Senior Polina Nikitina, a singer, songwriter, and accomplished musician new to Dwight this year, brought her impressive talent and spark to campus — and in very short order galvanized attention for her passion project entitled “Gotham.”
A powerfully evocative song and beautifully rendered music video, “Gotham” was created by Polina and her friend Martin as “an artistic movement to support Ukraine after being separated by the war in our home country,” she says. “We grew up together in Kyiv and were bandmates at school. Following Winter break last year, we were unable to return due to the Russian invasion. Our school was shut down and we were scattered. Martin landed in Italy and I went to Cyprus before coming to the U.S.”
Polina’s journey over the last year has been both extremely arduous and triumphant. She and her immediate family are safe, yet she is disconnected from her friends and home; she is flourishing academically and artistically at Dwight, yet her heart is with those left behind facing the one-year anniversary of the onslaught and continued devastation.
A Long Road to Gotham
Polina, who has been writing songs since the age of seven, began working on “Gotham” last spring when she was taking online classes in Cyprus. “My family was helping back home financially, but I was thinking, ‘what can I do?’ I lost all of my friends because we were torn apart and I wasn't creating anything musically,” she shares. “The only thing I could think of writing about was Ukraine so that I could support the people I loved and my culture.”
In a few months’ time, Polina’s family relocated to Miami and she decided to reach out to Martin, who writes music for films, to reconnect and suggested a collaboration. “It wasn’t until he sent me a snippet of music that I landed on my idea for ‘Gotham’,” she recounts. “His haunting melody sounded exactly like Gotham, as in Gotham City in ‘Batman’ movies, which I had gravitated toward previously for songwriting inspiration. It felt like Russia had turned our home cities into dangerous and ghostly places and this bit of music evoked that feeling, making it perfect for a song about Ukraine.”
At times, it was difficult for Polina to envision ever completing the project. Unable to connect face to face, she and Martin communicated across time zones through text, which is most assuredly not conducive to the creative process. “While Martin was producing the track in Italy, I was in Miami writing the lyrics and recording under a blanket to be as quiet as I could while my family was asleep — while both of us were also trying to finish our junior year of high school, further delaying things,” reports Polina, whose voice on “Gotham” is just as haunting as the music. She also created the storyboards for the video and sketched some of the characters, which she then handed off to artist friends still in Ukraine to complete and animate.
They all seemed destined to struggle. The time difference continued to be a barrier. “Every time our ideas didn't match, it took days or weeks for us to come to a solution. Sometimes we lost connection completely due to power outages in Ukraine. However, in the end, the process proved to be rewarding and we completed it after six months,” Polina shares. “As artists, ‘Gotham’ was our way of expressing patriotism and the pain we felt as a nation due to the continuous Russian crimes against us, while also presenting a shred of hope for our people. The video includes a number of Ukrainian cultural symbols and legends, and the song is dedicated to Ukraine and its bravery.”
Polina explains that when she came to New York last fall, this video was also her way of advocating for her home country in a new one. Her hope was not only for her fellow countrymen and women to see it, but also for them to appreciate that someone had created something in English to raise greater awareness outside of Ukraine — and for those in the U.S. to see it. In fact, Polina wants as many people as possible around the world to watch the video. She shared the song with the Dwight community through 566 Records, our student-run label and music website; and has taken her project to Dwight’s Spark Tank, seeking an innovation grant to help with promotion to shine a greater spotlight on what’s happening.
Both experiences reflect the unique opportunities that Dwight students have, and Polina greatly appreciates having them as she finishes her high school career here. “I had heard a lot about Dwight and how great the School and teachers are, and it’s true,” Polina says. “Dwight is so supportive and I love all of my teachers.”
Arriving at Dwight and Flourishing in the Arts
Polina was studying at one of the only IB Schools in Ukraine when the war broke out and she finished her junior year virtually. Resilient and determined, she applied to Dwight, moved to New York just one day before school started last fall, and dove right in. It is no understatement to say that her accomplishments would be extraordinary for any teenager, let alone for anyone who has navigated the unfathomable challenges of displacement and separation from one’s home amid crisis.
At Dwight, Polina quickly gravitated toward our theater program, which has become a large part of her life on campus. She had always enjoyed acting in Ukraine and found that becoming another person on stage helped to build her confidence in all areas of life. So she was quick to audition for our fall Mainstage Theater production of “The Liar,” in which she was cast; and we’ll see her again in the upcoming spring musical, “Gypsy.” “When everyone rehearses together four days a week for a show, you become a community,” she says. “I'm really grateful for that and for Dwight’s great theater teachers, who are so passionate.”
As a songwriter, Polina is a storyteller, so it’s no surprise that one of her favorite classes is IB DP English and that she enjoys creative writing. Just like most of her songs, which draw on her own life experiences, Polina’s prose and poetry do the same. Another favorite class is IB DP Theater, where she and fellow students are creating their own works individually and collaboratively, which they will stage and design as well as perform before the year is out.
A Musical Destiny
Polina comes from a musical family, which she says “really impacted me and my way of thinking. My father is a professional bass guitarist, who always encouraged me to be creative and use my imagination.”
At age eight, Polina began taking piano lessons and for eight years spent every day — hours upon hours weekly — in music pre-conservatory, graduating at age 16. “I dedicated many years to piano lessons, studying music theory, and music history, which have all shaped me as a musician,” says Polina, who has built on that foundation to play the piano for the songs she pens herself, which is her ultimate passion.
It seems that Polina was always writing songs. “When I was very young, my mother noticed that I really liked playing around with words and challenged me with ‘Why don't you write me one song per day?’ I did and liked using my words to express my thoughts and draw on my experiences.” After forming a band at school that performed covers, Polina discovered that using her own voice literally and figuratively is what makes her happiest. “It’s about finding your voice and being heard,” she contends, “Young people, like myself, have stories to tell and while it’s great to perform them well, it’s more important that we are heard.”
Polina’s voice in every way is definitely being heard — and amplified — through “Gotham,” which we strongly suspect will not be the last time.
To hear and see “Gotham,” click here.