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In a dark theater in downtown Los Angeles — over 6,000 miles away from Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine — two men face one another standing on raised platforms. One, smiling and sandy-haired, is a Ukrainian named Dmytro Rybkin, 33.
The other, Alexander Grol, 34, is a black-haired Russian of Gypsy descent. Despite Grol’s gruff exterior, flickers of a dry sense of humor peek through.
Together, these two men form an unlikely alliance — and a potent artistic symbol — for these fraught times.
Rybkin and Grol are performers in Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo, an insect-themed fantasia currently installed at Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live, where it will remain for the next five weeks. The show is a slightly tweaked version of the one that debuted in 2016 and was put on ice in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with dozens of other Cirque du Soleil productions around the globe.
Cirque is currently amid a return to a robust, post-COVID performance schedule — what was supposed to be a period of great celebration.
“We went through this crisis of going from 44 shows to zero show, from $1 billion of revenue to no revenue,” says Daniel Lamarre, 69, executive vice chairman of Cirque du Soleil, visiting L.A. from Montreal for Ovo’s March 16 premiere.
In July 2020, Lamarre, then president and CEO, saved Cirque du Soleil from near extinction with a restructuring deal that saw a consortium led by private equity firm Catalyst Capital take the company out of bankruptcy and become its new owners.
But just as the show was about to go on, yet another crisis, this one geopolitical, gathered on the horizon. A high number of world-class acrobats and gymnasts come from the part of the world currently in conflict. Ovo features 52 artists from 25 countries — Russia and Ukraine among them.
Speaking on behalf of Cirque du Soleil, Lamarre avoids making any direct pronunciations on the war in Ukraine. “It’s not the first time there is crisis between countries or nationalities, but we like to see ourselves like citizens of the world,” he says. “And so do our artists. I guess the reality is, when you look to a situation like the one we’re in right now, the crisis doesn’t really involve civilians. It’s politicians. So as long as you stay away from politics and you care about people, I think then you take the right decision, and that’s what we’re doing.”
As for Rybkin and Grol, you sense there is more they’d like to say about the conflict but have been cautioned not to. Rybkin makes a statement with his rehearsal clothes: light-yellow jeans and a royal blue T-shirt, which only later do I realize recall the colors of the Ukrainian flag, which represents a yellow field under a blue sky. Grol wears all black.
The two strongmen, with forearms Popeye would envy, are what is known in the circus world as “catchers” or “porters.”
Their job is to catch and throw acrobats into the air from opposite platforms. In the case of Ovo, they are dressed as scarab beetles while doing so. They’ve been performing this act together since 2016. For catchers and for the aerialists dependent on them, it all comes down to trust.
“We have girls who are flying and the boys who are catching,” says Grol. “So they trust their lives to us. And this responsibility makes us who we are. In the show, in the act, in the circus, the responsibility forms a character, a way of living. It’s made me who I am. And I realize how much trust people give me. Then I start feeling a certain way.”
Adds Rybkin: “I want to make the girl trust me, trust me to fly. It means that I always have to catch and always have to throw very well, so they don’t have any fear. And this is the most difficult part because you cannot be super stable every day. But without trust, this is not going to work.”
Growing up in Perm, a city in central Russia next to the Ural Mountains, Grol observed his musclebound father, also a circus performer, and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“He was a porter in acrobatics — so catching people but standing on the floor, catching them on his shoulders, that kind of thing. Same discipline as me, but a different act.”
Father and son would travel around the country in a circus caravan. “It was a big Gypsy family,” Grol says. “And you know how everybody thinks of Gypsies that they’re troublemakers? But we are not. We are not troublemakers or hooligans. We have a life of our own, views on life of our own. The way we are brought up on the road, not having the normal childhood like kids have, it’s quite an adventure.”
Rybkin came to the circus through athletics. “I was a sportsman before; I did sport acrobatics,” he explains. “I was never planning to go to the circus. For me, sport was the main goal. But after that, I realized that it can be fascinating for me, and I applied for a circus casting.” He got a job working with a circus in France, then another in Russia.
Then he was scouted for the big time: Cirque du Soleil. “Before that, life in the circus was very difficult, much worse conditions,” Rybkin says. “Here is great. We get accommodation, we get food. Everything is organized.”
For Grol, who returned to Russia during the pandemic, the chance to perform for as many as 7,000 circus fans is something he thought he might never experience again. Based in St. Petersburg, he’d travel to Perm to visit his parents.
“I was in the village. I remember cleaning my well in my parents’ place, chucking the buckets of mud out of the well. And I was saying to the circus god if he exists, ‘I really want to get back, at least once more, onstage. I would give them all I got, 150 percent. I will become the bug, inside and outside. I’ll become that bug. I will show some people some fun times.’ I send that message to the circus god.”
Rybkin is based in Austria now and was unable to return to Ukraine to see his family due to pandemic travel restrictions. “But it was good timing for me because my daughter, she was born exactly when coronavirus started,” he says. “There was no circus. I could have time to be there and help to be with my daughter. And it was even more difficult than the circus. But I’m happy that I was there, and I could see how she was growing.”
Before they are summoned backstage to continue their warmups, I ask the two men if they have any closing thoughts they’d like to share with the world.
“Peace to the world,” says Grol. “We are people of art. The artists. We present art. We’re humans, not of different points of view. There’s plenty of that in the world. The message here is that when we’re here, we spread happiness. We show them what we got.”
Adds Rybkin: “We are very open people, and we are very good with each other. And this gives us a chance to show our acrobatics. And also show our feelings to the people. And we are happy that people appreciate it.”
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