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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Show Goes on Under Post-Soviet Big Top

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I remember the first time I saw Aishada Abakarova, some 10 meters up in the air, high above the stage of the Reno Hilton. It was back in 1990, and the Moscow Circus was finishing a two-year tour across the United States, the longest in the circus' history. She was a high wire walker, making her way across a thin cable so high that one false move, I feared, and she'd be dead.

It was my first time watching a circus. Never had I seen anything so breathtaking as that zany and yet somehow poetic group of petite women and strong-looking men performing like birds on a wire.

Smiling, waving, balancing, Aishada and the others dazzled the audience below with their unending complicated aerial maneuvers. I was determined to meet her. After her bows, however, she disappeared behind the curtain and intermission was announced. Her male partners remained in the ring to take down the cables. I went up to the edge and held out a cocktail napkin and a pen to the closest one, Ravil. He had bulging muscles, long blond hair and an earring in his ear. As far as I was concerned, he was God.

That was 15 years ago, back before I had ever set foot in Moscow, before I spoke Russian, before I came chasing after the circus across the Atlantic like a kid after the neighborhood ice cream truck. I fell in love with these people and their talents, and my reaction was what they hoped for when they came to America. For decades, ever since Khrushchev and Kennedy had signed a cultural exchange agreement, the Moscow Circus had been coming to the United States to show Americans a piece of Soviet life. In its own quirky way, the exchange was supposed to sugarcoat the two countries' still strained relationship.

Ravil, Aishada and some others came to my house the following week on their day off. Over lunch they told me their globetrotting tales. Circus artists, they said, were better diplomats than politicians; the red ring was something that brought people together. Like music, it spoke its own international language.

They had spent their whole life on the road, living from hotel room to hotel room, they told me. They had performed on every continent. They had performed throughout the Cold War, bringing happiness and cheer to U.S. schools and city parks when Moscow and Washington were barely talking to each other. They loved what they did and the crowds they performed for.

Aishada had seven sisters in all, she explained, as she sipped Amaretto and sat on our deck. All of them walked the high wire. Each of them had been born in a different city in the Soviet Union while their father toured with the circus. He was a professional high wire walker as well and had taught his eight daughters the tricks of his trade. That was the only way to learn the art of high wire walking, she pointed out -- from someone else. It wasn't something you could learn from books. Her father had learned it walking over the rivers in Dagestan.

By the time the Russian banks defaulted on their loans in summer 1998, eight years after I first saw the Moscow Circus, the nation had already begun to default on its circus performers' contracts. After a lifetime of working for the state and thinking about nothing other than whether to throw two or three somersaults off the trapeze, suddenly their contracts were worth kopeks. They were now free agents -- free to come, free to go, free to do whatever they wanted. They were even free to become starving artists.

Some survived this Darwinist approach to the circus arts and went west, eager to sign more lucrative contracts with foreign circuses that were desperate for the acclaimed Soviet talent. But far from the majority fared well. Many of them didn't have apartments, because they had never needed them. They had never learned the business part of show business. They had never seen a contract and didn't know what should be in it. Some even ended up stranded with their animals and equipment in strange places, unable to get home for months because their impresario had skipped town.

Ravil stayed behind in Nevada that summer we met, as infatuated with the West as I was with his performance. He got a job with a big-name casino. Everyone was impressed, until he fell during a pre-show practice, as high wire walkers sometimes do, and shredded an Achilles tendon as he landed on the ground. The casino gave him some money and told him to get lost; with no medical insurance, no English and few bucks to spare, he managed only to find a clinic to do basic repairs. He now drives a taxi down the Vegas strip. His foot was never the same.

Sad, Aishada has commented many a time, as she remembers her former partner. He was one of the best high wire walkers around. She's not doing too well herself. Her high wire, now out of commission, sits above the practice ring in the circus on Sparrow Hills. The last time it was used was for a Russian reality show, when participants fumbled their way across. Without decent financial backing, she can't attract new performers eager to learn the dangerous art of walking high up in the air.

Western impresarios say that private enterprise creates competition, which makes for better circus acts. It's hard to have competition, though, if there is no money to build new acts to compete. In the old days, before the Soviet circus privatized in the early 1990s and all artists became independent, the government financed new creations and put everyone on the state payroll, from the inventors who dreamt them up to the engineers who built the equipment to the performers who practiced the tricks. Soviet circus entertainers spent years perfecting the impossible, aspiring to break world records, to do what had never been done. That was their job. The best circus act in history, which was the hit of the 1988-90 Moscow Circus North America tour and the subject of more than one documentary, took five years to build and perfect. It was only possible, all agree, because of the Soviet system that paid for it. Now the performers are retired, and no new ones have taken their place.

These days, it's all about getting on the road quickly and for the least amount of capital possible, the way it has always been in the West. Why spend the time learning to throw 11 pins in the air when you can throw three? Casino lounge shows are the latest market for Russian circus girls with a hula-hoop and some t & a. Forget the big acts the Soviets were known for, like the jolly Ukrainian acrobats and 15-member flying trapeze troupes; few independent circus act owners can afford to pay so many individual salaries during practice season.

The circus being the circus, though, the performers manage to find irony, and even laughs, in their situation.

"My high wire is on 'vacation,'" Aishada told me with a chuckle a few months ago. She had pulled it out to teach the reality show participants, which she now considers one of her greatest tricks. In three days, she proclaimed, she was able to get an unknown member of the public to make it across her wire, at a height that makes most people cringe.

Who knows, she asked rhetorically, maybe she can turn her new tricks into some real dough.

Kim Palchikoff is a writer based in Moscow and Reno, Nevada. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.