.
“The number ends with the image of a castle, with Ukrainian flags and a trident [the Ukrainian national symbol],” Honyukova told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “This symbolizes the fact that Ukraine will win.”
“We have a mission,” fellow Light Balance Kids member Denys Loshakov, 16, said. “To remind everyone that there is a war going on. That it continues. Even in America, Ukraine is often in the news. But not everyone watches the news. So we need to talk about it on other platforms. On all platforms. And we need to talk about what talented and strong people we have.”
A Remarkable Triumph
The backstory behind the Light Balance Kids triumph makes their tale even more remarkable.
The troupe first appeared on America’s Got Talent (AGT) as fresh-faced children in 2019, earning another Golden Buzzer honor and making the finals. They are affiliated with the Light Balance dance company formed in 2012 in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro. Light Balance describes itself as “a hi-tech neon and LED show with elements of acrobatic and dance choreography.”
When Russia launched its full-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the youths were scattered, most of them being driven out of the country, with some taking refuge in safer parts of Ukraine.
Loshakov, for example, lives in Shoeneberg, outside of Berlin, where he teaches a hip-hop group at a local dance studio.
“I miss Ukraine very much,” he said. “I recently visited Ukraine and for the first two hours at home, I just walked around the apartment, remembering where things were and just looking at everything. It was very difficult to go back to Germany.”
Sixteen-year-old Light Balance Kids dancer Liza Baklan spent the early part of the war under Russian occupation in the Kyiv region town of Motyzhyn.
“When I had to go outside, I tried to look as much like a boy as possible,” she recalled. “You see, if you are a boy, it is much easier. No one knows what might happen to a girl. I tried to hide my hair and walk hunched over.”
For more than a month, the family lived under near-constant shelling, spending most of their time in a windowless corridor or a basement.
'Impossible Grief And Pain'
After Motyzhyn was liberated, Baklan’s family moved to Lviv, where word came that Light Balance Kids had been invited to the United States for the AGT All Stars premiere. She dedicated her performance on the show to her uncle, who has been defending Ukraine since Russia fomented a separatist uprising in eastern parts of the country in 2014 and who surprised her with a quick visit home the day before she headed overseas.
“He just said I’m great, and he knew I’d be fine,” she said of the man who is also her godfather. “He said he loves me very much.”
Fifteen-year-old Maryna Zaytseva dedicated her performance to her father, who went to the front in May and who has been involved in the severe fighting around the Donetsk region city of Bakhmut.
Maryna and her mother have been living with a family in the Polish city of Wroclaw, where Maryna attends a Polish school while simultaneously studying remotely with a school in Ukraine.
Her Polish host family, she said, were among the first people to congratulate her after the Light Balance Kids victory.
When Light Balance Kids appeared on AGT in 2019, there were 14 of them. Only five were able to make the January 2 performance. None of them had danced together since the Russian invasion, and they had just five days of rehearsal in the United States to pull together the number.
The special computer effects were created by a graphic designer in Kyiv, and a generator had to be arranged for him to ensure he was able to create them in time amid the rolling blackouts caused by Russian air strikes against the electricity grid.
Dancer Honyukova dedicated her performance to her uncle, who enlisted as a volunteer and was killed near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk during the summer.
“My uncle was a very kind, handsome man with three academic degrees,” Honyukova told RFE/RL. “But he wanted to go to the front and fight for Ukraine. It is an impossible grief and pain.”
“This wound will not heal,” she added.