Big top from Red Square

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Big top from Red Square

The Soviet Union may have collapsed, but at least one of its old systems hasn’t changed.
During the Cold War, sports and the arts were heavily sponsored by the state. And in Russia, that’s still the case ― if you’re a circus performer (or want to be one).
“Actually, the quality of the people we get has gotten better,” says Sergey Ivanovich Shabanov, director of the Bolshoi Circus, which is at Gymnastics Hall in Jamsil Olympic Park in southern Seoul through Jan. 25.
“Even before (the fall of the Soviet Union), being an accomplished artist meant you had a better life than some. Now the money is (even) better,” Mr. Shabanov says.
How embedded is the circus culture in Russia? Take a look at this quote from a Sept. 1997 edition of the St. Petersburg Times:
“Only here, in Russia, can a circus clown become a national hero while telling the authorities just what he wants. Only in Russia can a hundred newspapers immediately write about the death of a famous clown, and the president announce on television to the citizens of the country that Yury Nikulin ‘was the most talented and kind artist.’”
According to the article, Mr. Nikulin, one of the country’s best-known clowns, was buried in the Novodevichy national cemetery, near such major literary figures as Nikolai Gogol.

Russia has 42 circuses, all of them state-run, according to Mr. Shabanov. Virtually every big city has a circus academy, and so do some of the smaller ones.
Five years is the minimum training period in these academies, though some aspiring performers stay longer, Mr. Shabanov. Just as in the old days, many of Russia’s most talented circus artists have trained since they were children.
Mr. Shabanov himself has been in the profession since his teens. Now 48, he has 32 years of experience under his belt, first as an acrobat and later as a bear trainer.
“Aside from us, China has very good circus artists, but I would like to say that Russia is the only country that has been grooming them traditionally, in a systematic way,” he says proudly.
Another country known for producing excellent performers is North Korea.
“In the past, we had (North Korean) students coming to Russia to learn the trade,” Mr. Shabanov says. “But after Russia opened up diplomatic relations with South Korea, I have not seen too many of them.”
South Korea has some circuses, but none that come anywhere near the scale of the Bolshoi Circus ― a touring show whose performers come from all 42 of Russia’s state-sponsored big tops.
A recent performance opened with 21 dancers, men and women dressed in traditional Russian clothing ― a short performance (a mere three minutes) that served the purpose of starting the evening off with some Russian flavor.
The trapeze act that followed was almost mystical. Taking place in total darkness, it featured five acrobats in luminous costumes, swinging from trapezes about 20 meters (65 feet) above the crowd. It was amazing that they could perform such feats in darkness that made it hard for those of us in the audience to see our own hands. The only drawback was that it left one wanting more, as it only lasted about 10 minutes. Then again, the brevity of the performance might have spared the crowd some neck pain.
Next on the program was a dog act, in which 12 spitzes jumped over little barricades, reared up on command and wove around their trainer’s legs as he walked. This might have been nothing new for some pet owners, accustomed to dogs running around their legs, but for the countless kids in attendance, the dozen snow-white dogs acting in unison were no doubt an eyeful.
Following this was a gymnastics act called “Russian Bar,” in which two assistants carried a shorter (and improvised) version of a gymnastics bar, which a female athlete used as a launching pad to do well-timed double and triple flips in the air.
Another feat of gymnastics followed ― this one performed on rings, of the sort that are familiar from the Olympics, except that the gymnast was about 30 meters off the ground. As if anyone needed to accentuate the consequences that a fall from that height would entail, the gymnast first placed a samurai sword, its blade pointing to the sky, in roughly the spot where he would land if such a thing happened. (It didn’t.)
Next came a tightrope act that drew constant applause. The tightrope walker wasn’t particularly high off the ground ― perhaps six feet or so. On the other hand, it was a Siberian bear.

After a 20-minute intermission came the second half, kicked off with the roars (and the odor) of 10 Sumatran tigers. This is the smallest tiger subspecies, but they’re formidable enough ― an average male weighs about 120 kilograms (265 pounds) is 2.4 meters long from head to tail.
To the commands of their trainer, the tigers jumped through rings of fire, rolled over and leapfrogged over each other. The occasional roar and swipe at the trainer might have been prompted by the trainer’s discreet signals, but they were enough to make the audience glad to be outside the ring.
The finale involved a troupe of acrobats, 14 in all, who used swings to propel themselves onto chairs about 10 meters off the ground, supported by poles held by others. This performance, which has won several awards at international circus festivals, has to be seen to be appreciated ― it had the audience holding its breath with each feat.
The two-hour-plus show was chilly (you’ll want to keep your coat on) but solid fun for families who aren’t willing to cross the DMZ to see first-class circus performers. And by the time anyone reading this sees it, it might have gotten even better; at this writing, a performance involving 13 horses was still on hold, as the horses were being held up for inspection by Korean authorities.

by Brian Lee

The Bolshoi Circus will be at Gymnastics Hall in Jamsil Olympic Park through Jan. 25; take subway line No. 5 to Olympic Park Station and use exit 3. Ticket prices range from 20,000 won ($17) to 80,000 won. Performances are at 3 and 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; 2 and 6 p.m. Wednesday through Jan. 23; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24, and 2 and 6 p.m. Jan. 25. There will be no performance Monday. Reservations can be made over the Internet at or; for more information or group reservations of 30 or more, call (02) 786-3131.
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