A bold move in Red Square by the author They proceeded to take me in like a long-lost defected daughter.
Seeing the Moscow Circus has always been, in my mind, one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences too difficult to arrange, and too dependent on circumstances. Such questions as which year will the circus tour the US, or which decade could I possibly visit the Soviet Union kept the possibility far too remote.
But when Gravity's Last Stand (Bill Fry, Richard DiGiovanna, and myself) booked a Department of Defense tour in Europe and the Sinai during this past December and January, the seed was planted, and I began the preparation to travel alone to the Soviet Union to see THE Moscow Circus, on their home ground.
Viewing the circus was only part of my desire to go; curiosity regarding what life is like for a performing artist in the Soviet Union was the other....a tough job for someone whose sole Russian vocabulary consisted of "da" and "vodka!".
But in lieu of the good feelings between our countries due to the recent November summit (and in spite of traveling through Russia in the dead of winter) I figured I'd survive A-OK as a lone tourist in a country globally known as the nemesis of the USA.
Survive I did, but I was not always a happy camper.
My attempts to gain special privileges by notifying the Soviet Cultural Affairs Bureau of my "circus arts observation" failed - I was granted only a travel visa and accommodations. BUT HEY!!! I wanted ADVENTURE (the kind you read about), so I jumped on a train in Frankfurt, whooshed through East Germany and Poland and arrived in Moscow two days later.
As I strolled down Prospect Marx I was stunned into realizing that I was in a different WORLD, Prospekt MARS, if you will. There were long lines everywhere to buy groceries or to get into restaurants; thick, solid, pasty-faced babushkas swept the snow-dusted sidewalks, and everyone wore enormous layers of winter garb topped by the quintessential Russian fur hat.
I was immediately approached by Soviet youths wanting to buy, literally, the shirt off my American back - the Soviet blackmarket. That first night I stayed up until 3:00 AM desperately learning the Cyrillic alphabet. My goal? To read the street signs.
Tickets are like gold in the Soviet Union, and every ticket counter claimed there were none available, but I obtained mine with the...uh...OFFERING of a few gifts; namely, some American-made lipstick and cologne samples. Like magic the tickets appeared!
I found my way to the modern, newly built circus theater and took it all in. The show was far more glitzy and upbeat than I had expected - Shimmering stars and strobes covered the entire space and an excellent 16-piece band played everything from disco to Russian ballads.
I loved the variety of acts. There were stunt skate-boarders with colorful, satin banners, a very tasteful high-wire act, dancing bears, a clown band, trick horse-riders, and JUGGLERS. A clown duet performed between acts, and their style was subtle and poignant.
During the intermission, the circus ring floor was removed and in its place appeared a water tank, the size of the previous ring. By the time the audience was back in their seats the tank was filled and the circus proceeded with its "water show".
I was DYING - the first number was synchronized swimming... OK, NOW the JUGGLERS!!!
The Troop Gibadullin is an acrobatic team of 4 men and 1 woman, a very swift, slick act, indeed. For me what made this act particularly fun to watch was their constant fluid movement, and simplicity. The team did numerous patterns and feeds and made smooth, acrobatic transitions to two and three high without missing a beat. At no time did any of them juggle more than 3 clubs.
One memorable move was a simple feed with all the men lying on their backs while throwing chops to the woman. The 8-minute number ended with everyone at one end of the ring throwing plates in rapid succession to one of their partners on the other side. He caught and stacked them, missing the first try, (but, of course!) and succeeding the second.
I came back the next day, prepared to meet them all. I kept thinking to myself, "But what about the language barrier?" There was no time to be shy, so in the afternoon I slipped into the building, stealthily snuck backstage, (relishing every moment as super-spy) and introduced myself to them in pigeon Russian. They proceeded to take me in like a long-lost defective, uh...I mean defected daughter.
Damir and Natasha Gibadullin's 8-year old boy, Roma, quickly befriended me and helped translate with his broken school English. I trained with them in the practice ring and met the other members (Boris and the gang). With pride, they all gave me an incredible tour of the whole facility, as curious eyes followed us around.
Later as we sat upstairs in their dressing room, we asked each other many questions about each others' lives and work. They all yearn to perform in a Western country, and dream of going to the US, but those aspirations are out of their control.
Their lives are comfortable in the Soviet Union, because the paycheck of a circus performer comes from the government and after 20 years of working, every performer will receive a monthly pension for life.
All medical care is, of course, free. And to top it off, all artists, performers, and dancers have the career respect that doctors and lawyers have in this country - they're admired professionals, but have the added glory of celebrity. Damir spoke with the attitude that The System may have its faults, but it was the best.
When I told him that artists in my country have no support from the government he looked at me in astonishment and replied, "...very strange!" I suppose that since all needs are met, it would be hard to argue against the Soviet system, especially for someone like the Gibadullins who have never experienced another country and its people.
Artistic freedom isn't an issue for the Gibadullins - their material isn't political or avant-garde. But seeing it all, close up, left me claustrophobic. The fact that I have unlimited choices in my life kept slapping me in the face.
The troop was so generous to me! They escorted me to the best seat in the house to see the show again, and I took several roles of film. It was my birthday and they presented me with a set of Moscow Circus juggling clubs.
There was a comradeship between us that spoke for itself, a common language. After spending 5 days in Leningrad, I flew to Helsinki and waited for a connecting flight to Frankfurt.
Ahhhh! As I sat in the airport, I ate fresh fruit, which I was unable to find in Russia, and read every English speaking newspaper I could find. As I came across the Gibadullin's address in my journal, I recalled our goodbye.
We had exchanged information and I invited them to come visit me in the United States. Suddenly, we all started to laugh at the absurdity of the invitation. Damir said, "I think it best, you come here, yes?" And I probably will.