by Dr. Iain Corness
If you have ever wanted to run away and join the
circus, think twice. After spending an hour with Anatoly Gurov, the
Ringmaster and clown for the Royal London Circus (on until late November,
don’t miss it), I began to realize just how hard a life being a circus
performer really is. However Anatoly said, “It’s not difficult after
the first 20 years!”
Anatoly is Russian, born in a small town somewhere
between Moscow and St. Petersburg, which in itself sounded like it was no
tropical wonderland. His father was in the Russian Army, so Anatoly’s
young life was spent traipsing around the outposts of what was then the
USSR. Subsequently his schooling was through seven or eight different
government schools in Russia.
As he was coming to the end of his schooling, he
thought he might like to do Medicine at university, but one fateful day
walked past a circus. “I went inside,” said Anatoly, shrugging his
shoulders, as if that should be enough to explain his shift of direction
in his proposed career.
Being still at school, he worked there in the evenings
as part of the ring crew or helping the clowns. I asked Anatoly if this
were for the money, to which he replied, “In Russian circus you don’t
make big money!”
By the time his secondary schooling was over, he knew
that the circus was where he wanted to be, so he went to circus school.
Yes, perhaps one reason why Russian performers are so skilled is that they
go to circus school. For four years! But this is done through a government
sponsored scholarship plan. This is also not a ‘get rich easily’
scheme for young runaways. 25 years ago, the scholarship was worth 25
rubles a month to the young circus student.
“You learn all,” said Anatoly. Being a performer
means that you graduate as being multi-skilled in the art of entertainment
under the big top. And yes, you do get a certificate at the end of your
four years - if you are successful. By the way, the hours are so demanding
in the circus school that you attend classes day and night. The only time
you get to actually work in a circus is during the holidays.
After graduation, young Anatoly went to work in a
circus in Moscow, where he assisted an old clown, learning even more about
being a performer, almost an on the job apprenticeship after the four
years of theory. After a few months, he then joined the circus travelers.
Unlike many countries where the circuses move from town to town, in
Russia, the circuses are established in major cities and the performers
move from circus to circus with about one month in each venue. “In 12
months you go to around eight or nine circuses,” said Anatoly.
He kept up this gypsy routine for the next 15 years,
but in 1984 during that time, he met Layma in St. Petersburg, the woman
who was going to become his wife. Layma is from Lithuania and was part of
a long circus family tradition. “Her family has been in circuses for
around 100 years,” said Anatoly. In the circus, the path of true love is
also not easy. Anatoly and Layma would meet each other once a year as they
rotated around Russia, but in 1987 they stopped long enough to get
married, and Layma changed her act from being an acrobat and horse-rider
to being the clown’s assistant.
When the old Soviet Union disbanded and the Iron
Curtain was lifted, it became possible for circus performers like Anatoly
and Layma to go overseas, and their next five years were spent in Japan;
however, the Japanese regulations meant that they spent three months in
Japan, and then had to go out of the country for a while, and then return
for another three month contract. During this extended contract, Anatoly
also learned enough Japanese to get by. Other countries they have worked
in include Sweden, Hungary, Korea and many other European countries.
Talking to Anatoly, it was obvious that he had been to so many countries,
he could not remember them all.
I wondered if his act remained the same as he moved
through the different circuses, but that was not the case. As a performer,
he has to be versatile, as it is the circus director who chooses the acts
the individual performers will do. “Some directors like some acts that
other directors do not like.”
I also wondered if Anatoly has to wait till the phone
rings, for a new contract, or whether he contacts the directors. By this
stage in his career, he is apparently well known in the circus fraternity.
“Many directors know me and my family and contact me directly. Though
sometimes if I don’t have a contract we go home (they have two homes in
Moscow and Lithuania) and we wait, or then I ring the directors.”
They also now have a daughter, Kristina, who is nine
years old. Her education is done in two ways, by the internet from her
school in Lithuania, or by booking in to an international school in the
country in which they are performing, if they have a long contract.
However, Anatoly finds the cost of international schools in Pattaya just a
little too expensive.
Anatoly is now 46 years old and believes that he can
continue as a circus performer for at least another 10 years. “Some old
artists work till they are 70, but if the audience does not find my act
entertaining, then I will finish my work,” said Anatoly. The mark of a
For circus performers like Anatoly and Layma, they live in the circus,
not in the country where the circus is performing. “I live here,” said
Anatoly, motioning towards the line of trailer homes. For those like me,
still imagining life in the circus, it was a fascinating insight. Thank
you Anatoly, and the Royal London Circus.