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Russian Circus as an art form: A brief history

Russians have viewed the circus as an art form that is culturally on par with ballet and opera for well over a century.

Russian circus performance

Although the roots of the Russian circus were planted in the age of Empress Catherine the Great in the 19th century, the Russian circus evolved with time, attaining ever-increasing levels of cultural prominence until it reached its zenith under the communist regime of the former Soviet Union.

The communist state viewed circus performances as an egalitarian form of entertainment to be enjoyed by the masses and, consequently, circus schools sprung up­—the first of its kind anywhere in the world was the Moscow State College for Circus and Variety Arts which began in 1927, and more were opened around the country in later years—to teach Soviet children the necessary arts to become world-class circus performers.

Treating the circus like a job

Circus schools were not intended to be fun places for kids to spend their days. On the contrary, even the youngest children were made to treat it like a job, working hard to perfect their skills for hours every day after finishing their school lessons.

Moscow Circus
Photo by messiahy

The state did not force children to attend circus schools and the collective atmosphere was fun and engaging, but this did not take away from the fact that a circus school was a serious undertaking that was not to be treated lightly. Although the art of clowning was taught as a discipline, clowning around was not permitted.

Impact of the Moscow Circus on the West

Following decades of hard work spent isolated from the rest of Europe as a result of political pressure, the Russian circus could boast of having some of the best and most accomplished performers whose skills were unique and unmatched by entertainers from other parts of the world.

By the middle of the last century, large shows composed of the best performers from the Russian circus began touring abroad as part of the communist regime’s propaganda campaign of showcasing USSR’s superiority over the West.

However, the most lasting results of such tours were far less nefarious than what the communist powers had intended: other than thrilling Western audiences and instilling in them a greater appreciation for the Russian circus and the circus arts in general, the performers of the Russian Circus began making an impact on the way Westerners viewed live entertainment.

Moreover, the skills of Russian performers were admired and emulated by Western circus performers so much that circus schools in the West began training their performers in similar techniques and methods.

Soviet circus poster

In this way, the performers of the Russian circus heralded the first major revolution within the circus world, changing both the way circus was viewed by audiences and the way circus artists were taught and performed.

Even after “Cirque du Soleil” introduced a completely unique circus style that originated in Quebec in the late 1980s, the impact of Russian circus arts in the form of training methods, technique, and skills can still be felt today in circus performances around the world.

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