Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature


The Circuses of Europe

A. Gryazno

Written: 1963;
Source: The Soviet Circus: A Collection of Articles, 1967;
Translated: Fainna Glagoleva;
Compiled: Alexander Lipovsky;
Photographs: Y. Savalov and others;
HTML Markup: For in February, 2002.

"Vladimir Durov, who made his circus debut thirty years ago, belongs to a family of Russian animal-trainers already famous in the second half of the 19th century. Durov's uncle, Anatoly Durov, toured Belgium in the 20s. Some of you may still remember him."

Thus, in 1958, the Belgian press announced the coming tour of Vladimir Durov, People's Artiste of the R.S.F.S.R.

Durov was greeted warmly by his audiences. His animals appeared in all the newspapers and magazines, on TV and in the newsreels. According to the many hardened reporters covering the story, the "master trainer and his amazing caravanserai," were a sensation under the Big Top. Each and every act was magnificent: the elephant giving the juggling seal the correct time, the flying mice, the jumping foxes, the cocks and cats. In the finale Durov released hundreds of doves. His success was unprecedented: the audience rose as one man, the ovation was thunderous.

"Nothing is impossible as far as Durov is concerned. Not a single animal can hope to escape his thoughtful eye, and there is reason to believe that he will one day make goldfish jump through a hoop and flies march around on their hind legs!" This was how Durov was presented to Belgium's radio listeners.

News of the triumph of the Soviet circus was passed on by word of mouth. Crowds of Belgians and visitors to the Brussels World Fail stormed the administration offices and crowded round the Soviet performers. Thousands of people followed Durov on the street when he took his four-legged troupe for an airing during the small hours of the night. One could hear the applause blocks away when Baby the Hippo would suddenly stop in his walk to lick Durov's hand or the elephant would bow gracefully to the crowds.

The press described each of Durov's acts in detail. "Durov fires a pistol, but the dove sitting on the barrel doesn't even fly away. His fox and hen play happily together. There are a cat and rats who live in peace and friendship. Durov has turned all the old accepted maxims upside down. He has pushed back the boundaries of what we consider to be reasonable and understandable. His choice of animals for his troupe is fantastic. Durov's hippopotamus even does somersaults."

Not many knew the unusual and nearly tragic story of Malysh ("Baby") the Hippo.

"It was the dream of my life," Vladimir Durov said. "As you know, all the men in our family were animal-trainers. My uncle, who died in 1928, bequeathed his troupe to me.

"'You must love animals. They are completely within man's power,' my uncle said. 'Each and every one can be taught something. There is only one animal that cannot be trained, and that is a hippopotamus'' "

And here we have a hippopotamus in the circus arena.

"How long did it take you to train Baby?" a famous zoologist once asked Durov.

"A year," Durov said.

"Why, that's impossible! And what did you find most difficult?"

"Making the huge animal do somersaults." Truly, the story of the performing hippopotamus is the story of the animal-trainer's feat. His success was based on the accumulated experience of the Russian and Soviet schools of animal training and on his own fundamental knowledge of nature and the animal world.

Vladimir Durov got Baby in 1956. He led the giant right into the ring and kept a close watch on him, to see what he liked. What were Baby's ways and habits? What was he capable of doing?

Circus audiences will never forget Durov's favourite act. It stars his elephant, Masha Grey, and is called "The Gypsy Dance."

This is how it came into being.

During a rehearsal one of Durov's assistants climbed onto Masha's back. The animal was annoyed and tried to throw the man by shaking its shoulders. This first timid movement furnished the idea for the skit. Through repetition these movements gradually became established. Masha Grey was an instant success as a fiery gypsy dancer in many circuses of the world.

The elephant has been man's helper since ancient times. The hippopotamus has no such distant history. How then did Durov train Baby? This is what he says:

"As I watched Baby, I sensed in him a love for adventure. Of course, it was still too dangerous to take him out for walks, but he was always ready to explore the circus corridors and was even eager to climb the stairs to the upper floors. I put this inborn curiosity to use, encouraging it with kind words and tasty tidbits. Once, Baby fell head over heels and landed on his stomach. He was very frightened. But I calmed him with the magic word "Brave," which all my animals know. Repeating this day after day and gradually increasing the range of his movements, I taught Baby to do somersaults in the ring."

The impossible had been achieved! Audiences took Baby to their hearts; they recognised him on his walks in the cities of the world.

We started out by saying that Baby's story was both unusual and nearly tragic. The tragic part occurred in Italy. The circus arena in Rome is slanted. Durov entered with Baby. He spoke to the hippo through a microphone. Baby became nervous. He was not used to the strange sound of a human voice coming over a microphone. The animal did not recognise it as the live, kind voice of its trainer. Baby did his act badly. The slanting floor made his tricks more difficult and he tired quickly. Durov recalls that he should have stopped the act at that point, that he was wrong in urging the animal on. Baby suddenly became angry, he lowered his head and made a dash for Durov. It took nerves of steel and great patience to calm the enraged hippo.

The flattering words of praise in newspaper reviews are a tribute to the trainer's courage and love for his chosen profession.

After watching one of the performances, Gianni Rodari, the well-known Italian author, wrote an article entitled "The Lunik of All Circuses Has Arrived from Moscow." "Vladimir Durov's Noah's ark is but one of the impossible acts which the Moscow Circus is presenting round the world and has now brought to Italy. His acts are a study in rhythm, high spirits and innovation."

Following is an excerpt from a review by Salvatore Quasimode, "The Circus with an Ancient Past." "The inimitable Vladimir Durov trains animals according to a scientific method which excludes any form of pressure or force. This kindly trainer, convinced that coexistence is possible among peoples and, therefore, among animals, has brought together cocks and foxes and cats and mice and has taught hunted game to surrender to the victor to avoid unnecessary bloodshed." (He has in mind "The Hunter's Dream" in which no sooner does Durov shoulder his gun than ducks begin falling into his game bag.)

"The actor's skill, his friendliness towards his furred and feathered partners, be they wild beasts or domestic animals, are a guarantee of his popularity with any audience. Even when playing to reserved English audiences his act was invariably accompanied by laughter and applause."

There is reason why Durov receives hundreds of letters from fans, circus attendants, performers and actors in every country he has toured. Quite recently Robert Delnest, the well-known Belgian painter, sent Durov one of his monographs with the following inscription: "I am sending you this small work on Soviet art so you may know how I admire your great and wonderful country, its people and the creative spirit which is ever gaining momentum for the good of all mankind."

There were many words of praise and gratitude for the truly humane, artistic performances which Durov and his colleagues gave in France and Luxembourg. They were besieged by fans backstage and in the streets of Paris and Marseilles, Turin, Lyon, and Liege, for the language of the circus is indeed international. A gentleman came up to Durov after a press conference in Italy and confessed:

"Senor Durov, I was really prejudiced against the Russians. I'll have to change my opinions now."

During an informal meeting of Soviet performers and the actors of the Unity Theatre in Great Britain there were songs in Russian and in English and many manifestations of friendship.

Durov's act is synonymous with performing animals. But these animals are not his captives. No member of the Durov dynasty has ever been seen brandishing a stick or a whip. The "actors" perform freely, mischievously and even with obvious pleasure. Herein lies not only the "secret" of their training, which is based on encouraging' their natural instincts and habits, but of the humane nature of our art. The Soviet circus is known as "the arena of friendship," "the arena of peace."