The audience has shrunk, but the smiles are just as big.
Photographs and Article by DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ.
Anna Ivanova contributed to reporting on the field
Under the warm glow of yellow and blue lights, Maxim Herman, 15, and Lisa Gryazeva, 10, twirled through the air, accompanied by the soft acoustic strum of the song “Obiymy (Hug Me)” by the Ukrainian band Okean Elzy.
On a Sunday morning in August, the music wrapped around the old Soviet building that serves as the home of the state circus in Zaporizhzhia, where life goes on for Ukrainians despite the looming threat of Russian attacks on the nearby nuclear plant. This circus was once one of Zaporizhzhia’s most popular attractions. Before the invasion, nearly 1,000 spectators would take in a two-hour performance.
On this day, however, no more than 200 people were in the audience. But for the performers, some of them school-age, there’s a job to be done. Bogdana Tkachenko, 13, has spent the last nine years working at the circus, after starting circus school at age 4. She said she hoped to perform one day at the Monte-Carlo International Circus Festival and to join Cirque du Soleil. For Tamara Viktorovna, a 66-year-old former acrobat and the director of Zaporizhzhia State Circus since 2013, the circus has its own role to play in the conflict. “For two hours, we changed their lives,” Ms. Viktorovna said. “And they have remembered and felt what is to be in peaceful times.” The weekly performance, which costs 150 to 400 hryvnia ($4 to $11), is a blend of gymnastics, animals, clowns, and music that enchants an audience eager, and sometimes desperate, to embrace the idea that life persists even in the midst of war.
Acrobatics, music, and rhythmic performances are at the heart of the show, all designed to bring a smile to the faces of spectators, especially the youngest. The war has reshaped her circus beyond a shrinking audience, Ms. Viktorovna said. There is also a shortage of personnel to maintain the circus and its premises. Before the war, her team consisted of 133 employees; now only 55 remain. She mourns the loss of some of her performers, including Veniamin Maslov, who was killed on the front line. Another remains confined in a Russian jail. In the early days of the war, the circus transformed into a hub for the internally displaced.
Spotlights were exchanged for blankets, music for hot meals, and the stage for a safe place to take cover. But at the beginning of the year, the circus’s doors reopened. “Everyone has his own front line,” Ms. Viktorovna said. “Mine is to keep people happy." For two hours, she said, she can give them a respite from the stresses of the war that has raged for nearly 19 months: “I see their smiles, I hear their applause, and I hope that I gave them hope for the future.”
This photo reportage was done for the NYT in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on August 2023
Ukraine Diary: The show goes on in Zaporizhzhia.