swan of ukraine

Amid the chaos, confusion and panic that followed Russia’s sudden and devastating invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, a young ballerina named Elizaveta ‘Liza’ Gorbachova, found herself alone in Moscow with a single suitcase in hand, making a daring escape to Estonia. Uncertain if her Ukrainian passport would spell trouble for her getaway, Liza acted on her instincts and booked the last bus out of the city, leaving behind her life as a performer at the renowned Bolshoi Theatre.

Liza’s journey to the world of ballet began in Lviv, Ukraine, where her love for the art form blossomed at the tender age of 4. Little did she know that her passion would eventually lead her to become a member of the prestigious Dutch National Opera & Ballet. At the age of 12, Liza’s parents asked her if she wanted to pursue a professional career in ballet, a decision that would require her to uproot her life, move to Kyiv alone, and grow up largely on her own. Fuelled by her unwavering passion, Liza mustered the courage to attend boarding school at the Kyiv State Ballet School, where she honed her skills and strengthened her character.

“Professional ballet training at the Kyiv State Ballet School, and living away from my parents, made me stronger with each passing year,” reflects Liza. For four years the all-girls boarding school became her home. “Starting a professional education alone at the age of 12 in a big city was incredibly challenging,” she recounts. At 16, she moved to Munich to continue her studies, and by 18, she found herself in Moscow, dancing and studying at the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre.

“I had my doubts about moving to Russia,” recalls Liza, “but I thought it would be good for my professional career as a dancer” Liza reminisces about her time at the Bolshoi Theatre, “There are many famous dancers at Bolshoi. One of the most famous dancers, Nadezhda Gracheva, was my mentor. I worked with her every day. It was an amazing experience.” Her recollection exudes admiration for the renowned theatre and the invaluable mentorship she received from a distinguished dancer. 

She spent two years at the Bolshoi Theatre before the war broke out, and she had to make a fateful decision. As a Ukrainian living in Russia, Liza felt vulnerable and knew she had to leave without telling anyone. On February 23, 2022, she was living her dream as a performer at the prestigious theater, but just 24 hours later, she was on a bus to Estonia, a refugee in search of safety. To the outside world, it appeared as though Liza was simply taking a trip out of town.

“While I was on the bus, I sent my CV to different theatres,” recalls Liza, as she navigated the uncertainty and fear of her situation. Completely alone and with limited resources, she managed to escape to Estonia safely. She recalls the kindness of strangers in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, who helped her along the way. “People were incredibly helpful when I arrived in Tallinn. They even paid for a hotel for me for the night.” Soon after, Liza was able to get in touch with her cousin, who flew her to Germany to stay with her in Kaiserslautern.

Thankfully, Liza was able to make her way to Europe. Despite the turmoil of the war, she remained steadfast in her pursuit of a career in ballet. While staying with her cousin in Germany, she received two offers: one from the Boston Ballet in the United States, where her father and brother live, and the other from the Dutch National Opera & Ballet in Amsterdam. Despite the strong temptation to be closer to her family, particularly her father who had fled due to the war, Liza made the resolute decision to accept the offer from the Netherlands. 

“I needed to wait for a visa for quite a long time to move to the United States. Moving to the Netherlands would get me back to doing ballet much faster than waiting for documents to move to America,” Liza explains.

Liza sought solace in the Dutch National Ballet & Opera, finding peace and security in her work, at least initially. However, the stark reality of the war in Ukraine began to sink in, with relentless news cycles depicting destruction and death in a chaotic and cruel kaleidoscope. The mounting casualties, both military and civilian, weighed heavily on Liza’s mind as she followed the updates from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian turned wartime leader, who has been lauded as one of the greatest leaders of this century for his resolve, humility, and humanity.

As time passed, Liza’s mental health began to decline, and she realized that ignoring her situation was not a sustainable coping mechanism. Reflecting on her past struggles, she says, “I realized that my career is not everything, that family, friends, being in the moment, and appreciating life is much more important.” She also noticed a shift in attitudes among Ukrainians when she visited her hometown, Lviv, for the first time since the war began. The general malaise and closed-off nature of everyday life seemed to have softened, and people were more helpful and supportive of each other, even in mundane settings like the supermarket. She even had to spend several nights in a packed underground bunker “laying on a neighbour” as deafening air raid sirens blared, warning of incoming Russian missiles. “Everybody knows someone who lost someone, has lost someone, or has a friend or relative fighting on the front. Everyone shares this,” Liza says.

In Amsterdam, a bustling hub of artistic expression, Liza’s life has gained a newfound clarity. The once singular fixation on ballet has evolved, as she now contemplates new possibilities, paths, and interests. Alongside her physical pursuits, Liza has turned to meditation and yoga to maintain her mental and physical well-being. Recently, she has developed an interest in the world of modelling. Interestingly, it was during her time in Moscow that a model scout approached her, the very same person who had discovered Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova. However, back then, Liza’s steadfast dedication to ballet left no room for modelling aspirations. It is only now, living in the Netherlands and finding a better balance in life, that the possibility of a modelling career captivates her. Liza views modelling as “another avenue of performance, where I can express myself in a different way,” highlighting her evolving perspective on artistic expression.

As Liza continues to acclimate to her new life in Amsterdam, she expresses deep appreciation for the support she has received from the Dutch National Opera & Ballet. “When I came here, I had no money, no home, nothing,” Liza recounts. “But they helped me find an apartment and made me feel welcome. I’m incredibly grateful to them.” She was recently immersed in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, showcasing her talent and dedication to the craft, with more performances to come. 

In the midst of wartime, Liza’s indomitable spirit shines through as she confronts the inevitable stress, anxiety, and uncertainty that life can bring. She shares a poignant quote from the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu that deeply resonates with her and encapsulates her approach to navigating challenges with composure and compassion, reflecting her resilience and unshakable determination:

“Mastering others is strength. 

Mastering oneself makes you 

fearless.” – Lao Tzu­

photography + words. Aaron Alan Mitchell
fashion, make up + hair. Uliana Milodan
ballerina. Elizaveta Gorbachova
production. The Brush Creative

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