Not just clowning around

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2008

For some, clowns can invoke a deep-seeded phobia dubbed coulrophobia, and apparently they even frightened Communist leaders of the now defunct Soviet Union. Circus acts flourished in Russia during the Cold War due to their nonthreatening nature, but clowns were frowned upon by some Soviet leaders due to anti-communist messages that could be slipped into their routines, said Sasha Vosk, artistic director and producer of the Moscow Circus.

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"It was not threatening to the authorities - except for clowns," he said. "Clowns in Russia ... the clown was taken very seriously."

The acclaimed Moscow Circus will make its debut Juneau performance with a show titled "A Russian Folk Fair" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, in the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. The show includes a top selection of 17 performers from the Russian company that includes contortionists, an acrobatic team, clowns, aerial maneuvers and even an acrobatic dog.

"It's circus theater, and that's sort of what I like," Vosk said. "As a director, I have all the tools that the theater provides. The pallet is much richer."

Under Communist rule, circuses were able to blossom while many other art forms were suppressed, Vosk said.

"It actually became better developed because it was a nonthreatening type of art," he said. "During the Soviet times, it became a very good system of schooling and performing. It became a major venue for athletically talented people to express themselves."

The introduction of democracy after the end of the Cold War raised some uncertainty about the future of circuses in Russia, but the art form continues to thrive, he said. Since the fall of the Soviet empire, the Moscow Circus has been able to tour the globe and present its unique and celebrated circus stunts to hundreds of thousands of people, Vosk said.

"Other forms of art blossomed because of loss of control and censorship," he said. "Of course theater, films and other arts that were suppressed before are now blossoming, so that took away some of the audience from the circus. But nevertheless, it's still strong. It's a form of tradition and a strong form of art that is very appealing."

Russia has a deep and rich cultural connection with the circus that dates back to the reign of Catherine the Great, he said. The circus in Russia is not necessarily the same type of entertainment popularized in America by the likes of P.T. Barnum, because it generally includes more acrobatic feats.

"It became a highly regarded and popular entertainment (in Russia)," Vosk said. "They took that as seriously as theater or music."

The Moscow Circus is more similar to Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil with its daring acrobatics than the animal-based circus routines of America, he said.

"We probably are a bit closer to Cirque du Soleil, which also grew up or was based on Moscow Circus talent," Vosk said.

Juneau Arts & Humanities Council Executive Director Nancy DeCherney said the Moscow Circus is one of the largest and most accomplished acts to visit Juneau this year.

"This group is pretty well known worldwide, so yeah, it's a big deal for us to pull this one off," she said.

It is a pretty unique privilege for the community to draw such a highly respected group, DeCherney said.

"Most of the Alaskan communities can't bring these big guys - this is a huge group for us," she said.

"There's not going to be people riding on the backs of elephants and tigers and things, but there is going to be lots of acrobatics," DeCherney added.

Vosk said the program blends Russian costumes, music, fairy tales and performances together to display the country's culture to the audience in a unique way.

"Besides just a few circus talents, the viewers will get a nice, juicy slice of Russian culture," he said.

Although "A Russian Folk Fair" does not have any direct references to Alaska, audience members should be able to relate to some of the themes, Vosk said.

"We definitely are extremely excited to (come to) Alaska, a very romantic sounding and romantic place."

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