TRAVEL: THE PLACE THAT CHANGED ME - IREK MUKHAMEDOV

In London the Russian dancer found his freedom but in Brazil he found true love

London is the place that has had the most profound effect on my life but I have very special memories of Rio de Janeiro.

It was on my second visit to Brazil that I fell in love with the place, or rather I fell in love with my wife, Masha. I was on tour at the time with the Bolshoi and although we did not get to see much of the place, outside of rehearsal studios and theatres, the atmosphere there was incredible. There is a sort of "love bug" in the air. Every time you breathe in you fall hopelessly in love with someone or something.

It's a very hot place and you can't help but feel utterly lazy. Only your heart works and your body gives in to lying on the beach. This is not something that is natural to a dancer but I didn't mind. It was the first time in my life that I would rather have been doing something else - spending time with Masha - rather than dancing.

Though I met Masha 15 years before, at ballet school in Russia, it was in Brazil that I realised that I was not only in love with her but that I could not live without her. I told her and immediately moved into her room. It was like a huge rucksack being taken off my shoulders.

Leaving the Bolshoi was the most difficult thing I had ever done but deciding to leave my wife (I was married at the time) was an incredibly long and painful decision, and the final moment came in Brazil. Up until then my heart had been heavy and my soul and spirit had been squashed. All I had thought about before was ballet - ballet had been my life. Brazil made me realise that there was more to life than dancing.

I would have liked to have experienced some more Brazilian culture, to go out dancing etc, but it is pretty difficult when you know that you have the KGB standing next to you. Not exactly relaxing. We did go to some clubs but the experience was not my own, as I was seeing it through the controlling eyes of someone else.

So I spent my time walking on the beach with Masha between shows and during sleepless nights. From that point on I have always had, in the back of my ear, the wonderful sound of the Portuguese language. Somehow, the "shhh" sound seemed familiar - not unlike Russian - although I couldn't understand a word. I get wonderful little flashbacks of Brazil and the beach every time I hear that language.

But perhaps London is the place that changed me the most. It was here that I found my liberty and professional freedom. Again I was on tour with the Bolshoi and within a few days I had fallen for the easygoing atmosphere, language and people. I appreciated the way that I was treated in shops and in the streets but this feeling was not unique to me; all my co-dancers felt the same.

As soon as we had landed in Heathrow I knew that this was the place that I would stay. Four years later I defected. I will never forget the first time that I saw Big Ben. Even after seeing it in pictures, I was shocked how impressive it was. It will always be a symbol of London for me.

But the most beautiful aspect of the place has to be the people. I expected that when I arrived in London as a resident I would be received differently. Yet nothing changed and, aside from being a cultural centre, it is the people of London that make me glad I made my decision to leave Russia.

Irek Mukhamedov & Company will be performing at Sadler's Wells Theatre, 19-23 October. Box office (tel: 0171-863 8000).

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