Juggler's World: Vol. 42, No. 4

"What's Most Important"

by Sergei Ignatov

Sergei Ignatov Tells His Story of Discipline and Desire

I slept by the training ring and also rose each morning, not without my grandfather's help, at six. His first word was always "rehearse." We had breakfast and I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. My grandfather taught me how to work.

Translation by Christopher Majka from an article in a Soviet circus magazine.

Photos courtesy of Karl-Heinz Ziethen.

Part I

This morning I awoke a few minutes before my alarm. While I was trying to guess the time the clock rang.

Seven o'clock - my working day begins. I get up and drink a glass of hot water or rosehip tea with honey.

I spend about an hour warming up. I pay attention to all my muscles and try to loosen any that are tight from yesterday's work. Today my head is clear and I feel well. My body is ready and my muscles are relaxed, testifying that yesterday I did everything well. My work was not in vain.

Only a daily program of exercise and rest allows a person, over a short period of time, to renew strength. My muscles are rested, relaxed and ready to undertake new work. I have a light breakfast and head out to the circus.

For 20 years I've been in it and it's in me. Time reduces, extols, cleans, erases and puts everything in its place. It gives us the possibility to understand the present, reflect on the past and look toward the future - thinking beyond the present and transient. About some they say - "they were," about others - "they were and are," and about others yet - "they were, are and will be."

From the district with the school we always ran to the circus on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, no. 13. We admired the exceptional technique of Alexander Kiss. Sigmund Chernyauzkaz was an enigma. Then we understood his astonishing human qualities. It seemed to us that we, like his contemporaries, could call him "Sig." The equestrian juggler Nikolai Olkhovnikov worked lightly with a sense of irony toward all those around him. He juggled well but the most important thing for Olkhovnikov was always himself.

We liked the circus. We might not understand everything but we were all crazy about Edward Abert and Leonid Yengibarov. Abert didn't work in the ring, he lived in it. He thought in juggling clubs and was their poet. He became a unity with them and each time he performed he was different. He could do it all: smile, move, stop and, of course, juggle like no one else. One day his work could be inspired, the next day mediocre but he never tried to deceive us. And in whatever he did in the ring we could sense his talent and his nature.

As spectators we already started to see the circus not just as a marvel. There awoke in us a need for a contact between spectators and performers. The circus started more and more to signify artistry and its exponents were the performers.

We wanted to juggle like Alexander Kiss, ride horses like Nikolai Olkhovnikov and climb the ladder like Sigmund Chernyauzkaz. And above all we dreamed of becoming Aberts or Yengibarovs. And we worked. Our first year at circus school came to an end.

I'm riding on a train from Simferopol to Sverdlovsk. In the wagon besides me and my grandfather, Ivan Petrovich Ignatov, are three horses from the Teplovi juggling routine. My grandfather worked as their handler and groom and I went to visit him regularly in one city or other for my three month vacation. Their appearance in Simferopol had come to an end and now we were headed for Sverdlovsk in a freight car.

My grandfather was the first branch on what is today becoming a circus family tree which, it seems, is not about to wither. He was then almost 70 and I was only 16.

The train rattles - my grandfather sits on a sack of oats. He smacks his burnt lips and sips lime-coloured tea, gathered by me, from a glass. He was born in the deep wilds around Voronezh. He speaks with a back-woods accent saying: "I look across the threshold of the door and out jumps the sun." There he sits, and his bald head shines like the sun in the corner of the wagon. The chains rattle to the rhythm of the rails. The planks on which the horses stand creak. Sometimes a horse neighs. But even when we're both silent the wagon feels full of warmth. Today, after many years, I want to call all that romantic. I experienced it and at the time I wanted that journey to last forever. Today I dream that I could repeat it.

All his life my grandfather strove towards things natural, simple and real. It was probably for this reason that he loved horses. He understood that it's easier to transform an illness than to heal it, and his horses were always pure, fulfilling and well-groomed. He had a sharp village wit towards everything: to the qualities of people, towards his understanding of the circus and in his knowledge of horses. He taught a monkey to perform tricks. In a month and a half he taught a homeless dog found at a market to do somersaults and walk on its front and hind legs. In short, to bring out all the God-given abilities which a dog has. And many of these animals, wagging their tails, had the opportunity to see the astonishing streets of New York or Paris.

My grandfather had one system - work. For 50 years, day after day, he appeared at the training ring at six in the morning and only at seven at night did he bid the horses good night. I at once understood how difficult it was to train animals. I slept by the training ring and also rose each morning, not without my grandfather's help, at six. His first word was always "rehearse." We had breakfast and I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. My grandfather taught me how to work.

At the end of August, after three months of "rest," I returned home full of memories of the circus. I was like a wrung-out lemon but I already felt that I would be a juggler.

It's ten minutes before ten. Coming up to the circus I see our Russian wolfhounds running merrily on the new-fallen snow. The circus in the morning looks quiet and half asleep. In a few windows the lights are still burning. I walk into the hall and right away start to rehearse.

In the circus school or in the studios I often hear a teacher tell a student: "Stand up straight."

It's not possible to stand straight if your back is bent. It's impossible to walk evenly if you're twisted; it's impossible to correct the posture of the neck or shoulders if the vertebrae are held crookedly. All of these problems will themselves disappear if every day before rehearsing you take a ballet class and believe in "the golden mean." For the first half-year a teacher is necessary. After that it is absolutely essential to rehearse in front of a mirror. This work completes the process of warming up the muscles. They prepare themselves after stretching in the morning. There appears a "feeling of the body" and of yourself in space. The record spins on the turntable and you feel the rhythm and quality of the music; something indispensable to the juggler.

