Ukraine: From warzone to circus ring, the Ukrainian performers in Circus Cortex in Sheffield

A circus currently performing in Sheffield is made up of Ukrainians, many of whom spent weeks living in fear during the war in their homeland. Laura Reid reports.

Circus artiste Tatiana Lotiuk was in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine when the war broke out.

“I decided that I could be killed on the first day of the war. It could happen and I just accepted it,” she says. “I was living everyday just hoping to wake up tomorrow.”

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Separated from friends and family for nearly three months, Tatiana travelled for days, going without sleep and food to reach the safety of Circus Cortex.

Circus Cortex is in Sheffield. Picture: Scott MerryleesCircus Cortex is in Sheffield. Picture: Scott Merrylees
Circus Cortex is in Sheffield. Picture: Scott Merrylees
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The UK circus, whose cast is made up of a large percentage of Ukrainians, is run by directors Paul and Irina Archer, who live just outside Thorne in South Yorkshire.

Many of its members spent weeks hiding from Russian forces and seeking shelter from bombs going off before coming over to the UK through the homes for Ukraine scheme.

Paul says: “One of our dancers walked twenty minutes to a railway station, queued in the rain on the platform trying to get on a train for seven or eight hours.

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“She eventually got on a train, but for upwards of 18 hours, stood up, no toilet, nothing, everybody rammed in there trying to get out.

“There was shelling next to the railway station whilst she was queuing at the platform, a couple of times she had to hit the deck.”

He adds: “A lot of the performers we managed to get sponsors for them in places like Leeds, Doncaster and near our home and we were able to sponsor some ourselves.”

Paul and his wife Irina used to run the Moscow State Circus and then set up their own circus agency.

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Last year, they decided to open their own smaller circus, to tour around smaller venues and almost 80 per cent of their performers were from the Ukraine.

They ran a circus tour from July to October last year, before the cast went onto other contracts around the world and back to Ukraine.

The plan was to re-start the circus tour from Easter to July this year with the same cast, but then war broke out.

Performers contacted Irina as troops set foot in Ukraine, recounting the sounds of missiles exploding and telling of how scared they were.

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She and Paul made it their mission to get as many acts and their families on the move and bring them to safety in the UK. The circus opened for the first dates in Sheffield last week.

Though the performers are pleased to be back, Tatiana says: “It’s quite hard to go on stage and to have a big happy smile and entertain people because my mind is on those in Ukraine and so is my heart.”

“Their hearts are still in the Ukraine,” Paul agrees, “as they’ve got friends and family there and there’s terrible things going on. But obviously they’re very happy to be performing again, doing what they love.”

Irina adds: “It has been a difficult few months for a lot of our artists. I think it means a lot to them to be back performing. I really do think it is helping mentally to be back and doing their routine again.”

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Circus performances include skipping-rope jumping unicycles, pole dancers, BMX stunts, parkour displays and class act juggling.

“I think what we have here is one of the best circus acts in the UK right now,” says Irina. “This is an opportunity to see a West End quality show. It’s a very modern circus, all of the cast are young and you can really feel their energy – there’s a real buzz.”

Circus Cortex is at Sheffield Transport Sports Club in Lowedges, and will hold two shows a day until Sunday, June 5, with dates elsewhere in the country until August, including in Bakewell, Derbyshire.


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