Dasha Bukhartseva vividly recalls the day she and her mother, Natasha, became homeless. It happened eight years ago, when Dasha was 10 years old. "They'd thrown away all our food and our stuff was in boxes," she says. "We slept on chairs in the lobby for that night, but we were hiding; we had nowhere to live."
Dasha and Natasha had returned to Odessa after visiting relatives in the Ukrainian countryside. Though Natasha always paid the rent, the landlord had taken advantage of her absence to rent the room for a higher price. Natasha asked friends for leads on apartments, but nothing turned up on such short notice. So when the director of the music school where Dasha took piano lessons offered to let them sleep in a classroom until they found something else, she took him up on the offer.
It was a small classroom. The walls were covered with yellow-flowered wallpaper, and the floor was dirty, scuffed linoleum. There was a table and bench, an upright piano, and a few chairs. They cooked on an electric hot plate and ate their meals at one of the tables. They slept on the bench and stored their clothes and possessions under it. "The worst thing was there was no bathroom," says Dasha. "There was a toilet and sink, but the problem was to wash. In the back of the school was a little garden behind tall bushes, where nobody could see us.So we boiled water and washed there."
They had to be secretive. Each morning, they hid their possessions and food and concealed any hints of habitation. They stayed at Natasha's clerical job until they were certain classes at the school were finished for the evening. Then, they returned and let themselves in with a key they'd been given. Certain teachers and building staff knew they were there, but if the wrong person found them, they could end up on the street.
Late at night, they didn't have to worry about making noise, so Dasha practiced piano while her mother cooked meals for the next day. Though Dasha had only been playing for two years, she'd already won an impressive array of piano competitions. And her playing would take her far beyond that small classroom. In fact, it would bring her to Baltimore.
Dasha began piano lessons at age 8, and her musical talent was soon evident. She won her first competition just three months after starting lessons. Because they couldn't afford a piano at home, she did her homework on a paper keyboard her mother made.
During the six months she and her mother squatted at the music school, Dasha had ready access to a piano for the first time. She says it was one of the only good things about that experience, and when she and her mother eventually found a room in a hostel, Dasha no longer had such easy access to her instrument. But she continued on with her lessons and performances.
At a show in September 2006, she met a vacationing couple from Colorado. Dan and Lynne Levinson had run a successful construction company and worked in real estate, and, that fall, they were on a cruise of the Black Sea and happened to anchor in Odessa. There, they attended an outdoor concert featuring Dasha. "She was this tiny thing, only 14," recalls Dan, "and she blew everyone's socks off."
After the concert they went to congratulate her. They told Dasha about the Aspen Musical Festival and School, and Dan asked Dasha if she would like to play in Aspen. He posed the question casually, not expecting she would take him seriously. But she did. "When do we go, and what do I play?" she asked excitedly.
The Levinsons returned to the States and stayed in touch with Dasha. They found her bubbly charm irresistible, and the more they learned about her circumstances, the more they wanted to help. "You shouldn't offer something unless you mean it," says Dan. "We thought if we could actually help this little girl, we should."
He showed a DVD of Dasha's playing to the admissions faculty of the Aspen Festival and School, and they gave her a summer scholarship. Then, he flew back to Odessa to help Dasha and Natasha get visas. During his trip, Dan saw the hostel where Dasha and Natasha shared a room and the music school where they'd squatted. It made a strong impression.
"[The hostel] was so rundown," he says. "It was built in the 1950s under Khrushchev. The concrete was crumbling, the steel rusted. As you went down the hall, it was pitch-black except for an occasional light bulb hung from the ceiling."
As they told him about the precarious housing conditions in Odessa, Dan realized that leaving their room for the summer probably meant losing it permanently. And at that point, the Levinsons got more involved than they ever expected: They bought a house for Dasha and her mother. "I knew that as long as they were renting they could be kicked out," explains Dan. "I called Lynne and asked, 'How do you feel about owning a house in the Ukraine?' 'Are you crazy?' she said. But we knew it was the right thing to do."
"It's so easy not to do something," he continues. "Doing something is hard and convoluted and really expensive, but you've got to do it."
They completed the purchase of the house—which was small, but still an upgrade for the Bukhartsevas—in April of 2007. "It was bizarre," recalls Dan. "I hired lawyers, translators, and I had to fly back and fill out papers to authorize them to stay there, and the papers had to be notarized in Russian."