In the four years of my best technical juggling I practiced ballet every day. If the classes went well then my overall body tone and vigour rose. I could sense an overall lightness and a readiness to rehearse. The productivity of a rehearsal depends not only on the rehearsal itself but also on the ability to prepare the entire body down to the smallest cell in it. A half-hour rest. Juice, fruits and nuts - and once again I go back into the ring.

The second year at the State Circus School. I'm now in the juggling group, in all honesty by chance. During the entire first year I had problems with my legs and it was clear that I wouldn't make an acrobat. "Where will you go?" asked everyone. "Into juggling," I replied.

The routine weekdays of school life began. Teachers and trainers thought for us and our heads were used for balances and to balance balls. With real emotions we studied our abilities and everything we saw, and we absorbed it as if drinking it in; accumulating it in the prospect of appearing, in four years time, on the stages of the student circus.

While I was not yet among the jugglers but still in the company of acrobats, I found I was the worst in the class. My legs always hurt and I wondered why had I dreamed of being an acrobat. It was necessary as soon as possible to reassess my future. An enormous amount of time spent practicing during summers and on holidays had come to naught. I knew what the results of the assessors would be, but nevertheless, when I heard the negative results I was very disappointed at having lost my dreams. As "greenhorns" the instructors had told us "it's difficult to tell what's wheat and what's chaff." Now the second year is finished.

The students gathered - the assessors were choosing. Some they selected for their fine appearance, others for their excellent marks; still others for stubbornness and character. Some were chosen through a temperament, suitable to the theme of a planned routine. But it also happened that after two years of excellent marks and many fine impressions, some turned out to be dull and mediocre.

The assessors... do they have the right to be fair, good or bad? No! An assessor could either be or not be at all. One might compare him with a surgeon at an operating table. The responsibility is no less. We're not afraid of mistakes, although it simply hurts when an assessor hurts someone with excellent abilities. For that reason I always admired those who worked with Yuri Gavrilovich Mandich, Sergei Andreievich Kashtenyan and Viktor Lvovich Pliner. These instructors could find the most important characteristics inherent in every student. They were able, day by day, almost imperceptibly, to develop those abilities. They were able to find the necessary expressive essence, so that in developing it, it transformed itself into the strength and form of the new individual performer, and afterwards, perhaps, into the sphere of the genre itself.

Not rushing time was a guarantee of their success. They never had a completely fixed system of instruction. They created one in the process of working with their students. And terrible were those instructors who "shoved" their wards through a previously prepared educational scheme. The viewing public huddles and fidgets when seeing such performers precisely because this proper training has been so untactfully bypassed.

The entire second year, while I rehearsed with the juggling group, I was watched over by the recently arrived (to the school) instructor, Violetta Nikolaevna Kiss.

In the past Violetta Kiss and her brother, Alexander, had created, as a part of a unique act, a joint presentation of juggling and equilibristics. In Violetta Kiss, in my view, were united all the indispensable qualities of a teacher/instructor. After two short years of work she was able to give me an exceptionally firm foundation in juggling, which for almost 20 subsequent years have been the fundamentals of my creative work.

The skill of a teacher or a instructor is impossible to teach. You have to form it from within. It is apparent that in the mind of a person there exist millions of combinations and connections which come together to form an instructor. Part of this is a feeling of the correct time, life experiences, intellect, education and a unique world view and much, much more. I've never seen books which could tell one how to become an instructor. Usually authors analyze the process by which they became teachers or instructors, sparingly giving prognoses for the future.

An instructor is the living past and lives the future. Without tricks and variations there is no such thing as a juggler, but for Violetta Nikolaevna Kiss the most important thing was the person. We first of all learned from her the importance of honesty; everywhere, always and towards all.

I rehearsed with her for some three hours a day and without her for five or six. Nothing was left out. In front of us were two frontiers - a minimum of time (two years) and a maximum of work. I passed through the school of Violetta Kiss.

A juggler must have endurance, and I rehearsed some eight or nine hours a day. It's necessary to learn how to juggle a large number of objects, so we went from the simple to the complex. It's also necessary to have musicality, and we sometimes looked for rhythm in the throwing of the objects. It's necessary to discover unique tricks and variations, so I tried throwing rings in another plane.

All of our work was meant to come together in the presentation. We thought about the selection of the objects to be juggled, the alternation of tricks and the composition. Every number in a circus performance should have a clear, powerful finale. Alexander Nikolaevich Kiss himself did the requisite when he finished his routine by juggling nine rings.

We worked on everything. However, I still had no costume when there appeared on the scene a remarkable person - Riza Yusifovna Beisenberg. Formerly she worked in theatrical operetta before beginning work for Gossoyuztsirk (the State Circus Agency). During that year, she clothed me. Later when I came to her, hopelessly ill in the hospital, she wrote me instructions and sketches for an as-yet unsewn costume. These notes I keep to this day as a memento to the memory of this humanitarian woman.

My costume was the last detail. And when everything came together, there suddenly appeared the most important thing - belief in my success. And it came.

The audience applauded, threw flowers, smiled. And only two people, my mother Anna Ivanovna Ignatova, sitting in the second row, and Violetta Nikolaevna Kiss, quietly thought: "Everything is done." But after this "end" there appeared an endless beginning of even more work, success and enchantment. That's why during that school performance, the public, pelting us with flowers, smiled with a slight sadness, like someone smiles at a ship heading to sea where there await squalls, storms, and, possibly, shipwreck as well.

Continued in Part II

"What's Most Important" / Index, Vol. 42, No. 4 / jis@juggling.org
© 1996 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.