Young Ukrainian circus artists find refuge in Prague

Just weeks after fleeing their country, young performers from the Kyiv Municipal Academy of Performing and Circus Arts appeared on stage at the Jatka 78 theater in Prague in an improvised piece called BOOM, created with Czech artists from Young Blood project.

The piece was staged by Rosťa Novák, the director of Cirk La Putyka in Prague, who, immediately after the Russian invasion, offered her stage, Jatka 78, to young Ukrainian artists:

“It was a spontaneous decision. One day after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, we were thinking about how we could help and I found out that there was an Academy of Circus and Performing Arts in Kyiv.

“I wrote to all the emails and phone numbers I had found on the internet and six hours later I got a call from Nina Araya, who is the vice-rector of the academy. And then the ball just started rolling.

The vice-rector of Kyiv Municipal Academy of Performing Arts and Circus, Nina Araya, who is also here in Prague, says they did not hesitate too long before accepting the generous offer of their Prague colleagues:

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů, Radio Prague International

“We haven’t really had a lot of time to analyze things. I spoke to the rector of the Academy and told him that we had this offer from Cirk La Putyka, from Rosťa Novák.

“At first we were talking about the most basic needs, a safe place and the possibility to continue training, but they gave us much more.

“They have given us a beautiful place where students feel safe, where they feel “at home”, where they have the opportunity not only to train but also to perform and maintain a professional spirit.

“At the moment we have 27 people here, including students, a teacher, who trains and supervises them, and three mums, who help with daily tasks.”

The two dozen students in Prague represent just a handful of the total number of students at the Kyiv Municipal Academy of Performing Arts and Circus, which is one of the largest such institutions, says Ms. Araya:

“Our academy was established 60 years ago and has a total of 700 students. It is a more traditional school offering circus arts and performing arts. Circus arts include acrobatics, gymnastics, juggling, clowning, pantomime and magic.

“Our teachers are very experienced people, most of whom have graduated from our academy and have gone on to perform all over the world. When they retire, around 35, they like to come home.

Thanks to her contacts elsewhere in Europe, Rosťa Novák managed to find places for dozens of other students from the academy, who have since found refuge in Budapest, Berlin, Marseilles or Helsinki.

To help them settle in Prague, Cirk La Putyka invited young Ukrainians to participate in their professional shows. But, above all, they let them train on a schedule they used to follow at home. This involves a lot of technical training, but also English and Czech lessons.

I visited backstage at one of the morning workouts at Jatka Theater in Holešovice Market.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů, Radio Prague International

A dozen students stretch, jump on trampolines or juggle to the sound of music. One of them is 16-year-old Alex Vakal.

“My parents are circus artists, which is why I am also a circus artist. I am a diabolist, that is, a kind of juggler, and now I also try to do acrobatics. I played for the first time when I was six years old. We have worked in many countries, all over Europe, as well as in England and the United States.

You said you used to travel. But what was it like having to leave your country all of a sudden because of the Russian invasion?

“It was very different. Normally I travel with my family, but this time we had to split up and I left alone. It was really painful. I’m not sure how to explain my feelings.

“But everything is fine now. My mother is in Italy with my sister and her babies. My father remained in Ukraine and all the family members are safe now. And my grandmother is there. So they are all in security.

How do you feel here in Prague?

“Prague is one of the most beautiful places. Our school in Kyiv is much more traditional and Cirk La Putyka is very different from what I have seen in other countries. So for me it was something new.

“But a big thank you for the experience and a big thank you to Rosťa Novák. I really like what he does and hope that when the war is over we can come here as interpreters and work here!

Katya Smirnova, 17, trains on the stationary rings, who says it only took her about five minutes to make the decision to move to Prague.

“My parents are in Ukraine right now in my hometown of Charkiv because they didn’t want to leave. But the situation is more secure now than it was in March.

“I phone my mother and my brother every day, so I know what is happening in Ukraine. I don’t know if I can go back to my life before the war, but I want to come back, of course.

Rosha Novak |  Photo: Adam Kebrt, Czech Radio

Although she misses her family and her country, Katya says her time in Prague is a great experience in her professional life.

“In Kyiv, we practice every day for five or six hours and we play maybe once a year. In Cirk La Putyka, we work together in different performances, so it’s more of a professional artistic work .

“It’s quite difficult, but it’s also a great experience for me, because I’m only 17 and I already work in a contemporary dance theatre!

The training is supervised by teacher Irina Pitsur, who says that, thanks to her specific lifestyle, the sudden move to Prague was a little easier to manage:

“I’m used to being outside the country. I worked as an artist for twenty years and always traveled to different places. When the war started and we got the proposal and I didn’t think too long.

“I knew we could travel anywhere and the students could continue what they were doing because they were communicating through body language. So, for me, it was not so strange to leave the country, although the situation was different, of course.

Despite the relaxed atmosphere of the training and the apparent ease with which the young Ukrainian students adapted to their life in Prague, Nina Araya says that having to flee their country and abandon their families was not easy for them :

“They left their homes and their parents in Ukraine. Many of them serve in the army. Every day they are in Ukraine in their minds. Here they have everything, but they can’t do anything to help their parents. So it’s very difficult emotionally.

“The other thing is they don’t know how long it’s going to last. Nobody knows. They had their stability, they had their plans and now they have to build everything from scratch. It’s very difficult even for adults and when you’re a teenager, it’s really a lot.

Since arriving in Prague more than two months ago, the young Ukrainian artists have also performed in a show called Journeys, alongside artists from around the world.

Cirk La Putyka |  Photo: Cirk La Putyka

Rosťa Novák, director of Cirk La Putyka and director of the show, said it was one of the best decisions he ever made:

“Not only were we able to transmit our experience and our way of thinking, but they inspired us with their spontaneity, but also with their skills, their talent and their youthful energy.

“We also managed to create a sort of functional organism, a friendship between three different generations of artists from six different states united by circus art, war and enthusiasm. So it was a great experience for all of us.

Rosťa Novák and his Cirk La Putyka are ready to support young Ukrainian artists for as long as they need and he is already planning events for the future in which they could also participate.

Meanwhile, vice-rector of the Kyiv Municipal Academy of Performing Arts and Circus, Nina Araya, says her students have already formed a tight-knit and well-functioning community here in Prague, which wouldn’t be possible. without all the support of their Prague colleagues:

“They don’t treat students like someone who came here for an education. They make them feel like part of the family. That’s what they tell them all the time and that’s exactly what they need: to feel like they have a safe island.

Berta D. Wells