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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

in-flight entertainment

It was 6 a.m. on a winter's morning. While the rest of Moscow slept, a group of small men and women decked in tights and T-shirts were taking turns soaring back and forth through the air, holding on to a white bar 10 meters above the city's 109-year-old indoor circus ring.

As they waited their turns perched high on a tiny platform, this cheerful, outgoing bunch was trying to convince me, a curious young American who had shown up to watch, to join them for an early morning trapeze joyride. "You can't get hurt," they yelled. "You don't have to do anything except climb up the ladder, hold on to the bar, and jump." Shouting, I observed, was the normal style of communication in this world of huge heights and distances.

"What the hell," I thought. And less than 30 minutes later, heaving from the surprisingly strenuous climb up the 50-rung wire ladder by the side of the enormous net, I was standing in my socks, barely balancing alongside three others on the top of a small, shaky, fiberglass-covered metal platform.

Like almost all of the huge collection of surrounding trapeze equipment -- hanging metal swings, wire ladders, assorted platforms, and the trapeze itself -- the main takeoff platform, or most, high above one end of the net, was suspended from the circus ceiling by thick, wire cables. As I clung ferociously to these, they were busy buckling a lonzh, a heavy-duty rope-and-pulley safety belt, around my waist and casually giving me some basic trapeze-flying advice. "Don't look down;" "Watch your fingers as you fall -- they can break if they get stuck in the net;" "When you are ready to let go of the bar, yell, so the big guy down below holding the rope attached to your belt doesn't let you crash."

I stood where I was on the platform, clinging to the wire cables. It took 10 minutes and someone's annoyed shout that I was, "wasting their practice time," before I grabbed the bar, closed my eyes, jumped and flew. I screamed. And they laughed. Only later did I learn that watching first-time fliers show their fear of heights is an unofficial form of trapeze-practice entertainment, a minor freak-show to break up the pressures of another strenuous day.

The first time I barreled across the air, I hung onto the bar for dear life. The second swing over the net, on the rebound, I opened my eyes. By the third swing I was able to relax a little. By the fourth and final time, cruising in the air was exhilarating. And by the time I was helped down a few minutes later, an adrenaline rush had replaced my original terror; I felt like a kid at Disneyland. "How was it," they yelled? "Fantastic," I yelled back. "Can I fly again?"

In the countries of the former Soviet Union they are called vozdushniye gimnasty, or aerial gymnasts -- a dazzling and daring groups of aerial acrobats who make a living throwing somersaults off trapezes high in the air, from circus tent to circus tent. Outside their country, they are more commonly known as flying trapeze artists, (not to be confused with the single trapeze artist, who performs solo), earning a reputation as masters of the most physically demanding, as well as the most dangerous, of all modern circus acts. And Moscow -- the center of the former Soviet Union's estimated 20,000-member circus industry -- has earned a reputation in the international circus world for producing the world's best and most artistic fliers.

Isolated from the West's privatized circus show-biz world, the Soviet Union developed and financed its own nationalized circus industry, complete with circus schools, practice studios, and, most importantly, 70 permanent concrete circus buildings where shows ran for two months at a time. In this context, the world of the flying trapeze developed into an industry in itself, spawning trapeze engineers who designed and constructed the fliers' delicately balanced apparatus, choreographers, coaches, ballet instructors, costume designers and custom net- and ladder-makers.

The result of this concentration of effort has been the creation of something unique.

In a typical Western trapeze act, all emphasis -- and spotlight -- is on the tricks. Individual performers fly horizontally over nets holding onto the trapeze, performing a single, double, triple or occasionally even a quadruple somersault into the hands of the waiting catcher.

In Russia, however, the concept of the vozdushniye gimansty is completely different: Here the technically oriented flying trapeze has been transformed into a performance art.

Typical of the Russian approach is the deliberate absence of painted red lines on the nets, a Western tradition for visually cuing trick-throwing fliers in mid-air. The Russians don't believe in visual cues -- they believe in learning by feeling.

This difference is best illustrated by one of the greatest acts to come out of the former Soviet Union -- the "Flying Cranes." Acting out a Russian poem by Rasul Gamzatov about the souls of dead soldiers which turn into flying cranes, the act was invented by now-retired Pyotr Maistrenko, the Andrew Lloyd Weber of Moscow's trapeze world, who has created 22 flying trapeze acts.

