Family Circus

A clown explodes into the ring of the circus on Tsvetnoi Bulvar, gesturing wildly and scanning the crowd for a volunteer to ride the baby elephant.

Amidst laughter and scattered applause, a swooping spotlight picks out a small boy who sheepishly leaves his seat and steps into the ring The clown pulls the reluctant youngster toward the elephant, which is about the size of a small pick-up truck, and gestures for him to sit on the trunk of the beast and be hoisted aloft.

Hesitating, the boy does as he is told. and then, driving the elephant as close to a gallop as he can get, the boy is off. Circling the ring, he breaks into a professional smile and waves to the crowd. Andrei Dementyev, 12, suddenly looks as though he had been riding elephants all his life - and he has.

While the event may not be the most dramatic moment in the matinee circus performance, it is, for Andrei's family, history in the making. He is the fifth generation of a circus family that stretches back to tsarist Russia.

Fate seems to have guided this family through revolution, war and social upheaval with unerring certitude. In a country where most cultural institutions are struggling for survival, if not collapsing outright, the family of performers continues to adapt and thrive.

Nearly a century ago, Andrei's great-great-grandfather Ivan Filatov opened his first animal circus in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Filatov went on to build an empire, eventually owning 20 zoo-circuses and mobile menageries. Every one of his 13 children worked in the circus.

When Alexander Kornilov, a Volga bargeman, met Filatov's only daughter, Maria, in the 1920s, he dropped everything to follow her. He married Maria - who was herself an experienced dog trainer - and joined the circus.

"First he played the harmonica, then he bought himself an elephant", Taisia, his granddaughter and Andrei's mother, recalled.

"Before he died in 1977, he and Grandmother had trained 150 elephants, 90 bears, 30 tigers, 15 wolves, seven camels and many small animals", she adds proudly.

The chain of pre-revolutionary circuses owned by Filatov evolved into part of Gosudarstvenny Tsirk, or GosTsirk, the large state-sponsored circus organization that oversaw the livelihood of Soviet circus performers. From bourgeois property owners, the family had become officially recognized Soviet National Artists.

In the late 1940s the family began to devote themselves exclusively to training elephants.

"My grandfather began his ballet with elephants after World War II", Taisia remembered.

"Elephants and Dancing Girls" was born. It would be directed by Alexander Kornilov and, later, his son Anatoly. A variation of the same act continues today in "Elephants Around the World", directed this season at Tsvetnoi Bulvar by Taisia and her husband, Alexei Dementyev. The act has been passed on as a kind of family heirloom.

From Taisia's tales, it becomes apparent that the legend of the circus family's origins also gets passed down from generation to generation. She and her two brothers grew up with the circus and its own mythology. They moved from city to city, changing schools and venues every season.

Faded family photos show Taisia's father and mother wearing the tailcoat and frilled skirt of 1950s circus fashion, ringed by cancan girls. In another snapshot Taisia herself, aged 9, curtsies for an audience in a broad-brimmed hat.

Taisia's husband is not of circus stock, but his life story fits the family legend. Asked how he became an elephant trainer, Alexei Dementyev blames it on romance. In the late 1970s, Taisia and Alexei met - and later married - when the circus brought Taisia to Riga, Latvia. In a repeat of family history, Alexei followed Taisia and came to work as a stable hand for his father-in-law, eventually taking his place in the elephant act in 1989. In a reverse of the usual marital name changing, and as a bow to the legendary status the name has acquired in circus history, Alexei billed himself as a Kornilov.

In the five years since then, the act has endured a lifetime's worth of changes. RosTsirk - the post-coup reincarnation of GosTsirk - has undergone a revolution of its own. Regional circuses in the republics are no longer subsidized. Performers must contract yearly for meager salaries.

In addition, many former Soviet citizens who performed with GosTsirk must choose between fighting visa restrictions to work in Russia and returning to perform in small, under-funded circuses in their "home" republics, now independent.

The Kornilov family is not immune to the problems of modern-day Russia. Dementyev, a Latvian citizen, was delayed from entering Russia because of visa problems at the start of the Moscow circus season.

But other than occasional bureaucratic hitches, the family has managed to weather the latest upheavals by going the way of the market.

In addition to performances and a grueling tour schedule, the family has incorporated as Elephant, Inc. , taking a cue from a well-known family of Swiss elephant trainers. The family now rents out cotton-candy machines, costumes and photo equipment for use at circuses and parks. The profits help augment monthly salaries of 100, 000 rubles ($100) each.

They also bear 50 percent of the financial burden for their elephant's equipment and trailers, but in a further stroke of good fortune for the family, not all state subsidies have disappeared. RosTsirk still provides food and medical insurance for the animals. It is no small contribution. Food for the three Asian and one African elephant costs 120, 000 rubles ($120) per day.

"You can't even imagine how complicated it is to feed four elephants", Dementyev said, gesturing towards the animal's cages. "Hay used to cost kopeks - now it costs thousands of rubles".

The elephants eat hay, oats and other grains, grass, fruit, vegetables, sugar, and a total of 80 kilograms of bread every day.

At an age when most boys dream of running away and joining the circus, Andrei Dementyev dreams of running away from the circus.

"He'd rather be a movie star", Taisia said when asked how the boy feels about growing up surrounded by the circus.

But when Andrei stops dreaming and talks about what he would like to be when he grows up, there are no doubts about following in the family footsteps.

"It's obvious already", he says matter-of-factly.

Before Andrei's Saturday debut at the matinee, confusion reigns in the family's dressing rooms. Where is the video camera? The debut must be recorded. Taisia searches frantically.

Her husband calmly buttons his black, sequined costume. He seems oblivious to the commotion.

Andrei appears dressed in streetclothes, to blend in with the audience. The three quietly discuss last minute details before starting the show.

"Elephants Around the World" in its 1993-94 version features seven acrobats and a clown - including the three members of the Kornilov family.

During the act, Taisia watches from the wings. She is directing rather than performing this season, pregnant with her second child. Taisia is a trained director - she has a degree in circus directing from the State Institute of Theater Arts (GITIS).

She is not only watching the performers, she is also observing the animals. She is especially pleased with Flora, the baby elephant Andrei will ride in his brief routine.

"She's only 11, a baby in elephant years. She's very gifted, the kind of elephant you get once in a lifetime", she says.

From a video of Taisia and Alexei performing together last season in Australia, one gets a sense of what four generations in the circus means. Taisia is a completely different person in the ring. It is obvious that she is the star of the show, displaying a rare rapport with the elephants. This season's dancers lack her ease with the animals.

Backstage after the matinee, Andrei is still elated from his performance.

"Can I do my trick again tonight, Dad? ", he asks eagerly.

Alexei looks sternly at his son. Andrei's debut was a rite of passage. Alexei appears to be deciding whether the boy has earned admittance into the family's legend. The frown relaxes.

"Molodets Andrei", he says, drawing the boy close, "Good job".

The gold-clad acrobats, now swathed in blue bathrobes and slippers, circle the new performer, showering him with kisses.