Cirque du Soleil eclipsing traditional Russia circus

Fri Jan 20, 2012 7:26am EST
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By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Once as highly regarded as cosmonauts, ballerinas and nuclear scientists, Russian circus stars have wowed generations.

But the lure of high-wire acts, slapstick clowns, lion tamers, dancing elephants and exotic beasts for modern audiences is being eclipsed by the trend-setting innovations of the Cirque du Soleil.

Behind the scenes at Moscow's Nikulin Circus, spinning acrobats and a juggler on a unicycle practice amid a cacophony of music and raised voices. A big grey elephant calmly awaits a turn in the ring. The stench of the menagerie is overpowering.

"It's getting harder to impress people," complained Yulia Silantyeva, a big cat trainer, who comes from a large family of big top performers. "It (the Russian circus) is losing its strong standing."

Under the Soviet Union, Russian circuses held a stature on a par with its globally renowned opera and ballet, touring internationally and boasting of visits from the Russian elite, including Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose daughter ran off with a circus acrobat at 22.

"Brezhnev was the country's last leader to visit the circus... This is not the attitude the circus deserves," said circus manager Maxim Nikulin, who followed in the footsteps of his father, Yuri, a beloved and world-renowned clown and actor whose portrait graces a Russian stamp.

As prestige has faded and state support dried up, the best performers have moved abroad, in a run on talent akin to the so-called brain-drain of scientists and engineers who have also deserted mother Russia.

Many performers have defected to the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil -- the new gold standard in acrobatic arts.   Continued...

<p>Princess Stephanie of Monaco poses with members of Mayarov and Nikulin circus companies ahead of the opening of the 33nd International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo in Monaco, January 11, 2009. REUTERS/Jean-Pierre Amet</p>