Ukrainian circus stars smile through pain of war – and their director is Russian – World News


Talented Ukrainian dancers, clowns and acrobats tour the UK with Circus Cortex, telling stories of heartache, guilt and fear for their families as war rages in their homeland

Circus Cortex - currently touring the UK - features many Ukrainian performers
Circus Cortex – currently touring the UK – features many Ukrainian performers

Each night, dancer Tetiana Lotiuk paints a smile and prepares to wow the crowd as part of a spectacular circus act that tours the UK.

The squad perform daring stunts on unicycles and BMX bikes, juggle their feet and defy gravity on air poles. But behind that painted smile lies the sorrow of war.

Like most of her Circus Cortex colleagues, Tetiana comes from Ukraine – and not only does she fear for her family, but also guilt for leaving them behind.

With tears in her eyes, the 22-year-old says: “You go on stage with a big grin … but your heart beats for Ukraine.

“Work helps me for a few hours. It helps that the people who come to the circus know we are from Ukraine and they can see that we are a talented, strong and hard-working nation.”

Tetiana Lotiuk, 22, says her heart beats in Ukraine when she performs with the circus


Paul David Drabble)

Married couple Yulia Gorodetska and Viktor Gorodetskiy perform together with a unicycle


Paul David Drabble)

Ironically, the circus, which began its UK tour this week, has been reunited thanks to the efforts of its Russian-born director Irina Archer, 45, who lives in the UK.

When Putin’s rockets began raining down on Ukraine, she immediately signed on to host six stars at her home in Doncaster, West Yorks, under the Homes for Ukraine government program.

She then spent weeks finding volunteers to host the others, and after months of struggling with bureaucracy, most are here now.

Many of the male actors needed special permission from the Ukrainian government to leave the country. There is one notable absence – 30-year-old clown Nikolay Bilenkiy from Lviv has chosen to stay and resist Russian forces.

Irina says: “The sponsors became good friends, they all came to see the show. But the clown on our poster is not here because he is fighting.”

Circus Cortex clowns Edurado and Galina


Paul David Drabble)

Tetiana – from Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv – had just arrived in Kharkiv, near the Russian border, to take a friend’s dance lessons and look after her dog when Putin invaded.

She says: “I didn’t know what to do. I went to buy groceries, but four or five hours after the invasion the big stores closed and the ATMs were empty.

“The second day was very bad. There were explosions and shelling. I walked up and down the basement 20 or 30 times. By the fourth day I was so exhausted that I decided not to go down. I thought, “If a bomb falls on our building, I don’t want to die with 20 people around me.” It was emotionally difficult.

“On the sixth day we had explosions every half hour. It is hard to believe that this is happening in 21st century Europe.”

On day 10, when an explosion shook her building nearby, Tetiana couldn’t take it anymore.

She went to the train station with Deli, her friend’s eight-year-old Spitz dog. She says: “I wanted to take a train but I didn’t know where – it didn’t matter.

“There were thousands of people at the train station. Crying women, crying children, families falling apart before my eyes because women left and men stayed.”

After two days in freezing, overcrowded trains, she reached the Hungarian border. Tetiana says: “It was only then that I began to cry like I had never cried before. I felt very guilty for leaving like I was betraying my family. But my mother doesn’t want to leave the country.”

Tetiana was able to enter the UK faster than the other circus stars as she already had a work visa and flew to stay with Irina.

She says: “For two weeks I just lay on the bed and did nothing. I had problems with my ears and I heard sirens in my head.”

Performers Kseniia Isaieva and Lina Dolesco pose with Ukrainian flags


Paul David Drabble)

A Circus Cortex poster – her show will be touring the UK until August


Paul David Drabble)

And while she’s grateful she’s been granted sanctuary, she’s fixated on one thing. “The first thing I’ll do when it’s safe is go home,” she says. Dancer Ksenia Isaieva, 25, has been fleeing the conflict with Russia for eight years – her hometown is Luhansk, part of the contested Donbass region.

She and her boyfriend Sergii Malynivskyi, 32 – an aerial artist – were living in Zhytomyr, 80 miles west of Kyiv, when Russia invaded.

Ksenia says: “We slept in the hallway or on the bathroom floor for two weeks because we were too scared to go into the bedroom.

“We ate there too. My friend went shopping between air raid sirens, but I lost weight because you’re not hungry.”

Viktor Gorodelskyy, 38, and his wife Yulia, 40, both unicyclists, had a similar time in Mykolaiv, near Russian-occupied Crimea.

They spent three weeks in their basement with six-year-old son Valdis while bombs rained down. They only made it to the UK two weeks ago.

Viktor says, “We hid in the basement with the sofa cushions against the windows in case they smash. We didn’t go for two weeks.”

Yulia adds: “I tried showing Valdis cartoons on the iPad or nice music to distract him from the bombing.”

After a month they fled to Lviv until Viktor got the green light to leave – he used his circus skills to serve as his country’s ambassador.

He says: “I only took my unicycle and my props. I can buy everything else. If we don’t have props, we can’t work.”

Circus Cortex will be touring until the end of August – until then they hope for peace. Says Viktor: “We hope to return to Ukraine as soon as possible. That’s all we want.”

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