Dancing Bears: Can Old-School Russian Circus Survive In Cirque du Soleil World?

Circuses in Russia are facing animal cruelty accusations and competition from abroad.

Is it funny still?
Is it funny still?
Oleg Khokhlov and Diana Khromvskikh

ST. PETERSBURG - The fact that the St. Petersburg State Circus troop was unhappy about the naming of Vyacheslav Polunin as their new director was not really unusual - performing arts institutions around the country seem to always protest when they get a new leader. In a letter addressed directly to President Vladimir Putin, the troop expressed concern that Polunin would turn the 135-year-old circus into a cabaret. They didn’t bother complaining to Vladimir Medinskii, the Minister of Culture, who was behind the change in circus leadership. Medinskii had visited the circus at the beginning of the year and came away with an “oppressive feeling.”

The President didn’t answer, of course. “Changes are always difficult,” Polunin said. “The only way to return the Russian circus to its rightful place on the world stage is by combining tradition with a search for new ideas.”

The animal rights’ organization Vita is behind some of those supposedly new ideas. It recently released a 10-minute video of circus rehearsals in which five animal trainers beat circus animals - including two monkeys, a group of poodles, an ostrich and a kangaroo. The video was shot in January, 2012, and when Vita filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, it turned out that the video was shot at a rehearsal of the St. Petersburg State Circus.

When Polunin took over at the beginning of the year, the scandal was still alive, but he was already promising to address the issue of "circus animals."

Irina Novozhilova, the president of Vita, is not waiting for an answer from the prosecutor. Last week she sent the Minister of Culture a request to establish Russia's “first cruelty-free circus” in St. Petersburg - which is to say, a circus without animals. Polunin asked the audience to speak up, and many well-known cultural figures voiced their support for an animal-free circus.

The circus community is also writing letters. “In hiding behind false slogans about the humanization of the circus, animal rights organizations are colluding with our foreign competitors and are trying to forbid animal trainers from performing on Russian stages,” reads the declaration on the Russian Circus Company’s website.

Secret war

They don’t say exactly who the “foreign competitors” are, but it’s clear they are talking about Canada's famed Cirque du Soleil. “I don’t want to accuse Cirque du Soleil, because I don’t have proof, but our American partners talk about it openly,” said Edgard Zapashnii, general director of the Moscow State Circus. “American and Canadian circuses with animals - and they do exist - don’t like Cirque du Soleil.

Zapashnii says that Cirque du Soleil has been waging a long-running secret war to clear other circuses out of the market. "Cirque du Soleil is very rich, and it is clearly interested in freeing up the Russian market, so that there are no alternatives to Cirque du Soleil here,” he said.

Cirque du Soleil spokespeople refused to comment on accusations of colluding with animal rights organizations. Irina Novozhilova maintains that she has never met with representatives from Cirque du Soleil. “We have been working on this for 19 years, and we are always getting complaints from witnesses, people from the circus system and, most frequently, veterinarians,” Novozhilova explained. “We have been doing this since before anyone had ever heard of Cirque du Soleil.”

Vita does not believe that an animal trainer can be humane. “No animal would roller-skate of its own free will,” Novozhilova says.

She adds that animal trainers would be better off to just start juggling.

Vyacheslav Polunin hopes at least that a Russian animal trainers’ association could establish an honor code and a system for human-animal relationships.

“There is no control now - anyone can become an animal trainer,” said Zapashni of the Moscow circus. “If someone is caught being cruel to an animal, then he or she is fired - but nothing stops him or her from being hired at the next circus. The easiest thing would be to create a license.”

“Of course, everyone in the circus is interested in getting rid of cruelty,” Zapashni adds. “The circus has gotten to the point where one trainer works with 17 tigers while holding a meter-long stick - it’s hard to punish a tiger with a stick like that. Seventee tigers could rip the trainer to pieces. We risk our lives to entertain the audience.”

It’s hard to imagine a compromise between the trainers and the activists. Animal rights activists think that the mere presence of the animals - and the fact that they are taken out of nature and stuffed in cute costumes - is cruel. In the plan for the development of circus arts through 2020 that was recently released by the Ministry of Culture, there is no mention of a ban on animal training - only talk of “humane training.”

Circus and State

The emotional reaction of circus performers to this animal-rights campaign is understandable, especially because the circus has only just started to be successful again.

The Russian Circus, which includes 39 separate city circuses from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, 2,000 artists and as many animals, is expected to make a profit in 2013 for the first time in many years.

The current general director of the Russian Circus is Farzana Khalilova, who took over in April 2012. She says that the previous leadership was corrupt, and since taking over 14 local directors have been fired and 10 criminal investigations opened. The circus’s expected profits do take in government subsidies, which represent a substantial amount of the annual budget.

The question of whether or not the traditional Russian circus can live by the laws of the market remains. The circus buildings are aging and in need of repair. Zapashni says that the circus works to improve Russia’s image abroad, and government help is absolutely necessary. Otherwise they'd never have a chance next to the likes of Cirque du Soleil.

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Zentralbild/dpa via ZUMA
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