For the first time, Dasha and her mother had a home of their own. "We were afraid to wake up," says Dasha. "It seemed like a dream."
In Colorado, Dasha experienced many new things: the taste of a Buffalo burger, the sight of mountains covered by aspen trees, the sound of English spoken by native speakers. "Aspen is unlike anything in the Ukraine, and everything was new and different," she says. "Living with people you barely know, who take care of you; having breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them; and even the food is totally different. The bread in America is worse."
She took weekly lessons with Ann Schein—a former Peabody professor, who helped improve her technique—and appeared on the NPR show From the Top. A showcase for young classical musicians, the show featured her playing two Ukrainian pieces (Vitaly Filipenko's "Toccata" and Oleg Polevoy's "Autumn Leaves"). Dasha also told the NPR audience she was enjoying her visit to Aspen. "I like to watch the mountains through the window in the morning when I'm practicing," she said.
When Dasha and Natasha returned to the Ukraine, their living situation was profoundly different. They lived in a home of their own, where no landlord could evict them, and no music students could barge in on them. And the Levinsons were already making plans to bring them back for the next summer.
Dasha became convinced she wanted to make a life in music, and the Levinsons thought she'd have a better shot at succeeding if she studied with the best teachers in the United States. With that in mind, they asked if she'd like to remain in the U.S. after another summer in Aspen, to study music. She said that she would as long as she could be with her mom.
So with their typical enthusiasm, the Levinsons raised money among their friends to pay for an apartment in New York City, so Dasha could attend Juilliard's pre-college program, study with Yoheved Kaplinsky, and prepare for college auditions.
When Dasha and her mother left Odessa in June 2008, they didn't know when they would return. Dasha realized that staying in America would depend on her progress as a pianist. Specifically, it would depend on whether she could get into a conservatory or not. Acceptance would mean the chance to study at a good school, on a student visa, for four years. For Natasha, the future was less certain: Leaving for a year meant giving up her job. With limited English and few marketable skills, it would be nearly impossible to find an American employer to sponsor her green card application.
As a result, Dasha's auditions were particularly stressful. Since she'd studied with a former professor for two summers, Peabody was a top choice. For the audition, she was required to prepare music from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods. She would also be tested on music theory and history.
She was meticulous in her preparation and practiced six to eight hours a day. While learning a four-part Bach fugue, she color-coded the different voices of the fugue and learned each one separately before combining them. On a Mozart sonata, she practiced the opening gesture hundreds of times a day, trying to find the perfect dynamic level, tone color, and articulation. She watched famous pianists on YouTube and tried to understand what made their interpretations so powerful.
Dan flew to New York City and drove Dasha and Natasha to Baltimore for the audition at Peabody. "Before I started playing, I was nervous," says Dasha. "Will I do all the nuances right? But I'm not nervous when I am playing piano." Natasha was wringing her hands with anxiety as Dasha played.
For the next month, they waited for the results. Each day, Dasha checked the mail for news. One day, a large envelope arrived. She ripped it open and learned that her years of effort had been rewarded: She'd been accepted to Peabody.
Before applying to Peabody, Dasha had never even heard of Baltimore. "I didn't know that playing piano could bring me [to the city]," she says.
Her mother has returned to Odessa, where she's looking for work. She and Dasha Skype almost every day, and Dasha keeps in touch with the Levinsons by phone and e-mail.
She is on a partial scholarship from Peabody, and she also received a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship through From the Top. But the cost of attending Peabody has been even higher than anticipated, and the Levinsons are working with other couples to raise money for Dasha to continue her studies.
Although she's been fairly isolated, Dasha is adjusting well to life at Peabody. "At orientation, they told us Baltimore is a dangerous city," she says. "So I only leave campus in a group to go to the grocery store. I am very busy, but I am meeting lots of new people."
A freshman piano major, she lives in a dorm room and has round-the-clock access to world-class pianos. She sometimes practices in the middle of the night, like she did in Odessa.
Her teacher, Yong Hi Moon, is looking to augment the power of Dasha's playing with refined precision. "I want her to gain as much musical knowledge and technical strength as possible," says Moon, "so she can refine the abundance of raw emotional power her playing already has."
Already, the pair has bonded. "We are more than just teacher and student," says Dasha. "We have a human connection."
Dasha seems to excel at forging such connections. "Everyone wants to be her friend," says Moon. "When she comes into a room, you can't help but like her. It's like a fairy tale—she is like a little princess from Odessa."