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This Ukrainian circus was on tour in Italy when the war started


Pistoia, Italy, is a lovely medieval Tuscan town. And if you'd been there last weekend, you could have caught a circus performing "Alice In Wonderland." There were a lot of emotions on stage and behind the curtains because as Adam Raney found out, the troupe's circumstances changed drastically on February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine.


ADAM RANEY, BYLINE: Alice goes down the rabbit hole and takes us with her while trapeze artists and acrobats perform gravity-defying acts. The Red Queen and White Queen fight for sartorial dominance with outfits that would look appropriate at a Lady Gaga show.


RANEY: This isn't your typical "Alice In Wonderland." It's a vibrant display with bright costumes and incredible aerial acrobatics taking place on a stage illuminated by a high-tech multimedia show. And the troupe, Theatre-Circus Elysium, is Ukrainian. Perhaps even more than Alice, its performers are struggling to make sense of a world that has been turned upside-down. They had only been in Italy a little more than two weeks when everything changed for them.

YULIIA MALEZHYK: And when we wake up the 24 of February, we see that war has started. It was a shock for us.

RANEY: That's Yuliia Malezhyk, an acrobat and gymnast in the troupe.

MALEZHYK: It was so difficult because all our heart was with our family. But we must go on the stage and smile.

RANEY: Fear for their families back home and uncertainty about what lay ahead for them. After the first few days, their Italian producer, Roberto Romaniello, realized they had to take action.

ROBERTO ROMANIELLO: (Through interpreter) The problem wasn't how to return, whether by land or plane. The problem was they couldn't go home. And actually, we had to bring their families here.

RANEY: Romaniello got their visas extended and buy-in from venues across the country. The show could go on.


RANEY: That's the sound of children playing dodgeball backstage right before the curtain came up. Ten children in all, along with several other family members, were able to come to Italy, even a grandmother - pets, too, six dogs and a cat.

ALEXANDER SAKHAROV: If we have a job here, we also can give support to people who stay in Ukraine.

RANEY: That's the troupe's executive director, Alexander Sakharov.

SAKHAROV: But if I come to Ukraine, nothing because I'm not a warrior. I'm not a soldier. You know, I can do it, but it's not going to be to effect.

RANEY: While men in the show struggled with the decision to stay or go, men of military age back home couldn't join their families in Italy. By law, they have to stay in Ukraine. One of those was Yuliia Palaida's husband. Palaida plays Alice.

YULIIA PALAIDA: Yeah, you feel guilty. You're fighting with this feeling that you are safe. It's unfair, you know, that you can be safe.

RANEY: The 25-year-old dancer came late to the tour. She spent the first hours of the war in a bunker in Kyiv with her husband. There in the bomb shelter, they applied for visas to go to the United Kingdom. The day she landed in Italy, she heard they both had been issued U.K. visas. But for now, her husband isn't allowed to join her. She was torn about what to do.

PALAIDA: I tell him, maybe I will come home for a week. I don't know. No. No. You cannot. You don't need it. We're OK. So you go. You go because this is the opportunity you were waiting for your life.


RANEY: Back on stage, a battle royale between the Red Queen and the White Queen. The two children who played dodgeball are now watching the final trapeze act from behind the curtain.


RANEY: As the performers take a bow to rapturous applause, they unfurl a Ukrainian flag. The children are on stage, too, taking a bow with the troupe. Ring performer Oleksander Shpylovyi says it's hard to keep it together that moment every night on stage.

OLEKSANDER SHPYLOVYI: Of course, for us, it's really real - like, an emotional feeling, like we want to cry and want to say, I'm thankful for your support.

RANEY: Support that looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The troupe will be back on the road soon, traveling across Italy. If you happen to be in Palermo on June 3, the circus will be in town. For NPR News, I'm Adam Raney in Pistoia, Italy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Raney