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Cast as a clown in an Ukrainian circus


Prior to my trip to Ukraine, I had been to a few circuses in my lifetime. But nothing could prepare me for the experience of an Ukrainian one. Unlike traveling circuses back home, the circus in Dnepropetrovsk runs from early spring through early fall. Ukraine – and to a larger extent, Russia is a hot bed of circus talent. In fact, a great deal of circus performers in the U.S. hail from all across the remnants of the former Soviet Union. But judging from what I saw in Ukraine, it’s clear they leave many of their customs and methods back home – which is to say the best parts.

After purchasing our tickets for a matinee performance, we headed to a nearby market to purchase beer and snacks. It’s not everyday one gets to drink beer on a public street – let alone a circus of all things!

We entered the Soviet-era lobby, which included a pet store for some odd reason. Various souvenirs were sold in the lobby, just like one would expect at a circus. However, the vendors themselves were clowns. The fact that they spoke Russian somehow made them even more horrifying. As somebody who has a complete and utter fear towards these sinister spawns of Satan, it’s a wonder I didn’t run away.

We headed to our seats in the 300-400 seat arena, which was probably about three-quarters full, which is pretty impressive considering the circus is pretty much always in town in Dnepropetrovsk.

As we waited for the show to begin, Olya used an armrest seat to pop the caps of our beer off just before the chimes of what sounded like a very depressed clock rang, a cue for the audience to know the show would begin in ten minutes. Five minutes later, it chimed again. And the crowd began to buzz. Olya explained that the chimes rang out the melody of the Moscow Circus. It sounded more like a funeral. Finally, the lights dimmed and a spotlight shined upon the house jazz band sitting perched in a balcony overlooking the crowd, which was now going bananas in anticipation. As if this wasn’t surreal enough, the band was entirely comprised of midgets! Suddenly, my real-life romantic-comedy was turning into a David Lynch nightmare.

The band provided accompaniment for the entirety of the show, which included everything one would expect to see at a circus: tightrope walkers, gymnasts, lion tamers, monkeys (applaud!), clowns (boo!) and various other hijinx, including performers dressed inside giant, glow-in-the-dark worm-like creatures that resembled a Slinky on acid.

At the end of the first half, a woman was brought into the ring from the crowd, wearing a mixed expression of shock and confusion. Moments later, a man was rolled out by a clown inside a giant ring – his arms and legs spread out like DaVinci’s “Virtruvian Man” drawing. When the clowns released him from the wheel, he got down on one knee in front of the woman and proposed. She accepted. How could she not? The crowd went crazy and all I could think was, why didn’t I think of that?

Love and vodka book coverDuring intermission, children lined up for elephants rides. But more impressive was the enormous swing brought down from the rafters. And when I say enormous swing, I mean a swing that spanned all the way across from one side of the arena to the other. I watched with utter fascination as five to six children were strapped in at a time before being swung back and forth by some sort of contraption made up of levers, whirligigs and gremlins. I gave serious thought to going on it, but without a child of my own, I held myself back.

The second half of the show began innocently enough with a half-naked gymnast twirling up and down a rope. The second act became the realization of my worst nightmare as a couple dozen clowns ran out onto the ring, then up and down the aisles, searching for some poor soul to include in their act. I made it a point not to make any eye contact with them whatsoever, but in retrospect, I think this may have only have hurt my cause. Because as it turned out, that poor soul turned out to be me as I was pulled from my seat against my will by the clowns and dragged down the aisle and onto the ring below. Olya, meanwhile, couldn’t stop laughing as I looked to her in a desperate plea for help.

The clowns brought me down onto the ring, where I was suddenly surrounded by over 20 clowns. One clown in particular kept running around me in circles, making funny faces three inches from mine. This was – without a doubt – what hell is like. In fact, I was in the 6th circus ring of hell. And about to enter the 7th.

The leader of the clowns commanded me to do something. In Russian.

Nyet, Russiky,” I desperately pleaded. But apparently, he either couldn’t understand me, or chose not to, and continued speaking to me in Russian, repeating the same command over and over until it occurred to him that I couldn’t speak Russian. Once this understanding was established, he gestured for me to sit upon the raised feet of the clown down on the ground below. Another clown was positioned in the same manner five feet away. I did as instructed – or at least I thought I did, but I was apparently not positioned the way they wanted me to be. Another clown helped adjust me into the proper position, at which point the clown that was holding me up began bouncing me up and down as though I were sitting on a spring. But my position was still apparently not to his liking. The more they tried, the more it was becoming evident that it was no use. The poor clown holding me up was struggling to withstand my weight any longer. His legs buckled and I fell right on top of his face. He rolled over, holding his nose in pain. As several in the crowd booed, I was scolded by the clown leader, who pointed toward my seat. I slowly headed back to Olya, bowing my head, equally ashamed and traumatized. Just what it was that the clowns wanted me to do, I’ll never know. But I imagine it had something to do with being catapulted from one clown to the next. I couldn’t really imagine any good coming from that, so it was for the best that it didn’t work out.

When I got back to my seat, Olya was still laughing.

“It’s not funny,” I said.

“It is hilarious,” Olya added.

Meanwhile, the clown whose face I fell on was being helped out of the ring, holding a rag up to his presumably bloody – and possibly broken nose. One might assume that considering the way I felt about clowns, I would have claimed this moment as a victory. But instead, I felt myself feeling sorry for the poor clown. I never thought it possible that a clown could elicit my sympathy from me. But the more time I spent in Ukraine, the more I learned that anything was possible.

When the clowns finished up their act (which I clearly curtailed), it was time for the grand finale. Flying dogs! This was the act advertised on posters and billboards all over the city and I had been dying to know how they would manage to make dogs fly? Would they be shot out of a cannon? Surely, they wouldn’t be that cruel, even despite all the stray dogs roaming the city.

Initially, this trick was accomplished by having dogs wearing little backpacks walk up a ladder leading near the roof – a height of at least 100 feet. When the dogs got to the top, they walked across a diving-board-like platform and then jumped down below. Half way down, a little parachute opened before landing safely in the arms of their trainers down below. And then, they brought out the cannon, which was pointed straight up. And just as I imagined, dogs were shot out of it.

Excerpt from from “Love & Vodka” by R. J. Fox.
Published by Fish Out of Water Books, www.fowbooks.com. Now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
© 2015 by R.J. Fox. All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without prior written permission from
the publisher. All photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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