Star City, Birmingham, 20th December 2013
Stepping inside the Moscow State Circus concession tent, the air is immediately festive. Although ‘Park Gorkogo’ is in the middle of a tour that began in Spring 2013, and so not a traditional ‘Christmas Circus’, the creative team have added seasonal spice to the production with decorated trees, a wandering Santa, and ticket collectors dressed in fur-trimmed velvet, or smart red shirts with novelty hats and ties. Leaving behind the cold and wind, the tent is beautifully heated and, after a little confusion over our seating (that, rather embarrassingly, results in a family of 9 being relocated for the three of us) we settle into comfortably padded seats as the PA system announces the show is about to begin.
The ‘Park Gorkogo’ of the title refers to the Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure in Moscow, and forms a loose setting for the variety of acts to follow; wooden benches and street lamps decorate the ring as we watch the fantastically diverse activities of recreational visitors during a simulated stroll through the public park.
The lights dim, and clown official Klava (Ekaterina Voevodkina) begins her health and safety checks, before discovering Austin Powers styled partner Pavlik (Pavel Ivanov) hiding in a giant Christmas present. The following entrée, involving a park statue, is not strong as an opener and serves more to fill time as stragglers find their seats, before we are teased with the hint of a charivari that becomes instead a choreographed dance number in white fur hats and sexy santa’s helper outfits.
Beautiful light and haze effects, accompanied by a dramatic shift in music from the hidden band, announce hand-balancer Vladislav Khostik who demonstrates magnificent control and precision, and some surprising flexibility, down to the most extremely pointed toes I have ever seen. This act sets the tone for a highly polished evening of performance, with great consideration for the visual production from director John Haze, founder of Circus of Horrors.
The energy takes a leap with the jazz and jive entrance of the Yakovlev juggling troupe in brightly coloured plaid outfits, which suggest eccentric golfers who’ve swapped their five-irons and woods for jugglers’ clubs. The act becomes something rare and special when performers start to climb the vertical streetlamp poles and open up another plane for tossing their clubs between them and the ring below, ending with a glowing uv parade of lights whirling through the air.
The decision to follow this act with some basic earth-bound juggling from Pavlik and Klava wasn’t well conceived, and the small touches of contact dance only momentarily lift an otherwise unexceptional act. The choreography is slick and tight, but this leaves little room for the moments of chance that clowns live off.
In another wash of haze, an evocative sailing ship rig of silks and trapeze bars is met by an elegantly dressed Natalia Goncharova, a starlet on her way home from the red carpet, a fantasy of the tuxedo’d beau who swings the sails as she balances precariously overhead on her sparkling stilettos. The glamorous sequence of poses and holds offers beautiful imagery over virtuosic skills, but never quite lives up to the potential of visual storytelling that it initially promised.
The first performers who share a tangible taste of genuine enjoyment and love for their work are the flirty – yet family friendly – Veslovskys, who enter in what I suppose to be traditional Russian costume, and then proceed to whip away hats and layers of skirt with their rope cracking and acrobatic lasso work. The two are equally matched in skills and daring, and there are no sexual stereotypes pandered to here as they lash paper straws from each others’ mouths, grinning widely.
Goncharova returns as the mannequin ‘from Primark’ who outwits Pavlik at every turn, and is exceptional in her doll-like movement; the spiritless clowning of Pavlik heightens her blank-eyed brilliance.
A trio of lacy girls with parasols encounter a wooden bathing carriage, and transform into glitter tattoo’d bathing beauties who spin into the air to a rousing ‘Live and Let Die’, to end the first act on an aerial wheel. While the prominence of safety lines is distracting, the unusual and arresting thrills of the sky-high synchronised swimmers is a powerful closing number, and fits smoothly into the Gorky Park theme that seems to come and go.
The 20 minute interval is plenty to take in the small bar, snacks and merchandise stands in the entrance tent and, rather than queuing for the circus’ own toilet facilities, I opt to head across the carpark to the nearby KFC. Excitement mounts when we return to our cosy warm seats, and see the safety nets in position for the Aliev’s White Birds trapeze act which opens the second half, and which won a Silver Clown at Monte Carlo in 2011.
The 6-strong Aliev troupe’s intricate rig includes both static and swinging catcher’s traps, and an invisibly counterweighted central harness where Ekaterina Aliev elegantly draws attention in a sleek twisting belt whilst the flyers prepare their passes. This produces a swift act with lots of movement, emphasised by feathered costumes that fly in the breeze, culminating in a joyful descent to the bouncy net below.
A costume swapping interlude from Pavlik and Klava has some amusing moments and a good punchline, and is followed by an excellent display of skills from football juggler Zhora Oganisyan, who is cheekily charismatic and highly impressive as he combines his toss juggling and footballer’s skills, whilst globe-walking; a costume nod to local teams also rouses a vocal chorus of enjoyment from the audience.
The Veslovskis return to astound us with their rollerskating daredevilry on a tiny circular platform, and are assisted by the engaging Ekaterina Drazdova, who shone in the bathing beauties act, and again charms us with her natural showmanship and presence. I feel dizzy just watching as they demonstrate a fearlessness and precision which leaves many gasping.
The second half is much pacier than the first, with some truly impressive physical skills that lead to the fitting finale of a Russian Swing. A uniformed marching band, complete with drummer girls and young majorette, fly ever higher from the swing, and I flinch every time they flip and tumble into the vertical net.
The show is entirely polished and packaged, but I miss the intimate camaraderie that can be generated by a strong human connection in the clowning transitions. I have seen some wonderful acts this evening, but leave feeling uninspired by the show as a whole.