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


Fond Recollections

Alisa Koonen

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.

I have loved the circus ever since I was a child. My first impressions were very vivid. In my memory, as in a picture album, are recollections of Vladimir Durov's "Animal Railway." of the bold political satire of Anatolv Durov, the magnificent stables of the Russian trainers Nikitin, Mangelli and Leri, and of the colourful circus pantomimes. It was the turn of the 20th century and circus performances were enveloped in great pomp and circumstance. The competing managers and directors spared no effort to outdo each other, to amaze the public by the magnificent adornment of the horses, by fake jewels that glittered brilliantly, by the fabulous ostrich trimmings on the costumes and by the use of dazzling lights.

This "magnificence" often overshadowed the performers' excellent showmanship. However, the overall impression of these spectaculars was awe-inspiring, fascinating and colourful. It could not but hypnotise me at the time.

No wonder then that each new visit to the circus filled me with a desire to be like the fearless gymnasts, the graceful bareback riders, the exquisite tightrope-walkers and the temperamental dancers that were a part of every performance.

My first public appearance took place soon after visit to the circus, when I decided to try my skill on a tightrope. I recall I was spending the summer in the country and pretended that our cottage was a circus arena. With this as my starting point, it was easy to construct a makeshift stage from two stools and an ironing board. I then strung a heavy cord between them, put on a pair of crimson trousers, took up an umbrella and, balancing carefully, began my trip across the rope. From then on I began practising in earnest, devoting my time to gymnastics and dancing as well. All this helped me to become light and graceful, and I was always ready to perform at the drop of a hat. I was fifteen that autumn and took the entrance examinations at the Actor's Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre. The members of the examining committee (Maxim Gorky was one of them and seemed huge and melancholy to me) were sitting in judgement in the theatre lobby. When it was my turn, I took a flying jump to the little stage where I was to recite a poem, and no one but a circus performer could have appreciated it. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko probably thought I was still a baby and said rather sternly: You had better stay at home a while longer and read some good books." However, they accepted me, and this in spite of the fact that there were no vacancies.

Then began my unforgettable years of study at the Studio and, later, my work at the theatre under the direction of Stanislavsky. He himself loved the circus and would often repeat half-seriously: "The circus is the best place in the world." And that is why, several years later, a large part of one of the Art Theatre's "Merry Evenings" was devoted to circus clowning.

That evening the theatre was transformed into a large carnival hall with tables set up in the dress circle. L. Geltzer, a well-known actress of the Bolshoi Theatre, kept busy selling champagne at one of the stands. Meanwhile, a "circus" programme was in full swing on stage, with the entire troupe of the Moscow Art Theatre, headed by Stanislavsky, Kachalov, Moskvin and Olga Knipper-Chekhova, performing.

Fyodor Shalyapin took part in the performance, appearing as a circus strong man.

The young students often had the leading roles in these "Merry Evenings." Thus it was that I appeared with Stanislavsky. He played the part of a horse-trainer, while I was a Spanish bareback rider. My "steed" was a spirited white wooden horse. It was life-size and secured to a revolving disc. I was to go through all my tricks, smiling the traditional smile, moving in a direction opposite to that of the horse. It was then that my love of the circus stood me in good stead. The act was a difficult one, and we had rehearsed it for quite a while. In the mornings in a part of the theatre lobby walled off with sheets of plywood, Stanislavsky would practise the difficult art of wielding a cane under the watchful eye of a professional circus horse-trainer. One could hear the snapping of a whip and the ever-present "hup!" pronounced in the tone of a command by the diligent pupil.

I will never forget my feeling of despair during the dress rehearsal, when it suddenly became apparent that the rider's costume rented for the occasion from the circus wardrobe was too heavy and cumbersome and quite unsuited for the light humour and mischievous spirit of my performance. I kept tripping on the hoops, while the stiff bodice, encrusted with a mass of glass beads, was suffocating.

Maria Lilina, Stanislavsky's wife and one of the Moscow Art Theatre actresses, came to my rescue, as she had done so many times before for young actresses in distress. From the bottom of her "magic" trunk she brought forth a wide gauze cape covered with red sequins. She draped it around me like a skirt, winding a bright scarf around me for a bodice with a large bow on the side. To complete my costume, she stuck a huge red cloth poppy in my hair and then clapped her hands with pleasure. "That's just what you want, something light and amusing," she said. I felt very secure in my new costume and ran excitedly towards my "steed." The improvised skirt fluttered about me as was only proper. My act was included in the programme and was a success. The horse "galloped" along the stage, while I did my breath-taking tricks, bending so low at times that my long braids dragged on the floor. Stanislavsky cracked his whip with obvious pleasure. He had on a huge black moustache and was made up to resemble a Spaniard. Indeed, he looked exactly like the formidable trainer he was impersonating.

Several years later it was my good fortune to work with A. Tairov, People's Artiste of the R.S.F.S.R., a wonderful director and circus lover. The troupe of actors working with him at the Kamerny Theatre belonged to different schools and directions of acting. Tairov, who dreamed of a composite theatre, strived to combine and blend the various elements of harlequinade, tragedy, operetta, pantomime and the circus.

He believed that a new type of actor, one who was equally at ease in any genre, could become the driving force behind such a theatre.

"The emotional gesture, the emotional form, is the theatrical synthesis without which there can be no contemporary theatre and in which all spheres of stagecraft are organically blended," Tairov said. "Thus, in one and the same presentation all the elements which are now artificially separated--words, singing, pantomime, dancing and even the circus--will blend in harmony, becoming, as a result, a unified and monolithic theatrical presentation." Tairov demanded that his actors have not only perfect voice control, but perfect body control as well. He said we should learn this art from the circus performers whose every leap was not only bold, but justified as well.

Sometimes, when watching an unsuccessful performance, he would repeat Goethe's remark on the theatre: "I would like the stage to be as narrow as the rope of a rope-walker: this would discourage many untalented persons from choosing it as their career.

These were not empty words. During rehearsals of Donani's pantomime, Lecocq's comic operas and Day and Night, the stage became a circus ring. Professional acrobats and jugglers would teach the actors their tricks. Later, when we were rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, we watched a circus performer patiently teach our young Romeo how to climb a rope-ladder gracefully to Juliet's balcony. The circus touches that Tairov used with such imagination did much to enrich our performances.

As the years passed I became more and more enamoured of the circus. I never missed an opportunity to see a performance, either at home or abroad. During one of our foreign tours I was indeed fortunate to see the magnificent clown Grok.

I still follow the careers of Soviet circus performers closely, for they represent the most courageous and beautiful of all arts.