A news editor of Quadrant Online’s acquaintance once told a callow and incompetent cadet how ‘a chimp could write a better story’, the standard formula doing all the work. In 1968, when Tony Thomas visited touring Soviet circus stars, he didn’t monkey around with stock cliches. Fifty years after it was written, his piece remains as vibrant and idiosyncratic as ever
PERTH, February, 1968: Belatedly I got down to see the Moscow Circus people last week. The performers’ enclosure was littered with attractive Russian girls in microscopic bikinis, soaking up the sun. With circus interpreter Vladimir Zharikov, 25, in tow, we called on the silver caravan of director Joseph Dubinsky, grey-haired and with the characteristic Russian row of gold teeth.
He assumed I was avid for statistics and before I could call a halt, I was informed of Russia’s 100 circuses, 9,000 performers, 12 million spectators, tours of 20 countries and 50 new circuses to be built by decision of the government, with 50 new hotels for the cast.
“I’ve noticed a few slips in performances,” I said. “Is this normal?”
(I’d seen one of the Bernadsky girls somersault into the air, not get caught and land on her chin. On Thursday, Nikolay Goncharov aged 15 who is bounced high into the air off a see-saw, failed to land on his chair-on-stilts).
The director said he didn’t expect perfection. Sometimes electronic robots made mistakes – could more be expected of humans who were so complex? An opera singer who got out of condition could sing less loudly and with less emotion. But circus artists could not slow down as that could involve someone’s life.
“What’s the mortality rate?”
“There occur some casualties. Artists are good at surviving. Irina, from the Sputnik trapeze act, was performing in Tbilisi, Georgia several years ago and fell. She broke every bone. Doctors put every bone together but she was not allowed to move an inch for months. She took a special course of medical exercises and got better.”
The director used to be an actor but broke his left leg and had to go into administrative work.
Strongman Vyachslev Anochin mentioned that another strongman had been killed when one of his heavy juggling balls hit him on the forehead rather than the neck.
The clown Andrei Nikolayev’s arrival from shopping ended the morbidity. He said most people thought a clown was crazy all the time, though he did his best not to look like a clown when he was off-duty. He had a request from a powerful source, namely his wife, not to be so funny. He wanted to get his wife into his act, but would have to wait until she was older and less pretty.
“What’s your theory of humour?” I asked. “Is it that pain gives pleasure to others?”
“That is so in overseas circuses. They have a point of view that the more a clown is beaten, the funnier it is. I don’t agree. In my act, I beat, I am not beaten.”
His tactics were to concentrate on the sourpusses in the audience; the others would laugh anyway. The people who laughed easily did not interest him.
One of the basic features of humour was the unexpected. Most people scratched their right ear with their right hand. He would bring his left hand round his back to do it. He would dust off a chair and sit somewhere else, or walk away from a balloon to aim at it, instead of towards it.
“Part of the soul of each clown is the soul of a child. I still learn from children, like the little girl I saw on the Black Sea, fighting with a plastic crocodile. May I meet only plastic crocodiles in my bath!”
Inevitably, we were drawn to the air-conditioned lair of Ivan Ruban, the animal trainer. Small, mild and wearing a clerkish pair of rimless spectacles, he was exclaiming at the beauty of new hardboard floors just installed in the cages.
He gave his lion, Leo, a caress through the bars, crooning something at it.
His personality guide to his wild beasts was:
Lion: Dignified but as eager for smooching as any cat.
Tiger: Not as strong but could probably outfox a lion in a fight.
Black panther: Temperamental, stubborn and slow to train.
Snow leopard: Reacts immediately if it dislikes something.
Sumatran tiger: Unstable, as likely to bite his hand as lick it.
Brown bears: Deceitful, capable of feigning friendliness in order to attack you. The biggest, the Siberian bear, has a head the size of a 44-gallon drum but it’s so well trained that it carries Ivan’s whip around for him. (Ivan’s whip is more to impress the audience than the bears).
Polar bears: Jealous. It could be fatal to give one of the pair just one lump of sugar extra.
We have entrepreneur Michael Edgley 24, to thank for this 16-week Australian tour. He went through half a dozen circuses in Russia, picking out their best acts for an ensemble. He’s hoping for a million ticket sales to cover costs and make a profit.
The logistics alone are startling. The circus travels via 15 semi-trailers hauling, among other things, the (claimed) world’s biggest tent of one-acre extent. Erected, it’s green on top with red flags flying from four giant mastheads. The sides are red and blue.
This tent involves 4.5 tons of canvas, 2.5 miles of rope and (claimed) ability to withstand gales of 180mph. Now THAT’S a big top.
UPDATE: I can’t let the clown stories pass without adding today the unfunny story of two Moscow clowns Bim and Bom at a performance in 1918. They were prone to making outrageous jokes — like Bom toting portraits of Trotsky and Lenin, and Bim asking what he planned to do. “I’ll hang one and put the other against the wall,” Bom says. Whatever joke they made at this performance, some Cheka (Party police) present weren’t amused and climbed on stage to arrest Bom.
People tittered, thinking it was part of the act. But when Bom fled, the Chekhists began firing their Browning pistols into the air, panicking the audience. Bom hid in the stables behind. Next day they were both interrogated, still in costumes including Bim with a giant chrysanthemum in the buttonhole of his tuxedo. Luckily, they survived their mistake.
The dangerous nature of clowning in Stalin’s time is suggested by this joke: Stalin attends the premiere of a Soviet comedy movie. He laughs and grins throughout the film, but after it ends he says, “Well, I liked the comedy. But that clown had a moustache just like mine. Shoot him.” Everyone is speechless, until someone sheepishly suggests, “Comrade Stalin, maybe the actor shaves off his moustache?” Stalin replies, “Good idea! First shave, then shoot!
Tony Thomas’s book The West: An insider’s tales is available here