A poem in the air? Imagine this: In glowing red and blue light, performers in white leotards, with the help of motorized bungees, fly up from all directions to perch on the net and the numerous landing pads over the net. Acting out scenes of war and peace to the music of Bach and Stravinsky, they incorporate their complicated flying tricks into a complex choreography to produce a complete aerial show.

This creation was no accident. By 1980, Maistrenko had spent 30 years -- his entire career -- drawing thousands of sketches, as well as designing and inventing the themes, trapeze equipment, costumes, music and choreography for his numerous flying acts.

The original aerial equipment for the Cranes, he said, took more than 300 sketches to conceive. The performers also took five years -- from 1980 to 1985 -- to practice. They were in no hurry, for, like Maistrenko, they were on decent government salaries. And in accordance with Russian circus tradition, they only began to perform after they had absolutely perfected their act. Unlike in the West, time had no meaning.

When the Cranes arrived in the United States with the Moscow Circus for a two-year tour in 1988, the group of 12 aerial gymnasts was bombarded by a U.S. media bowled over by this unusual form of performance. Since then they have performed around the world, from Japan to Australia. And in January of 1995, the Cranes took the gold medal in the prestigious international circus festival at Monte Carlo, the Olympics of the circus world.

There are other differences: In the West, trapeze-flying is usually a family affair -- children learn to practice from their performing parents on the road, in between shows, when there is time. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, by contrast, most aerial gymnasts are not from circus families but are award-winning graduates of their nation's renowned gymnastic schools, experts on the ground before they take to the air. They ended up at the circus, most of them say, looking for a job. And once they got sucked into the world of trapeze flying, they were hooked.

Natasha Strebkova, 21, said she made the solo journey to Moscow from the Ural Mountains two years ago, dreaming of running away with the circus after graduating from a special sports school. Weighing barely 100 pounds, the former gymnast managed to realize her dream by agreeing to learn to fly on the trapeze, something most of her female circus friends, she said, love to watch but refuse to perform.

Now, seven days a week, she scales the wire ladder by the net to the high platform, shakes chalk onto her hands from a plastic bottle hanging nearby, and, with a determined expression, prepares herself psychologically for what will come next. "Ready," she shouts, holding the hanging trapeze with one hand, poised for take-off and a few seconds later, a loud "hup" is heard. Following her cue, Strebkova jumps in the air, places her other hand on the bar, points her toes, and pumps her tiny, trained legs forwards and backwards through the air, picking up speed as she glides high over the net and then backwards towards the platform.

On her second rebound-swing -- tricks are never performed on the first -- Strebkova throws her controlled body precisely upside down, still pointing her toes, simultaneously doing the splits while holding onto the bar. As she approaches the "dead point" -- the split second where the trapeze bar has finished its forward swing but has yet to swing backwards -- she lets go of the bar, her hands outstretched to meet those of the upside-down catcher.

She misses.

As Strebkova plummets awkwardly toward the net, she flips in mid-air to face the ceiling in order to land, and bounce, strategically flat on her back.

"Do it again," her coach, Radik Akhtamov yells from down below.

While Strebkova is serious in the air, down on the ground, she smiles easily. Particularly when she talks about the trapeshka, as fliers affectionately call the trapeze. "I like it," she says, explaining precisely why she is so dedicated to such a dangerous profession. "I got into it, and now it's my life."

Apart from the 15 or so minutes of showtime glamour, however, learning to master the cloth-covered, metal bar hanging high in the air is a dangerous, painful, repetitious and difficult process.

It's a highly disciplined world of absurdly early morning or late night daily practices. It's meals skipped as weight is watched and publicly monitored -- a male flier rarely weighs more than 135 pounds and a female 100. It's unending pull-ups and sit-ups -- the essential training that takes place in between practices. It's bloody, blistered hands, sore shoulders, sore necks, sore backs, sore everything. In fact, ask trapeze artists how they are, and they usually reply by naming off the parts of their body that hurt.

And it's also, potentially, extremely dangerous.

It was the end of another evening's performance at the Old Circus in June 1993. A packed audience was watching the trapeze performers gracefully rise and fall through the air -- over the edge of the net -- as they performed the last moments of their act. What nobody realized, however, was that the bungee cord attached to the waist of one of the performers had been improperly fastened in the dark. Suddenly, 28-year-old Yury Machalov was crashing head first into the hardwood circus floor more than 12 meters below, barely missing the spectators seated in the first row. A few minutes later, as the horrified audience looked on, a white-jacketed ambulance crew carried Machalov's silent and crumpled body away on a stretcher.

