Russians take their circus very seriously. If you watch the Russia’s Got Talent (which is actually called Fifteen Minutes of Fame, and once had someone called Mikhail Gorbachov as a judge. I could care less but Mama thought this was hysterical, so I assume he must have been a particularly dishy celebrity or something back in Mama’s day) you will very soon notice that by far the largest category of performers are doing some kind of circus act. Mama thinks they are very good too, but then Mama’s idea of amateur circus is people throwing wobbly juggling balls about and, generally, missing. University does sound fun.
Whatever the reason, Moscow has not one but two large permanent circus buildings and we went to the Old Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, also known as the Nikulin Circus after one of its most famous clowns/ directors when we were in town this past summer.
A lot of what we saw was the sort of modern take on acrobatics popularised by the Cirque du Soleil. Mama tells me. Trapeze artists who swing upside down low over the audience; people dangling from long swatches of material; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and then unwinding with a flourish; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and unwinding themselves with a flourish while swinging upside down low over the audience; people wrapping other people up and down in long swatches of material while they all swing upside down low over the audience with their legs at an impossible angle. That sort of thing. Also, large men tossing a couple of tiny girls from one metal bar to another and a couple of lads performing tricks at the top of ladders. Very exciting, especially when one of them fell off. If it doesn’t go wrong occasionally, Mama says, you don’t know how difficult it is. Having seen the spill, I suspect that it was all very difficult indeed.
Mama also thinks the high wire act, half of which was done without a net or wires was pretty thrilling, especially as the performance area is well-designed to be both spacious and intimate and even from the cheap seats you get a really good view of the slight twitch of concern that crosses the burly walker’s face as he slides across the wire carrying five of his family and somebody wobbles.
I missed that bit. I was asleep. I also missed the set up, done in the interval, which was almost as much fun as the act itself (apparently). A couple of men swarming easily up and down ropes to secure the fastenings and bouncing casually up and down on the wire itself to test its strength. Splendid. Mama says. She was quite pleased to be stuck under a snoring child while the others queued for the toilet.
Not that my falling asleep was a reflection on my enjoyment – I was jet lagged and put off the snooze as long as I could. Mama was initially a bit dubious about taking me to a show. She does not have good memories of taking my Glorious Big Brother to places where he needed to sit down quietly for extended periods of time before he was about three. However, since both Papa and Babushka were also going she reasoned that the adults could work in shifts to walk me up and down the corridor while the rest of our party were enjoying the turns. This turned out to be unnecessary. Despite the fact that the show was very very long, while I was awake I was entirely rapt. As were the others. None of us noticed the time until we were out at the end.
Mama even enjoyed the clowns, which is not a sentence she thought she’d be typing ever. They made considerable reference to the traditional clowning elements of mime, pratfalls, squirting the audience with water, much business with unicycles and very big shoes, but much updated and very slick. Mama actually cried with laughter during the mass clapalong section, choreographed by the head clown, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
That said, it’s worth mentioning that a circus in Russia is not the place to go if you have scruples about performing animals.
Now it would be a mistake, Mama thinks, to assume that all circus animals are mistreated simply by virtue of being in a circus, especially in one of the foremost professional performance spaces in Russia.
And generally they stick to the sorts of trainable animals that work for their keep all over the world.
So the bird act was fun, but similar to the ones we’ve seen in high minded conservation projects in the UK, although generally the trainers there are not dressed as pirates; the bareback riders were impressive but slight compared to their extremely sturdy shire-esque mounts; Mama is reasonably sure it’s easier to get dogs to jump over things, even other dogs, than sing; the horses going through dressage moves without actually being in physical contact with their trainer were beautiful, but we watched the same thing in Hyde Park just this week, albeit without the music and the shiny harnesses.
But there were elephants too. Elephants carrying people. And an elephant standing on a ball, a genuinely awesome moment. Mama would like to extend the trainers a bit of trust regarding that trick, but these large exotic animal finales are the ones that get circuses a bad name.
And when Mama walked into the spacious (and very Soviet) reception area (all gleaming marble floors and fancy chandeliers overlaying what would otherwise be a very functional sort of layout) she was shocked to see the tiger waiting quietly have its photo taken with the kids. Also, the bear, the elephant, the leopard, the kangaroo, the toucan and the monkeys. Mama consoles herself with the thought that the circus’s schedule is not demanding even in the high season, but thinks that if you are going to boycott the circus over the animal issue, then this should be your reason why.
Depending on your decision, by and large the Nikulin Circus is one of the places to take the under tens in Moscow. And the over tens. You don’t even have to spend a fortune. The performers do project the best bits towards the high paying punters at the ‘front’. But because it is, after all, a circus and so the performance space is in the round and since all the artists, human and animal, spend quite a bit of the time racing, swinging or flying around the circle, Mama does not plan to be spending any more money next time we go. Look out for ticket selling kiosks all around town for the better deals.
This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about making your own juggling balls.
Address: 13, Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow, Russia, 127051
Performance times: 7pm Thursday to Sunday, with additional 11am and 2.30 pm performances at weekends.
Price: Children under six are free if they sit on your lap!
By Metro: Tsvetnoy Boulevard on the grey line/ Trubnaya on the light green line. The circus is on your right as you exit.
By other means: Just get the Metro. It’s fab.