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For Ukrainian performers on the Strip, the show must go on

Updated March 5, 2022 - 12:44 pm

She got the phone call 20 minutes before she was set to take the stage.

It was 4:30 a.m. in Kyiv — few happy calls ever come in at 4:30 a.m.

Her sister was on the line.She was crying.

“She said, ‘We just woke up from bombing, the noise of explosion,’ ” recalls Jenny Arata, one-half of roller-skating duo the Skating Aratas with her husband Victor Arata. “I said, ‘What? Explosion?!’ ”

Of course, tensions had been building between Arata’s native Ukraine and Russia for months, but when the latter invaded the former last week and began attacking its capital city, it was still a shock.

And Arata was shook.

Is this really happening?

“It really threw me off,” recalls Arata, who performs as part of the “V — The Ultimate Variety Show” at the V Theater at Planet Hollywood. “I was shaking. I couldn’t even talk. ‘I’m like, Oh my god, what happened?’ She’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

“It’s very stressful; I was struggling to perform last night,” she continues. “I couldn’t focus at all. I was just all over the place.”

Fear, uncertainty, a pervasive sense of dread — these are but some of the emotions that Vegas-based performers of Ukrainian heritage are processing day and night as they watch the conflict unfold in their homeland.

Dozens of Ukrainian acrobats, singers and other entertainers work here for production companies like Spiegelworld, which employs 10 Ukrainians, and Cirque Du Soliel, which have heavy presences in Las Vegas.

Many of them still have family members in their native country.

“They’re all shell-shocked and terrified, and they’re sort of struggling to get information out of the country about the safety of their families,” says Daniel Kells, former resident director of “Absinthe” for over a decade, who keeps in touch with many Ukrainian performers, including some who have returned home and taken up arms.

“They are preparing to fight for Kyiv, which is insane,” he continues. “I check in with them each day. Everyone’s very scared.”

For those Ukrainians who remain in Vegas, though, their bodies may be here, but their minds are often 6,000 miles away.

“We try to stay together; we try to support each other,” says aerialist Dmitry Deyneko, who’s performed here since 2017. “That’s what we can do from here.”

‘They can not hide. They can not leave.’

She’s a singer, but it’s hard to sing when your throat’s tight from crying, vocal cords as raw as the emotions that made them that way.

“Last week, I performed 10 shows,” says Maryana, a vocalist in a Vegas production show who doesn’t want her last name or the show she works for revealed because the company hasn’t authorized its employees to speak on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “At first it was very, very difficult. I really, truly float between desperation for my heritage and my people and the desire to really do something and help change. And a little bit of anger — or more than a little bit.”

Making matters worse, Maryana’s father had serious, invasive surgery for pancreatic cancer prior to the invasion of her homeland.

“We didn’t know, of course, that anything would happen,” she says, noting that her father was just out of intensive care when the conflict escalated and that her parents have been left in a kind of panicked limbo. “They cannot hide. They cannot leave. He cannot really walk yet. And they also don’t want to move anywhere. They want to stay where their home is.”

Like storm clouds massed on the horizon, there were signs of oncoming conflict in Ukraine, namely, a sizable number of Russian forces deployed to the region.

But as with all storm clouds, sometimes it rains, sometimes it blows over. And so the invasion still came as a surprise for many Ukrainians.

“For months, my brother and my friends from there were saying, ‘OK, there’s tanks’ — along the border of Ukraine, there was Russian army,” she recalls. “They were officially saying they were in training there, and that’s what everybody was thinking.

“My brother was saying, ‘No, I think they are going to come,’ ” she continues. “And I was saying, ‘Oh, no, that’s impossible.’ When it started, I just called my parents, crying saying, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you. I’m sorry I was wanting so much for it not to happen that I wanted to imagine that reality.’ ”

Of course, there are many Russian perfomers alongide their Ukrainian counterparts in various local productions, which can lead to tension.

“Not all Russians are siding (with Russia in the invasion), but many are,” Maryana says. “It is hard to perform with those people who are supporting or justifying this war. It is hard to perform when people are closing their eyes as well.

“I am against any kind of aggression,” she continues, “and truly sorry for Russian people who understand the scale of this tragedy.”

Long days; short, sleepless nights

She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve — it was depicted on the front of her white T-shirt instead — but the outpouring of emotion was just the same.

There was a small, portable P.A. in the crowd before her, but Jenny Arata didn’t need it.

Alternately clutching a framed portrait of Jesus Christ and a sign that read “Stop Putin Stop War” over a backdrop of the Ukrainian flag, Arata led a crowd of around 100 in a series of full-throated chants on a recent Saturday afternoon.

“We stand with Ukraine. Hands off Ukraine,” they bellowed in unison on the sidewalk in front of The Linq on the Strip, where foot traffic slowed and pulses raced.

Arata was at the center of it all, arms and voice raised in unison.

She hasn’t been getting much rest of late, between constantly watching the news at all hours to stay abreast of developments in the conflict, trying to stay in contact with friends and relatives in Ukraine, performing in her show and mothering her 3-year-old daughter. (“When she plays with me, I feel like I’m a little bit distracted from what’s going on.”)

“My phone is ringing night and day,” she says. “I’m trying to stay positive. It was a sleepless night today, with lots of stress.”

“I realize that, in my life, I also have to go and have my performance,” she continues. “Yesterday, I was about to cancel, because I was just shaking from stress. But I tried to stay calm. It’s just very challenging emotionally to be yourself, because you’re constantly thinking of what’s going to happen every minute.”

This is Las Vegas, though, and so the show must go on.

Arata will follow suit.

“The day before when I walked out on stage, the host said, ‘She’s from Ukraine,’ ” Arata recalls, the pain in her voice intermingled with pride. “As soon as I stepped on the stage and I extended my arms everyone just started applauding.

“I had goosebumps,” she continues, “because I feel that we’re all together.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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