Brazilian dancer David Motta rehearses at Rio de Janeiro's Municipal Theater on May 12, 2022 after quitting the Bolshoi Ballet following Russia's invasion of Ukraine / © AFP
The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Brazilian dancer David Motta, then a leading soloist at the renowned Bolshoi ballet, knew he had to leave the country where he had lived half his life.
It was an "obvious" decision -- his heart went out to the people of Ukraine -- but "the hardest one of my life," he said.
The gracefully lanky 25-year-old had called Russia home for 13 years. The Bolshoi Academy had taken him in as a boy and turned him into an international star.
"It was a whirlwind of emotions," Motta said, after wiping the sweat from his face following a recent rehearsal in Rio de Janeiro
"I couldn't sleep for days. I didn't know where I would go or how to start again."
Fearing the borders would close, he hatched an "escape plan," flying to Istanbul, then Milan and finally Brazil.
Motta rehearses "Swan Lake" for a short run of performances in Rio -- where his parents will be among the audience / © AFP
Now back in Rio, Motta will say a symbolic goodbye to Moscow with a limited run of performances of "Swan Lake," the iconic Tchaikovsky ballet that premiered at the Bolshoi in 1877.
It is a short homecoming: Motta, who opens Saturday, will dance the role of Prince Siegfried for just three nights in Rio.
Then, he will turn a page, moving to Berlin to start a new contract with the Staatsballett.
- 'Caught in the crossfire' -
Motta was among the first foreigners at the Bolshoi to announce his departure.
Now all the company's expatriate dancers have left the country, he told AFP in an interview after an intense dress rehearsal at Rio's Municipal Theater, still dressed in his white tights and gold-embroidered top.
He said he regrets that artists have been "caught in the crossfire" of the Ukraine conflict, when their role should be "bringing cultures and countries together."
Russian artists, who have been hit by a series of international boycotts, are particularly suffering, he said.
Motta will soon join the Staatsballett in Berlin, but he says Russia "taught me so much. It will always be close to my heart" / © AFP
"Unfortunately, all Russians are being blamed for one person's actions," he said, referring to President Vladimir Putin.
But he will "never criticize" Russia, he said.
"I grew up there. It taught me so much. It will always be close to my heart."
Motta was born in Cabo Frio, a coastal city north of Rio de Janeiro.
He discovered a passion for ballet at an early age, and won a scholarship from the Brazilian government to study at the Bolshoi Academy.
At 12 years old, he left the idyllic beaches of Brazil behind for snowy Moscow, where he arrived without speaking a word of Russian.
"I was all alone. I remember each moment so clearly. It was winter, and everything was white," he said wistfully.
The academy ended up becoming his second family, he said.
He graduated in 2015, winning first prize at the All-Russian Young Dancers Competition that year, then rose through the Bolshoi's ranks to the post of leading soloist -- one step below principal dancer.
- 'The air I breathe' -
"Ballet is everything to me. The air I breathe. I go to bed every night and wake up every morning thinking about ballet," he said.
His short run in Rio will be "priceless," he said, because he will get to perform for his parents.
"After all the effort they made so I could train at the Bolshoi, my family will get to see me dance," he said.
Then, later this month, Motta will move to Berlin.
He has never been to the city, and does not speak German yet.
But that's little more than a detail to a dancer who left home at 12 to chase a distant dream in a country on the other side of the Earth.