Machalov was lucky. Despite cracking, crushing, and breaking practically every major bone in his body from his skull down, he miraculously escaped any spinal or brain injuries. Defying physicians dismal projections, the determined performer was back up on the same bungee cord two years later.

Such serious accidents in the world of aerial acts, while not common, are certainly not unheard of. Trapeze cables become unhooked or entangled, throwing fliers unexpectedly in the wrong direction. Bungee cords, added to "spice up" trapeze acts like Machalov's, are carelessly hooked to performers in the dark. Hanging upside-down, catchers are smashed in the face by barreling off-course fliers.

So why do they do it?

"The exhilaration of flying," said Yevgeny Totukhov, a longtime flier and a teacher at Moscow's Academy of the Circus Performing Arts. "First I did it for the thrill of flying," he said. "Then I did it because it made me special -- few others can do such a thing. Then I did it because it was an opportunity to go abroad and see the world. Then I did it for the money."

But, according to some in the circus world, the best days of the flying trapeze in Russia are already over.

I first met Maistrenko in the middle of a January snowstorm in 1993, outside the glavko -- the massive, concrete, national circus administration building in downtown Moscow. He stood in front of a shiny brass plate inscribed with the words, "Russian Federation of Circus," in English as well as in Russian. A new name for a new era.

The frail, wrinkled inventor of the Flying Cranes adamantly disliked this new era, he said. Out of protest he refused to go inside the building, preferring to give his interview outside in the driving snow.

And he was less interested in talking about his past inventions than in criticizing the de-nationalization of the former Soviet Union's circus industry as a whole.

"The circus is slowly dying as an art form. All people care about is making money, making profit," he said. "The circus was never meant to make money. It was art. We had a [circus] system, good or bad, we had it, and through it we were able to produce art."

"Will something new be reborn?" I asked.

"So far I haven't seen anything new," he responded. "All we do is destroy, destroy, destroy."

Vilen Golovko, leader of the Flying Cranes and the man seen as king of the trapeze in Moscow circles, disagrees.

"Trapeze is not dying," said Golovko, who recently arrived for a month's break in Moscow from an Australian tour.

"Look at all the acts that are performing around the world. And, by the way, look at how many of them are Russian. The Russians have contributed everything to trapeze, the coaches, the know-how, the equipment, the inventions like the Russian Swing [a two-barred trapeze for the catcher] and the motorized bungee cords."

While Russia may have a unique reputation for its prowess in the art of aerial gymnastics, however, many of the best performers are being lured abroad by the promise of better pay.

Currently there are approximately 25 flying-trapeze acts performing in the former Soviet Union, according to Oleg Lozoviki, the curator for trapeze acts for the Rosgostsirk company, the largest of three semi-private circus companies currently operating in Moscow. It is not known how many more have left to perform abroad in foreign circuses -- no statistics are kept, he said.

But back in Moscow, young Strebkova and her flying troupe certainly aspire to work for a foreign circus one day, where they can make up to $100 a performance. This usually happens if a visiting talent scout from a foreign circus happens to see an act while in Moscow, like it, and sign the troupe on for a season abroad.

Strebkova and her troupe have yet to attract such foreign interest, and, for now, they struggle to survive. She and her partners have managed to get by by signing a contract with the "New Circus" on Prospekt Vernadskogo, which has become a semi-private circus company. For 10 percent of any future contracts, they are given a free room at a nearby circus hotel, free practice time and free costumes.

But their meager monthly salary amounts to just $125. Radik Akhtamov, the group's leader, must buy trapeze equipment for about $5,000, using all of the money he earned on his last trip abroad. If they can't get a contract with a foreign circus, they will join the other trapeze acts in Russia's "conveyor" circus system, performing in circuses around the former Soviet Union for periods of two months at a time for about $150 a month.

Still, despite the danger and the low pay, there is nothing that can compare with the thrill of flying, Strebkova said.

Echoing the feeling of many vozdushniye gimansty, Golovko put it simply: "I fly," he said. "Airplane pilots only fly planes, and the planes fly. Every day, I fly."