When many of her fellow Muscovites began describing the destruction of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as a “liberation”, Laura Fernandez’s mind was made up. The star ballerina, who is half Ukrainian and half Spanish, fled Moscow and her position as first soloist with the Stanislavsky Theater on 20 April.
“It was becoming morally difficult for me to continue my life in Russia, because I was in close contact with my cousin in Mariupol, who is like a brother to me,” Fernandez says, speaking from her new home in Tbilisi, Georgia. “He was telling me all the bad stuff was happening there and then I would tell my friends in Moscow and they would say, ‘No, it’s fine, they’re not killing those guys, they’re saving them’. It got to the point I couldn’t discuss the war any more.”
“With the information we were getting from the news, it was some random group of Ukrainians that were killing [civilians] and committing war crimes, not the Russian soldiers. And I was surrounded by people who believed all of this.”
The 24-year-old is one of several dancers, choreographers, artists and composers who have fled the country or resigned from Russia’s cultural institutions in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.
In March, Olga Smirnova, one of Russia’s biggest ballet stars, made headlines around the world when she resigned from the Bolshoi Ballet less than three weeks after the war began. “I am against this war with every fiber of my soul,” she said, before fleeing Moscow and finding immediate refuge with the Dutch national ballet.
Fernandez, who was born in Switzerland, had a cousin, two uncles and her maternal grandfather still living in the south-eastern Ukrainian city when Vladimir Putin’s war began. Her bedridden grandfather died one week before the invasion of Mariupol, which fell to Russian forces on 16 May.
“I’m glad he didn’t see any of this, and it would have been impossible to evacuate him,” Fernandez says of her grandfather. “My cousin and uncles were three weeks in a bunker without enough food or water so I believe it would have been very difficult for him to stay alive anyway.”
When the bunker her family was sheltering in was shelled, it was a seven-hour wait before her parents and sister in Switzerland learned that they were not among the many casualties.
Fernandez is now working as a principal dancer at the State Ballet of Georgia. On 16 and 17 July, she will join an international lineup of principal dancers and soloists from as far afield as Berlin and San Francisco, for the Sydney International Ballet Gala, debuting at West HQ’s Sydney Coliseum theatre.
Fernandez has spent the past six weeks settling into her new role and recovering her health. The stress and worry of the past three months had affected her eyesight. She had become dangerously thin.
As we speak, she is completing a 30-minute workout on an elliptical trainer at the headquarters of Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theater of Tbilisi. She remains unsure but tentatively optimistic about her future.
As a child, Fernandez studied at the Dance Academy Zurich before moving to the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg, earned the distinction of becoming the first Swiss-born dancer ever hired by the Mariinsky theatre. There, she danced many solo roles before taking up the role of first soloist with Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre.
“I worked really hard to get to this position and I thought I might have to start over from the beginning if I moved to Europe,” she says. “I am trained in the classical Russian style – we don’t have that contemporary repertoire, so I have no modern experience, which is expected in companies in Europe.
“I was lucky that I found the Georgian national company, which is also very classical in repertoire, so I’m not going back to the beginning after all.”
In Sydney next month, Fernandez will perform two pas de deux, from Le Corsaire and La Bayadère, with her dance partner Brazilian soloist Victor Caixeta, who, like Smirnova, recently fled Russia for the Dutch national ballet.
The Australian venue for the gala, the Sydney Coliseum theatre, has faced its own challenges. The 2,000-seat lyric theatre, built to make arts and culture more accessible to greater western Sydney, opened just before Covid-19 hit. Sitting sparkling new, but in the dark for much of the past two years, in the last six months the venue has hosted the touring spectacular The Little Prince, and concerts by Sydney Symphony, Keith Urban, Tina Arena, Human Nature and Jimmy Barnes.
The Sydney International Ballet Gala: World Stars of Ballet production on 16 and 17 July with be the venue’s first major dance event.