Escaping war for the circus: Young Ukrainian dancers find comfort on stage

Escaping war for the circus: Young Ukrainian dancers find comfort on stage

On stage, they dance through hoops and perform acrobatics with smiles on their faces. Off it, they hold anguished phone calls with family back in Ukraine.

Dancers Anna and Olga have found a sense of calm performing in a circus near New York – but they are still living the war they fled thousands of miles away

“I spent a month without a full night’s sleep. We couldn’t go out to buy food, we were stressed and shaken all the time. It was scary,” recalls Anna Starykh, who left Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February.

Now the 21-year-old is performing with the Flip circus in the New York City suburb of Yonkers – where she can sleep without being woken by the sound of explosions.

More than 4 500 miles away from Kyiv, in a parking lot near the banks of the Hudson River, Starykh and her friends prepare to perform with colleagues from across Europe and South America.

The stage has become their sanctuary.

“Work really helps (us) to calm down and stay positive,” she tells AFP.

Anna Starykh

Bingo Troupe Performers Anna Starykh, Olha Rezekina and Anastasiia Savych from Ukraine perform at the Flip Circus at the Cross County Center in Yonkers, New York 18 April 2022. Radiant on stage, they are hanging on the phone with their families the rest of the time. Anastasiia, Anna and Olga, three young Ukrainian dancers, have found a semblance of calm in the circus that hosts them near New York, but they still live the war in their country remotely.
In their trailer, they can now sleep through the night without waking up to the sound of explosions and the fear of bombing. Image: Timothy A Clary / AFP

UKRAINIAN DANCERS WORRY ABOUT FAMILY BACK HOME

Their concern for their family members back home is palpable though.

“I don’t know in which situation they will be next day, next week, next month. I cry about this,” says 22-year-old Olga Rezekina, who also fled Ukraine after the invasion began and whose parents and brother live in Odessa.

Rezekina and Starykh arrived in the United States with 20-year-old Anastasiia Savych, a Flip circus veteran who had returned to Ukraine with other circus members to renew her visa when Russian tanks crossed the border on 24 February.

All are graduates of the Bingo Circus Theater, a circus academy in Ukraine. Rezekina and Starykh joined Flip to replace two of Savych’s male colleagues, who were mobilized to fight and stayed in Ukraine.

Two other Ukrainian dancers in their troupe fled via Romania and joined up with them in America on 10 March.

UKRAINIAN DANCERS FELT GUILTY FOR LEAVING

They are among more than five million people to have left Ukraine since the invasion, according to UN estimates.

“When I just arrived here, I felt guilty,” says Savych, whose mother convinced her that she would not be able help the family by staying in Ukraine.

Now she waits to hear that the war is over and that “we won,” Savych says.

“I’m 20 years old and want stay young and not speak about the war,” she tells AFP.

Anastasiia Savych

UKRAINIANS APPEAR SEVERAL TIMES IN CIRCUS WITH NO ANIMALS

The three friends all have different but similar dreams for the future.

“Live and be safe,” says Starykh, when asked hers. “Travelling around the world,” says Rezekina, while Savych hopes to live permanently in the United States.

Olga Rezekina

Alexa Vazquez, who helps run Flip – the circus was founded by her family in Mexico more than 50 years ago – says it was difficult getting the women out of Ukraine with airports closed.

“To have these girls here with right now safe means a world to us, especially to me, because they are friends, they are family. We can support them in any way possible,” she tells AFP.

Alexa Vazquez

The Ukrainians appear several times in the show, in which animals do not perform.

“People come and they want to look at a good show. You can leave your problems backstage,” concludes Rezekina.

Olga Rezekina

Bingo Troupe Handbalancers Veronika Gabelok (top) and Irina Nazimova from Ukraine perform at the Flip Circus at the Cross County Center in Yonkers, New York 18 April 2022. Radiant on stage, they are hanging on the phone with their families the rest of the time. Anastasiia, Anna and Olga, three young Ukrainian dancers, have found a semblance of calm in the circus that hosts them near New York, but they still live the war in their country remotely.
In their trailer, they can now sleep through the night without waking up to the sound of explosions and the fear of bombing. Image: Timothy A Clary / AFP

© Agence France-Presse/Ana Fernandez

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