The shows close but Russian stars stay behind
Vladimir Mialovski spent most of his childhood and youth performing in a red ring with his parents. He loves talking about his past, growing up on trains, in dressing rooms and in schools where he was “the circus kid” who spent his entire education changing schools every two months, the amount of time his parents, both jugglers, spent performing in one city.
He wasn’t even five years old when he was already standing in front of huge audiences. He had learned the skills, like most circus children, for a showbiz life that he knew would one day be his. He preferred the trapeze over juggling, however, and thus chose one of the more dangerous paths.
“Circus in Russia was [first] class. We were stars,” he said. By the time he made his way to the former Soviet Union’s famous circus in downtown Moscow in 1992 and signed up for Canada’s famed Cirque du Soleil headed on tour to Las Vegas, Mialovski said with a laugh that he was ready for retirement.
“It was a way of life,” Mialovski says, recalling his younger days. “We weren’t rich, we lived in basic hotels next door to the circuses, but we had a lot of fun, and we got to see the entire country.”
Like many Russian performers, Mialovski never went home after a fateful Las Vegas tour, deciding instead to try his luck in the United States. Cirque du Soleil and other circuses offered more money than Russians made at home. Even when contracts were no longer renewed, many stayed in Las Vegas and made another career.
In Mialovski’s case, he chose tae-kwon-do.
Over the past two decades, Las Vegas has attracted some of Russia’s best circus talent. Some, still the best in the business as performers or coaches, try to get an “extraordinary ability” visa, one way to gain permanent residency.
The Soviet Big Top, one of a kind
The Russian Big Top is truly singular. During Soviet times, the government designed and built gigantic – and permanent--circus arenas in 70 cities, creating a circus monopoly in the Soviet Union. Circus performers were often fond of saying that they were proud of their nation’s accomplishment and significance to the world when it came to the circus. The circus plan was more than an extraordinarily expensive endeavor that involved thousands of performers, administrators, choreographers, trainers, costume designers: It was a symbol of just how important the circus was to an empire that highly valued the performing arts and particularly those that catered to children. The circus was known as the people’s performance, filled with acts that appeared to be simple yet were extremely complex. The ostentatious buildings were the showcase of a nationalized, and politicized, circus effort.
It’s not an easy road for the clowns and the trapeze artists who stayed in the desert after the show left town.
A recent PBS report by journalism students examined how obscure legislation helps some Russian performers acquire residency through the Department of Homeland Security. For most of the world, as Mialovski explained, a circus is known as a show on the road. In fact, of all the performing arts, from opera to ballet, theater and even symphony orchestras, it’s the circus that has stood out for being a traveling performance, one that moves from city to city under a giant tent. The traveling nature of it all makes the art form unique as does the fact that it comes with trained animals and death defying tricks that sometimes are fatal.
Still, ask a Russian performer and they’ll tell you that in the world of the circus, whether East or West, it’s still about the families that pass down the traditions from generation to generation.
Then there are those that find themselves literally swept away, even if it is a cliche to “run away with the circus.” Vadim Bolotsky, a Ukrainian gymnast who graduated from the Kiev Institute of Circus Performing Arts, was that kind of performer. He worked alongside Vladimir Mialovksi in Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, and performed in the same act. He doesn’t come from a circus family, but he likes to recall his years as a performer executing the very high level of tricks the Soviets were known for and that frequently landed them lucrative contracts in western circuses when the Soviet Union collapsed.
“It was a great act,” he said. “The death drop was my favorite. It’s when I hung upside down from a bar attached to the ceiling by nothing but my ankles. I would let go of my feet and drop head first, speeding down like a bullet for about 80 feet until I hit the net.”
Bolotsky became the signature Red Bird character for three more years after his work as a trapeze artist ended. “To the audience perhaps it looks like fun,” he said. “And it was a fascinating challenge. The bird is always moving; it’s very dynamic acrobatics, and of a 90-minute show, I was moving 40 minutes, without stopping, crouched down....It was very hard on my body. I would ice my knees in these 13-gallon kitchen trash buckets full of ice between the shows, take five ibuprofens — whatever it took for the pain. But as they say, ‘The show must go on.’ “
In their own words
Jan Jones, Former Mayor of Las Vegas
" When you look at the circus, it’s the performers who have made Las Vegas. It’s not the hotels; it’s not the grandeur; it’s everything they embody about Las Vegas...It’s about the talent that it takes to create these shows we’re famous for.”
Kim Palchikoff, Director of the Tsirk (circus) project at University of Nevada
" The immigration of Russian performers...is a story of East meets West. In Vegas, as in other places, circus is about profit. Period. Back in the Motherland, it’s about art. What is the performing art called the circus and why are Russians obsessed with it?”