Anna Muromtseva is a principal dancer of the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv. She spoke to dancer and blogger Marta Molinari about her odyssey escaping from the bombing of Kyiv, where she lived and worked.
The first question I want to ask her is when she realised that she had to flee. “It was sudden,” she says. She woke up at 5 o'clock in the morning with a phone call from a friend who warned her what was happening. “Nobody could believe it – it seemed like a terrible collective nightmare.”
Anna immediately decided to leave the country to save herself. She loaded a backpack on her shoulder with just a few things inside. It was 24 February and the war had just begun. Anna lived in the centre of Kyiv.
She prepared her car in a hurry, went to pick up her grandmother and mother in their respective homes, and took off to a city in southern Ukraine (she does not tell me which one) to take refuge there.
Anna knew a family in Belgium that she had visited in the summer for the holidays since she was ten. She thinks of them as part of her family now. That terrible 24 February she called them early in the morning, shortly after the phone call from her friend, warning them that she would be soon coming to them, fleeing from Kyiv. She didn't know exactly when she could join them, but it would be very soon.
In just three hours she prepared everything and set off in her car. There was a lot of traffic on the main streets of the city and cars were at a standstill. She quickly realised that she didn't have enough petrol for her car and that she couldn't buy any Kyiv as the petrol stations were sold out, so she was obliged to stay in Kyiv for the moment.
“We wanted to escape by train or bus, but my grandmother is diabetic, and it was too difficult, we could not manage the complications related to her illness”, she explains. After two days, she brought her grandmother to live with her.
Since the train was not a solution, after ten days she manged to contact the father of a friend of hers who found her two places in a car, which Anna decided to use to transport her grandmother and mother to safety. Then she thought about her own safety.
Anna managed to escape by train with one of her friends, a terrible 11-hour journey but considered a miracle as a single ticket had become available at the last minute. She and her friend had only one place for two, so they took turns sitting. “At least we managed to reach our destination safe and sound.”
They first arrived in a city in the east of Ukraine, then Poland, Germany, and finally Belgium. Anna realised how surreal the whole situation was. “I had no words, I couldn't believe it, I felt as though I was living in a scene from the Middle Ages.”
She had literally left everything at home as she could only take one bag with her. Her whole life was left behind.
I interrupt her thoughts to ask for information about her colleagues. She told me that although they were all still in contact, even though the men of the company had to stay in Ukraine to serve in the army and had to go to war.
Some artists who managed to escape are already working in Europe, and some performed in a charity gala in Naples on 4 April, organised by former Paris Opera Ballet dancer Alessio Carbone – including Anna.
Anna is currently a guest artist at the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden. The company is taking great care of her and her Ukrainian colleagues: they brought them new leotards, tights, and shoes, they lent them tutus… “It touched my heart.”
She is continuing to do what she loves most in the world, and can go on living, even if it's just a kind of surrogate normality. But she does not forget that the war doesn't end outside Ukraine.
Anna told me that she has not been able to sleep for almost ten days in Kyiv and was able to close her eyes for 30 minutes at the most because she was afraid of being able to hear new alarms or news at any moment. She was constantly on alert. She felt she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and feared that her head was about to explode from the psychological stress she was under.
Even once she had arrived in Europe, she could not sleep normally. Now the daily lessons and the rehearsals for the upcoming shows are helping her. She is still afraid of doing certain things, she admits, like taking a plane… but she must do it. There is no alternative if she wants to go back to her life. Particularly loud noises terrify her, reminding her of those horrendous moments of the bombing, but she wants to get over it, “You have to get over it.”
She explains to me that many psychotherapists offer free online psychological support, and this is an immense help for Ukrainian people. It was a great trauma that she went through (and she is still experiencing), but the ballet is helping her to overcome it. “For that period of time in which I am in the studio, my hand on the barre, I just concentrate on my work, and it seems that I am living as if nothing had happened.”
I ask her how the ballet company Kyiv is coping, but Anna says that she has no information and all she knows is that they are preparing charity galas, the proceeds of which will go to the Ukrainian army. They are resisting.
The government said that the opera house in Kyiv could resume working from 1 April, but there are hardly any artists left in the city. “People are dying there. Certainly, it would not make sense to continue with shows and performances, although some continue to post pictures of normal life on social media, to simulate that ‘everything is fine'.”
Anna does not share this behaviour and she prefers to report what is really happening through her social media accounts. She does not want the drama of her people to be forgotten, and she cannot turn her head away in the face of such a humanitarian tragedy.
I asked her what she thinks of Russia and the behaviour of some of its leading artists. Anna said that Russia is immense and that in her opinion many behave like Pontius Pilate, washing their hands, as though if it doesn't touch you, you don't have to care. “Everyone goes about their own business, in short, in the great mother Russia.”
Anna is immensely grateful to those artists who have withdrawn from their Russian theatres and says that thanks to the solidarity and kindness of others she is alive today. She points out though that Europe was not ready to welcome so many new artists, especially with a theatre sector that was already saturated and in crisis.
We end our chat like old friends – the power of sharing the same passion and vocation, perhaps – and with some tears in our eyes. Anna tells me that she took immense pleasure and relief from talking to me: “I will ceaselessly continue my reporting mission.”
(professional dancer, teacher, blogger and influencer)
Translation: Francesca Faggionato
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.