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Circus in Russia, Glimpse on its History
February 15, 2014 12:46

Circus art started developing in Russia rather late, and for several centuries it was growing in one direction only.

Russian circus traditions are rooted in performances of wandering comic minstrels (skomorokhi) known since the 11th century. Along with juggling, acrobatics, animal training and sound mimicking, these performances included satirical sketches, which laid the foundation to the genre of circus clownery. Old Russia, being a traditionally agrarian country without any prospects of industrial development, did not build stationary circuses. Respectively no “official” circus genres were finalized. Moreover, until the 18th century Russia had no traditions of town open-air merrymaking and buffooneries. Thus, throughout seven centuries the Russian circus art kept at the level of wandering buffoons, who were suppressed and persecuted by both secular authorities and the church power. The brightest image of such a wandering buffoon skomorokh was created by Rolan Bykov in the historical feature film Andrei Rublyov (directed by Andrey Tarkovsky).
In the 18th century, along with the massive process of Europeanisation of Russia by Peter I, city social activities were developing in St. Petersburg, and then in Moscow. It was reflected in culture, and, perhaps, most of all in prompt development of the genres of circus art.
Fair buffooneries became part of folk festivities, with acrobats, gymnasts, and jugglers entertaining people. 
Peter I founded a cabinet of curiosities (the famous Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg), where the first exhibits were specimen of creatures with deformities preserved in alcohol. In a way it bolstered up common interest in unusual people, with certain features that made them stand out from the majority of people around. Various “freaks” (“a bearded woman”, “a man dog, etc) were displayed at show booths and performed at bufooneries.
Along with that “official” court types of circus art were developing: traditions of spectacular horse roundabouts, cavalcades and other horse shows appeared in the early 18th century; and already by the middle of the 18th century real horse circus took shape in the capital city of Russia. In the early 19th century circus shows were held in the arena of Count Zavadovsky; a special building for horse performances was constructed in the Krestovsky Island of St. Petersburg. Development of diplomacy and international relations lead to more and more European circus actors, mostly Italians, touring to Russia.
The year 1849 saw the opening of the state imperial circus with a special department for training circus performers in Petersburg. In 1853 a circus building was constructed in in Petrovka Street in Moscow. However, those buildings were wooden and not very convenient. Travelling circuses, including those with serfs, sprang up in provinces. 
In December 1877 the ceremonial opening of Russia’s first stone building with circus specifics took place in Petersburg. The initiative of circus construction was prompted by the Italian equestrian and trainer Gaetano Ciniselli, the head of a big circus family, who first visited St. Petersburg on his circus tour in 1847. The circus building, which was repeatedly reconstructed, has remained at the same place in St. Petersburg and is still remembered under the name of Chiniselli Circus.
Thus the new, modern stage of development of the Russian circus was started.
Now practically all regional and large cities of Russia have their stationary circuses. Combined tour programs consisting of separate acts and stunts, as well as whole dramatized performances are made for circus shows. Every circus is headed by the art director – the principal stage director and the person in charge of its creative and financial aspects.
Circus Dynasties:
The Durovs were a famous dynasty of clowns and trainers. It was a noble family that served Russia throughout several centuries. The brothers Anatoly Leonidovich (1865–1916) and Vladimir Leonidovich (1863–1934) Durovs became founders of the circus dynasty. Their children and grandchildren kept up the tradition. 
The Zapashnys are a popular dynasty of tamers, equestrian vaulters, acrobats, and gymnasts. It was started by the clown and music eccentric Karl Thomson who toured in Russia in the late 19th century under the nickname of Milton. He got married here and the dynasty proceeded:  Milton's daughter Lydia at the age of 15 was already a circus equestrian and a gymnast. Her husband Mikhail Zapashny brought the presently famous surname into this dynasty and kept it going.  
The Kios are an illustrious conjurers’ dynasty founded by Emil Teodorovich Kio (1894–1965).  His real surname Girshfeld-Renard seemed to him improper for circus posters. He literally found his stage pseudonym in the street, having noticed a faulty sign KINO (i.e. cinema) with lights making the mysterious capacious word KIO. 
Legendary Russian clowns are Karandash, Oleg Popov, Yury Nikulin, and Leonid Yengibarov
The list of famous Russian circus athletes is headed by Ivan Poddubny.


Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian Circus     

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