It’s not just clowning around with Slava and his ‘Snowshow’

Influenced by legends like Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau, Russian performance artist Slava Polunin has taken clowning out of the world of circus, and brought it to theater lovers.

Slavas Snowshoe 311 (photo credit: Veronique Vial)
Slavas Snowshoe 311
(photo credit: Veronique Vial)
Most people would get offended if you called them a clown, but to Slava Polunin, it’s the ultimate compliment. The 61-year-old Russian performance artist has spent a lifetime attempting to achieve the artistic mastery reached by his two childhood heroes – Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau. And with Slava’s Snowshow – the culmination of his decades of entertaining audiences around the world – he thinks he’s done them proud.
A stage spectacle that creates a dreamlike, snowfilled world which envelopes children and adults alike in a fuzzy warm feeling, Slava’s Snowshow is the reason Polunin feels confident boasting in his promotional material that he’s to the world of clowns as Cirque du Soleil is to the world of circuses. That multi-sensory extravaganza brought the circus out of the runway and into Las Vegas, and Polunin has taken the clown out of the circus and plopped him square into the realm of theater.
Called “a theater classic of the 20th century” by The Times of London, Slava’s Snowshow presents a poignant non-verbal story of a group of beleaguered clowns facing a series of obstacles manifested through some amazing technological effects, culminating in an actual blizzard that takes place within the audience.
“Children really love my performances, but it’s not only geared for them,” Polunin told The Jerusalem Post in an email interview last week.
“It’s more about bringing adults back to their childhood.
During the course of the two-hour show, I help adults to take a trip back on their childhood path, to forget everything around them and to feel liberated.
Children are happy and free in their natural state, and we adults are in need of reminders of how to be like that from time to time.”
Polunin seemingly needs no such reminder, as he recalled the joy he felt when as a child growing up in Novosil, Oryol Oblast, Russia, he first encountered the genius of Chaplin and realized his life’s calling.
“In our town, the source of most information came from the local movie theater and from television – which was a rare commodity,” he said.
“One day, I saw The Kid with Charlie Chaplin and I was frozen in shock. The next day I had a cane and I was able to swing it around just like him. I also found a hat like his and I adopted his way of walking. And that’s how I went around the playground at school, much to my classmates’ amusement.”
As time went on he became similarly obsessed with pantomime after seeing a performance by Marceau.
“I was amazed at his ability to carry on a deep and meaningful conversation with the audience without saying a word,” said Polunin, adding that he was determined to follow the same path.
As an 18-year-old in 1968, he founded a semi-professional pantomime theater, and his singular form of pantomime, which he dubbed “expressive idiotism,” won him success throughout Russia. His popularity was bolstered when he introduced his first clown character, Asisyai, a gentle, poetic character in a yellow boiler suit and red fluffy slippers, combining the sadness of pioneering Russian clown Leonid Engibarov, the mastery of Marceau’s pantomime, and the humanity of Chaplin's greatest characters.
Throughout the 1980s, Polunin was an established star of stage and TV in the Soviet Union, but he also worked at furthering the cause of creative expression in the communist country, organizing a mime parade in 1982 in which more than 800 Soviet artists participated, an unheard of gathering of semi-underground artists during a time of strict control over all artistic events.
“I didn’t intend to provoke a serious conflict with the authorities,” said Polunin.
“The clown is a free person by definition. He doesn’t ask anyone if he’s allowed to be free. Freedom is natural to him, otherwise he can’t be a clown. Therefore, there’s no connection between the clown and the type of government in which he lives.”
However, he did recall one incident that got him in hot water with Soviet officials. In 1985, he organized a Theater Olympics in Moscow, bringing together some the most accomplished clowns in the world, like Boleslav Polivka, Jerome Deschamp, Franz-Joseph Bogner, Django Edwards and Leo Bassi.
“Before his performance, I asked Django to avoid talking about three subjects – religion, sex and politics.
Naturally, those subjects turned into the focus of his performance. He didn’t do it out of spite, but because a clown can’t do anything else,” said Polunin.
“He apologized to me after the show because I was immediately called in for questioning. Nothing happened and I didn’t run into many other conflicts, but on the other hand, I was never invited to state performances.”
IN 1989, Polunin made his first foray beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, organizing The Caravan of Peace, a traveling festival of theater which for six months wheeled its way across Europe with the artists from Russia, France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic and Poland living in camper vans and performing in the streets.
“It was only a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, and the world was divided into two camps. We succeeded to not only cross borders of democratic and communist countries, but to live for a half a year as a family of artists, create a collaborative show and to understand that people can and must live and work together, regardless of their mother tongue and their ideology,” said Polunin.
“It was an amazing happening, unforgettable for all of us.”
One of his next projects was the Academy of Fools, a Moscow collective devoted to the “resurrection of the carnival culture in Russia.”
“That was my baby, in that I was able to bring together my most beloved friends and the ‘crazies’ who are mad about art,” said Polunin, explaining what he meant by the group’s title.
“For me, a fool is the person who sees life in bright colors and is capable of turning each day into a festive holiday. A fool knows how to be content every minute and to include others in his happiness.
And that’s what we were trying to do with the academy.”
To fund the academy, Polunin decided to create a show that he could travel abroad with and perform to audiences around the world. Enter Slava’s Snowshow, which made its world debut in London in 1994.
The Academy of Fools went by the wayside, but Slava’s Snowshow flourished, winning the 1998 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment for following its sell-out West End run at the Old Vic in 1997. It’s been performed in over 30 countries, with the US debut taking place in 2004 in New York’s Union Square Theatre. While Polunin said he was gratified by the praise heaped on Slava, he wasn’t surprised.
“It’s hard for me to say I didn’t expect the show to be well received. But to be honest, I don’t take it for granted,” he said.
“I’m excited each time I go out on the stage. During each performance, I step out of my boundaries so my connection with the audience will be honest, deep, touching and challenging.”
For Pulonin’s nine performances of Slava in Israel next month, he’s promising all of the above. And he’s offering Israeli audiences a world’s first of sorts – the world premiere at two of the performances in Tel Aviv of Slava’s Snowshow accompanied by renowned violinist Gidon Kremer and his chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica.
“The musicians will be on the stage and become part of the show itself – they’ll be an inseparable part of the show and not just accompanists. It’s completely new for us,” said Polunin.
“This is our first attempt but Gidon and I are really excited about the concept and what we created. We changed the whole musical approach to this performance and as a result, the performance changes along with it.”
But the essence of Slava’s Snowshow remains the same, whether audiences witness the two performances with the Kremerata Baltica or the seven “vintage” performances. And that, said Polunin, is learning to become a child again.
“What I hear from audiences is that the most important part of my show is how it enables them to return to childhood. I think that this is the main message,” he said.
“After all, who among us doesn’t want to go back and feel like a child?” Performances of Slava’s Snowshoe will take place September 13-17 at the Tel Aviv Opera House (the 14th-15th with the Kremerata Baltica) and from September 20-23 at the North Theater in Haifa. Tickets available at Bimot *6226 and Hadran *2274.