On Saturday we went to the circus. This is a touring circus, but unlike British and American circuses it is not in a big top (a tent) but in a building, most big cities have a suitable building for this kind of event. Also unlike British and American circuses, the use of animals in Russian circuses is still common, and at times it can seem like the animals are unhappy or do not deserve the kind of captivity where they are compelled to perform for the entertainment of humans. I was a little uncomfortable at that aspect, but these are shows that are enjoyed by Russian families and children, so for the purpose of this blog I will put my misgivings aside.
There were lots of families, lots of children there (I did not spot any of my students), there was a metal detector on the door and a cloakroom inside to leave our coats. There were several tables offering services like face-painting, and selling novelty toys, popcorn and drinks. For a modest fee you could have your photograph taken with some of the animal stars of the show ranging from parrots to poodles to a horse.
We took our seats high above the circus ring – the stairs were quite steep and it was easy to lose your footing, it seemed like another example of Russia’s less than wholehearted commitment to health and safety. When the bell rang everyone took their seats, and an orchestra in an alcove above the entrance to the ring started playing – it sounded like 40s American jazz.
Throughout the show there were two clowns keeping the audience entertained between set-ups. One was very traditionally dressed – colourful suit, big shoes, red nose, orange wig, and a squeaky voice. The other was a bit more off-beat, he had a black suit and a pork-pie hat, he wore thick goggle-glasses and had a white-painted nose, he spoke with a more raspy voice. He was obviously Clown Number Two and more of the straight man, possibly a younger clown actor learning his craft from the older Clown Number One. They did the usual clown antics of throwing things at each other, chasing each other, hitting each other, there were sausages, they were stolen by a dog, Clown Number One looked bemused. There was some audience participation, and some instances of audience connivance (when a small child ran out to burst one of the clowns’ balloons). They had a live rat, which they put in a bag with a live cat, and then pulled out a live beaver. They also had ducks.
The first act (after some warm-up dancers) was an acrobat, she flew through the air on a rope, sometimes hanging by the back of her neck, but more usually spinning and twirling, as acrobats do.
Then the poodles came out. Mostly poodles, there was a Labrador pushing a hollow cylinder, which the poodles would run through as it moved, also a couple of smaller dogs. They ran round the ring on four legs, and two legs, they jumped over each other, they barked in time to the music. They formed a canine conga line which was quite funny to watch. The handler also had some parrots doing tricks – red and green ones and white ones, but their tricks were not so spectacular as the dogs’.
There were some more semi-acrobatic dancers, then what I thought was the best act in the show, a troupe of male acrobats dressed like New Orleans carnival zombies, doing jumps and leaps from a high swinging platform, and landing either on each others linked wrists, or a giant red cushion. All of this was accompanied by swing-style boogie-woogie music.
One of the clowns did a sequence with some beavers, going over fences, under bridges, pulling a little trolley, climbing ladders and swinging on platforms… it wasn’t really that inspiring, even when one beaver slid down a slide into some water. That’s like basic beavering 101. I’m surprised they didn’t get them to build a dam.
There was a lady with a dancing horse – she had a riding crop in her hand though I didn’t see her use it, it distracted from the act for me. There was a lady who had taught cats to do tricks, though some of the cats seemed reluctant and failed/refused. I think at least one of those was deliberate as she produced a different cat who did the same trick perfectly, so maybe it was just setting audience expectations.
The same cat-lady came out at the end with some bigger cats – these were the stars of the show, four white tigers. A protective fence was erected before this final act, just in case one of the tigers decided the audience looked tastier than the trainer’s rewards. They did pretty much the same tricks as the smaller cats – weaving between poles, jumping from table to table, climbing ladders.
It was an entertaining show, even if I didn’t understand what the clowns were babbling on about, most of the entertainment was in the music and the spectacle. It is the first circus I have been to in about 40 years and I can see why they have been popular for many hundreds of years and continue to be so today.