Young Ukrainian circus artists find refuge in Prague

An estimated 350,000 people have fled Ukraine for the Czech Republic over the past three months. Among the many refugees are also some twenty students from Kyiv’s Municipal Academy of Performing and Circus Arts. They arrived just days after Russia invaded their country and have since found refuge with the Prague-bases circus troupe Cirk La Putyka.

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

The piece was directed by Rosťa Novák, the principal of Prague’s Cirk La Putyka, who, immediately after the Russian invasion, offered his home stage, Jatka 78, to young artists from Ukraine:

“It was a spontaneous decision. A day after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine we were thinking about how we could help and I discovered that there was an Academy of Circus and Performing Arts in Kiyv.

“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 academy’s vice-rector. And then the ball just started rolling.”

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

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“We didn’t really have much time to analyse things. I spoke to the rector of the Academy and told him we had this offer from Cirk La Putyka, from Rosťa Novák.

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

“They gave us a beautiful place where the students feel safe, where they feel “at home”, where they have the possibility 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 is training them and supervising them, and also three moms, who are helping with daily things.”

The two dozen students in Prague are just a handful of the total number of students of the Kyiv’s Municipal Academy of Performing and Circus Art, which is one of the biggest institutions of its kind, says Ms. Araya:

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

“Our teachers are very experienced people, most of whom graduated from our academy and then performed all over the world. When they retire, at around 35, they like to return back home.”

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

To help them settle down in Prague, Cirk La Putyka invited the young Ukrainians to take part in their professional shows. But, first and foremost, they let them train according to a schedule they were used to following at home. It involves a lot of technical training, but also lessons in English and Czech.

I paid a backstage visit to one of the morning trainings at the Jatka Theatre at the Holešovice market.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

Around a dozen students are stretching their bodies, jumping on trampolines or juggling to the sound of music. One of them is 16-year-old Alex Vakal.

“My parents are circus performers, that’s why I am also a circus artist. I am a diabolist, which is a kind of juggling, and now I am also trying to do some acrobatics. I first performed at the age of six. We worked in many countries, across the whole of Europe, as well as in England and in the United States.”

You said you are used to travelling. 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 and I went on my own. It was really painful. I don’t really know how to explain my feelings.

“But everything is fine now. My mom is in Italy with my sister and her babies. My dad stayed in Ukraine and all the family members are safe now. And my grandmother is there. So they are all safe.”

How do you like it 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 saw in other countries. So for me it was something new.

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

Training on the still rings is 17-year-old Katya Smirnova, who says it only took her about five minutes to make the decision to move to Prague.

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

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

Rosťa Novák | Photo: Adam Kebrt,  Czech Radio

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

“In Kyiv we train every day for five or six hours and perform maybe once a year. In Cirk La Putyka we work together in different performances, so it is more about the professional artistic work.

“It is quite difficult, but it is also a beautiful experience for me, because I am 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 way of life, the sudden move to Prague was a little easier to handle:

“I am used to being outside of the country. I worked as an artist for twenty years and I have always been travelling to different places. When the war started and we got the proposition and I didn’t think for too long.

“I knew that we could travel anywhere and the students could continue what they were doing because they communicate with body language. So for me it wasn’t so strange to leave the country, although the situation was different, of course.”

Despite the relaxed atmosphere at the training session and the seeming ease with which the young Ukrainian students have adapted to their life in Prague, Nina Araya says that having had to flee their country and leave their families behind has not been 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 cannot do anything to help their parents. So it is very difficult emotionally.

“The other thing is that they don’t know how long this will last. Nobody knows. They had their stability, they had their plans and now they need to build everything from scratch. This is very difficult even for adults and when you are a teenager, it is really a lot.”

Since their arrival in Prague more than two months ago, the young Ukrainian artists have also starred in a show called Journeys, along with performers from all around the world.

Cirk La Putyka | Photo: Cirk La Putyka

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

“It’s not only that we could pass on our experience and our way of thinking, but they inspired us with their spontaneity, but also with their skills and talent and youthful energy.

“We also succeeded in creating some kind of a functioning 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 is ready to support the young Ukrainian artists as long as they need and he is already planning events for the future in which they could take also take part.

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

“They are not treating the students like somebody who came here for an education. They make them feel like they are part of the family. This is what they are telling them all the time and this is exactly what they need: to feel like they have a safe island.”

Author: Ruth Fraňková
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