Arts & Culture


The Moscow Circus, which will be playing at the Cal Poly Cohan Center on Monday, has been given fresh acts and life without sacrificing its tradition.
The Moscow Circus, which will be playing at the Cal Poly Cohan Center on Monday, has been given fresh acts and life without sacrificing its tradition. COURTESY PHOTO

T he Moscow Circus has gone through changing times and changing politics, but it remains “a slice of Russian culture,” said Sasha Vosk, who brings the show to Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center.

He talked about the show from his office in New York, headquarters of the touring production. Sasha and his wife Lena have given the traditional circus of acrobats, gymnasts, clowns, aerialists, jugglers and musicians new life while preserving tradition.

The Vosks are co-producers. Sasha designed the show, which is in the format of a Russian folk fair, with each segment featuring a different genre, he explained. “There are little vignettes, with a loose story throughout.”

The production features 18 company members in their 20s and 30s from Russia and the Ukraine who have been brought in for the U.S. tours.

“It’s a troupe of soloists,” he said. “Not like Cirque du Soleil or Barnum and Bailey, where you are watching many things at once. Each act has its own star power.”

The performances include a hand balancing act, trapeze and other aerial artists, jugglers and clowns, musicians, and acrobatic acts. In one acrobatic duo, one partner is a dog.

All ages will enjoy the show, Vosk said. Although it was not geared for little children, it appeals to kids ages six and up. The performers are accompanied by traditional and contemporary Russian music.

Sasha and Lena were both performers in an earlier version of the circus. He was a mime and a clown, and she was a member of a “circus revue” of 20 women who did group juggling and acrobatics. She was a solo aerialist.

“I stole her from them,” Vosk said. “Now she is a fine producer and choreographer.”

The Moscow Circus was part of the rich Russian artistic culture in the late 1800s that included theater, dance, art and music. At that time, the arts were supported by the government.

“Like Russian opera and ballet, the circus became an example of Russian pride in its arts…. It was non-threatening, and even used as propaganda,” Vosk said. There were more than 70 theaters for the circus across the Soviet Union.

“It was a flow of creativity, but with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the whole system fell apart.”

There was no state control over quality then, he said, and various companies sprung up. He said he decided to restore the integrity of the circus tradition.

“We brought quality talent and production values.”

Sasha came to the United States in 1981, and Lena arrived in 1994. Their Moscow Circus Company made its debut in 1998 and is now the official version, under the umbrella of the Russian Ministry of Culture and the Moscow Mayor’s Office.

There is still a strong tradition of circus performing in Russia, he noted. There is even a circus college. Some of the troupe’s performers are from such schools, and others were born into circus families and carry on their family’s circus skills.

The Moscow Circus was influential in the development of Cirque du Soleil, Vosk noted.

“In the beginning, many of their performers were from Russia and the Ukraine. Now they often train their own.”

The Moscow Circus is not just a folk tradition, Vosk said. He wants it to be seen as a reflection of contemporary culture as well.

“It’s not circus for circus’ sake. I want the circus to be a presentation of Russian culture—it’s not just folk music, but also contemporary music and costumes. I want it to be a cultural exchange.”