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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Visionary Under the Big Top

hen "Cirk Valentin" opened on Broadway in 1989, no one had heard of the show's Russian producer, Valentin Gneushev. Gneushev was a cigar-smoking, self-promoting choreographer from Moscow who had brought his collection of circus acts across the Atlantic.

And no one really cared. With two Moscow circus companies touring the United States at the time, and the Cirque du Soleil booming in Canada, there was hardly any room in North America for a bunch of individual Russian circus acts on a stage, even on Broadway. Amid poor reviews and even poorer ticket sales, the show closed a few months after it opened, and that was the end of Gneushev's career on Broadway.

Now, almost 10 years later, the calm and collected and, at long last, well-known Gneushev is still going at it, smoking his cigars and inventing his off-the-wall circus acts that look as though they came from anywhere but Russia. Kalinka songs from the orchestra pit? Forget it. Ukrainian folk costumes? No way. Acrobats on teeterboards? Try again.

His patience apparently has paid off. Last year the award-winning Gneushev was appointed artistic director of the Yury Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoi Bulvar -- more familiarly, the Old Moscow Circus. Once the sawdust and popcorn mecca of classical Russian circus, the old warhorse has become a proving ground for the future.

Ask Gneushev what he sees when he closes his eyes, and he'll tell you about cactuses on high wires, rainbows on trapezes and men on motorcycles.

"I worry a lot about being current," he said in an interview in the Russian edition of Playboy earlier this year. "Current," he said, means being able to "understand the interests of the time."

"If you don't want to understand them, it means that the market will have no use for you," he said. "And every person has to be on the market. Otherwise, why do anything?"

Gneushev's modern style has been well received by the Moscow market. It's easily the hottest thing going in Russian circus these days. Moreover, at a time when thousands of Russian circus performers, choreographers and trick trainers have been swallowed up by the major circuses of the world, it may soon be the only thing going locally.

Shows at the Old Moscow Circus no longer feature pieced-together, discombobulated programs, with unrelated acts strung together by an aging ringmaster's dull voice. Instead, Gneushev has jumped on the international circus bandwagon and come up with something that is part circus, part theatrical production.Perhaps the best thing about Gneushev's arrival at the Old Moscow Circus last year is that he has found a permanent home for his circus studio, another invention in the world of Russian circus that has proved, over the years, to be highly successful. Instead of leaving the artistic side of circus acts up to family heritage, the traditional method, performers take their tricks to a professional circus choreographer.

At Gneushev's studio, located in the circus ballet room, he takes performers who have mastered their particular art and works with them to choose music, costumes and themes. In short, he helps invent an act, which is then shipped off to foreign circus or used in the Old Moscow Circus for a season. This may not sound so unusual, but there are only five such studios in the world.

"Nikulin took Gneushev on as a risk," said circus spokeswoman Yelena Olshanskaya, referring to legendary actor-clown Yury Nikulin, the circus's former director.

"Since his time on Broadway, he hadn't directed any circus programs. His shows are different from classical Russian circus."

"I recall Nikulin told me one time what he likes about Gneushev," added Olshanskaya, a longtime theater buff. "He said, 'He can take a bad or an average act, with average tricks, and by changing the performers' music, costumes and their relationship to what they are doing, can create a colorful, fantastic act.'"

Gneushev's appointment to the post of artistic director isn't the only change at the Old Circus. Nikulin's death last August left the circus without its powerful, godfather-like representative whose close ties to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov helped the nonprofit circus company out of many financial woes over the years.

When the 106-year-old circus was in desperate need of repair, it was Nikulin who convinced the then-Soviet government in 1988 to finance a two year, multimillion-dollar renovation.

Shortly after Nikulin's death, the circus was renamed after him to honor his many years of service.

Gneushev's first show as an artistic director last year was one of the final beneficiaries of Nikulin's influence in the city government. The circus received extra funds to put on "Marketplace," an elaborate and expensive theatrical bonanza. All acts and costumes epitomized scenes from an old Russian marketplace. Blue carpet covered the circus's red ring for the first time. No expense was spared in the name of art. Such extravagance would seem, for now at least, to be a thing of the past.

Nikulin's son, Maxim, the former commercial director, has taken over as director, but it is unlikely he will be able to command the same sort of influence that his father did.

This season's new show, "These Children," which premiered last month and will run through February, was clearly put together on a much reduced budget.

Not everyone at the circus is as enthusiastic about Gneushev's work as Yury Nikulin was. Some of the old-timers view his newfangled creations with skepticism.

"What is a show with only one- and two-person acts in it?" Sergei Gaidar, a performer-turned-administrator, said at a the circus on a recent evening. He lit a cigarette and stood just offstage watching the performers, just as he did the previous night, and the night before that, and the night before that.

"I've been coming to this circus since 1957," Gaidar said. "So have a lot of people." He pointed to the show's prop assistants clad in red overalls, milling around the curtain. "And see those assistants? They are all former artists. Some were jugglers. See that guy? He was an acrobat. They all go to work for the circus after their performing career is over. Like me. There's nothing else for us to do."