Slava the clown changes Russian circus

Professional clown, Slava Polunin (left) and head of Upsala Circus, Larisa Afanasyeva (right) at the press lunch in Bushe bakery (Photo credit: Elizaveta Habarova)

A circus performance that shakes up tradition and gives back to the community

“A juggler is a person who can do everything, and he has planets – not balls – in his hands. This is a person who contains the entire universe in himself and knows how to treat it as a friend.”

This is how the legendary Russian clown Slava Polunin explained juggling, the topic of the “Circus and street theatre” section at the V International Cultural Forum held in St Petersburg last week.

Moderating the creative part of the section for the fourth year already, Polunin always manages to make his part at the Forum the most lively and vivid in contrast to other, more conforming sections run solely by the government.

Who is Slava?

Slava Polunin has magically transformed the essence of circus in Russia. He was the one who founded Mummers theatre at the end of 60s, organised the extremely successful “Mime-parade” in 80s, introduced significant western circus artists to the Soviet Union, and arranged the first ever All-Union festival of street theatres – all before 1991.

“Slava’s Snow Show” is now travelling around the world (Screengrab)
“Slava’s Snow Show” is now travelling around the world (Screengrab)

Since then, Polunin has switched from pantomime to clownage, and up to this year he has staged more than 30 performances all over the world, including the Slava’s Diabolo with Terry Gilliam, one of the acts in Cirque du Soleil’s Alegría, and the most recent one Snow Show.

There are 42 stationary and 11 tent circuses in Russia that are associated to an establishment called Rosgoscirk, or Russian State Circus. The organisation founded in 1995 has preserved a tradition of circus performance from its inception during the Soviet Union times: gymnastic performances, clowns and bringing exotic animals to the stage. Anything outside this format is still under development.

“There is a very definite idea in Russian society of what a circus is,” says Natalia Tabachnikova, executive producer at the Theatrical Сenter of Slava Polunin in Moscow. “Such things as Cirque du Soleil became known in our country respectively recently – and you know that it is quite a different performance, there is no need for bears and tigers there anymore.”

It is quite a different performance, there is no need for bears and tigers there anymore

Trying to rethink conventional Russian circus, Slava Polunin invented the concept of the New Circus that combines all varieties of modern art – no limitations. He has welded the ideas of circus and theatre together with opera, ballet, contemporary dance and other genres of performance. Few initiatives in this field have experimented with the fusion, which makes the St Petersburg-based Upsala Circus a unique experience supported by Polunin and his team.

Young hooligans take stage

Upsala Circus is neither traditional in its performances, nor with its characters. Performances combine acrobatics, hip-hop, breakdance, pantomime and juggling into its repertoire of mixed genres. The troupe includes children of different ages and similar background: they are either kids with special needs (there is a whole group of little artists with Down’s syndrome called L’Amoures), or troubled children. In the circus, they can find an alternative to street life and use these skills in their future, maybe even as circus artists.

“Our task is not to make a child turn a somersault – even raccoons can do that,” explains Larisa Afanasyeva, the executive and art director at the Upsala Circus.

There is not a special art to speaking in different languages with different people, she says; but there is a philosophy, a worldview and this is how problem children are brought up at the Upsala Circus.

“Our task is to make them raise questions,” says Afanasyeva. “[They can] look for some new forms of self-expression, explore – and for me it is just a matter of time when new type of artists will appear in our country.”

Founded in 2000, the circus had been a travelling one for 12 years; street kids and teenagers would practice with a couple of tutors right on the streets and in the parks. In 2012, a stationary circus tent was finally built. Now it welcomes visitors every week for performances, festival events and informal meetings. Best of all, the children – known as the hooligans – are the rightful owners of the place.

Slava Polunin (Photo credit: Elizaveta Habarova)
Slava Polunin (Photo credit: Elizaveta Habarova)

Circus is the art of perfection and unlimited capabilities of a person

Apart from their progressive style of performance, Upsala Circus’ more ambitious aim is to form a whole new circus culture with a creative method of working with children. In 2015, they launched the School of Circus Pedagogy that helps circus teachers themselves “to see a person in a child” – to create such an environment for children to discover their potential and develop communication skills.

“Circus is the art of perfection and unlimited capabilities of a person,” said Slava Polunin right before official opening of the Cultural Forum. These words are best experienced by attending any of the performances by Slava or by Upsala Circus. Come and see.


circusEvent: New Year Carnival Zaychestvo
About: Upsala Circus is Russia’s first social circus for children, or hooligans as they call themselves. The hooligans are a rather unique bunch, with some of them being found pan handling for cash in metro stations to those who live with Down’s syndrome or autism. The stage is an outlet to boost their self confience, showcase their talents and to entertain a delighted audience. Visit one of their shows this Christmas season!
When: 24 December to 8 January
Price: 600 roubles (no present for you!) – 1200 roubles (receive a present!)

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