Oh What A Circus!

Charlie Bain reviews the opening night of Moscow State Circus

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A cold, wet Ealing Common hardly looks like a place of mystery and magic, but yesterday it was served up with a feast for the senses as the Moscow State Circus came to town.

Babushkin Sekret, the name of the current show which began its two year cycle roughly twelve months ago, is an adaptation of the famous Russian ‘Twelve Chairs’ story.

The two clowns Valerik and Valik hunt relentlessly for Grandmother Tania’s treasure, hidden inside one of the eight (not twelve, for good reason) family chairs dispersed around Russia, yet they manage to search in such a comically inadequate way that you begin to wonder if even the fact that their eventual success is written in the script will prevent another bungling failure.

At the start the audience did not quite know what to make of the clowns but as the show went on they managed to make everyone feel involved, some more involved than they wanted to be (Top tip: avoid the front row if you value your pride!). A truly great comedian is able to change your own perception of what you find amusing, and Valerik and Valik had even the most reserved viewers in hysterics by the end. A particular favourite of mine was Valerik preparing the crowd for the ‘rabbit out of the hat’ routine, and then pulling the actual word “rabbit,” made of white fur, from his bowler.

The real strength of this show was its seamless transition from one act to another without losing the continuity of the story. The clowns were essentially used as an entertaining distraction while the equipment for the other performers was changed and checked. And double-checked, hopefully, given the nature of some of the stunts these artists were pulling.

Yana Alieva soared above the crowd in her revolving hula hoop suspended from a chandelier while spinning other rings from various parts of her body. If it sounds bizarre that is because it was, but her performance was utterly compelling. Yana’s finale saw her bent back over the hoop, a ring spinning on each forearm and one leg with the other poised below her, arched as a graceful counterweight.

Next were the Alikhanov Wanderers with their Perch Pole routine, a display of remarkable balance as the men balanced ten metre high metal rods on their heads while the women demonstrated a variety of elegant poses on top of them.

Those in the crowd of a more nervous disposition were thankful for a spectacle based on the ground in the form of the skipping troupe Skakacki 9, until of course they started doing back flips over the ropes. The chair theme was integrated into the routine in a very imaginative way, but I am not going to give away too many secrets.

Yulia and Sasha swung around the circus tent far more fluidly than Tarzan ever managed, repeatedly meeting each other in perfect synchronicity and dancing together in the air like spirits.

The biggest applause for one act in the entire show was reserved for the Shcherbakovs, a trio of jugglers who were already awing the audience with their ground routine before they climbed onto a huge revolving structure, continuing to hurl their clubs halfway across the circus in anticipation of where the intended recipient would be in a couple of seconds time. As a juggler it was one of the few performances I could really quantify in terms of difficulty, and I can confirm that this particular display is simply ridiculous.

After the interval in which the audience went outside to get cold again (it was a lovely temperature inside the tent) the slightly ominously named S.T.A.L.K.E.R.S. took to the stage. Happily, they turned out to be a group of incredibly accomplished tightrope walkers. This act was the ultimate demonstration of how there was consistently no compromise of beauty. Wire walkers regularly use balancing poles; understandably the men did because they were taking the weight of others on their shoulders and even heads (again, no spoilers!), but the women carried only a large feather in one hand and a lantern in another, adding to the mystical nature of the performance.

The Bamboo came next with the partnership of Pavel and Elena demonstrating their personal interpretation of the originally Chinese act. When I looked down at my notebook after they had concluded their ten minute display I realised that I had not written a single word, which really tells you all you need to know about these two.

By this time the show was nearing its end, and during another hilarious set piece from the two clowns involving a ladder and a hat they suddenly notice the eighth and final chair hanging above them. Unsurprisingly their ladder completely fails to reach their target and they enlist the help of Sasha, a gymnast of incredible strength who constructs and ascends a tower of seven chairs to reach the last one. He is successful, and we finally discover what has become of the treasure.

The Rubtsov Jesters complete the show with their mesmerising acrobatics around the stage, showing off flips and pirouettes that an Olympic vaulter would be proud of. It is the ideal end to an orgy of colour and talent.

Every single act was a showcase in practiced perfection. In fact the artists looked so comfortable in carrying out these astonishing routines that you almost began to forget the skill and dedication required to reach the necessary standard. On the way home my cousin maintained that he could have joined the circus because he was “alright at gymnastics at school,” yet no one in that audience could have performed the simplest aspects of the acts of these professionals.

If the Moscow State Circus is the legacy left by Grandmother Tania to Valerik then he can count himself as one lucky clown.

Charlie Bain

You can catch the show until Sunday 30th October




20th October 2011


















Charlie Bain

20th October 2011