PISTOIA, Italy -- A Ukrainian circus troupe is performing a never-ending "Alice in Wonderland" tour of Italy, caught in the real-world rabbit hole of having to create joyful performances on stage while their families at home are living through war.
Like many Ukrainian artists who were abroad when Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the acrobats and dancers of the Theater Circus Elysium of Kyiv were opening a limited engagement in Italy. The tour, originally scheduled to end in mid-March, has now been extended at least through June as the performers seek to keep working to send money to relatives back home.
On a recent weekend, the Ukrainian circus came to Pistoia, in Tuscany. There was the Mad Hatter, sporting a green top hat and a purple beard; the White Rabbit with a red nose covered in silver glitter and Alice, with a little blue dress and long ringlets.
But behind their colorful costumes, cheerful smiles and fantastical story line of Alice's adventures in Wonderland, troupe members are struggling.
"I feel guilty about people who are staying there because they are not safe, and I am safe and I cannot help them," said Yuliia Palaida, who plays Alice. "I am just fighting with all these feelings," she adds, her voice trembling.
Oleksandr Bandaliuk plays the Mad Hatter. Backstage, he sits glumly between acts.
"It is very hard to work and dance on the Italy stage because we know in our country now [there] is war," he said. "We can't go to Ukraine because in my house now [there are] Russian soldiers."
Theaters across Italy have booked the circus, and their sold-out performances have allowed them to pay for about 50 family members to flee Ukraine by bus and join the troupe in Italy.
"We have four or five dogs, a cat and a grandmother who is 79 years old, a babushka, who is the matriarch of all of us, the grandmother of the company," said the Italian producer of the circus, Roberto Romaniello.
The town of Reggio Emilia found temporary housing for the expanded circus family, while they worked on getting legal documents, access to medical services and apartments for a longer-term stay. They have 10 shows scheduled so far in Sicily in June and are hoping for more.
"Each artist has a lot of people in Ukraine," said Aleksandr Sakhorov, who has relatives in Kyiv and in Zaporizhzhia. "We send money all this time, but if we stop, nobody gets that support because in Ukraine [there are] no jobs now."