History of circus art. Part IV. Circus in the Russian Empire

Circus in Russia is believed to have its springs in the 11th century, when wandering comic minstrel (skomorokhs) performed in squares and theatricalized sports events. Magicians, acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers, tamers and musicians always attended those open festivals. Historians have detected rather detailed depiction of horse races, equilibrists’ performances and fist-fighting tournament on one of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev frescoes. It is known that wandering comic minstrels were "officially" included in the "Closet intendent for amusement" at the Imperial court for participating in the performances during various events. In 1619, Grigory Ivanov, a native of Ryazan, was invited to the court of Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich with the tamed lion. Nevertheless, in 1648, all wandering comic minstrels fell out of favor with the Tzar and were persecuted: their musical instruments and other attributes were confiscated and burnt; they were accused of witchcraft and engagement with sinister forces.

Peter the Great was fond of circus. It is evidenced from his travel essays in 1697 and 1717. Thanks to the policy of Peter the Great, a large number of foreign artists give performance on a tour in Russia. Horse-riding schools were actively developed in Europe at that time, and thus circus performance programme in the Russian Empire necessarily included equestrian acrobatics. Moreover, jugglers, strongmen, as well as ventriloquists and fire swallowers, were permanently popular.

In the first half of the 19th century, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, Russian circus art developed rather quickly. Government incentive awakened the interest of European circus artists in touring to Russia. The foreign troupes organized construction of settled circuses in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Jacques Tourniare headed the very first circus troupe that came to Russia in 1825. He organized a tour to St. Petersburg and proceeded to constructing a circus building there. The wooden building was opened on December 11, 1827. The building had been demolished in 1877 after the stone building was erected. Caetano Ciniselli displayed great activity at the time. Ciniselli managed to persuade the Emperor to grant a building site in the city center, on the Fontanka embankment. The circus of Ciniselli had a royal box and 1500 seats, 50 of which were in the stalls, the rest were in the upper galleries. The circus enjoyed tremendous success. It was not easy to buy tickets to the boxes -- they were sold out a year in advance. To the present day, the functioning circus in St. Petersburg is allocated in this building. In 2015, the Fontanka building was not only reconstructed according to the latest "circus fashion", but it received back the name of its Italian founder.

Until the second half of the 19th century, most circus entrepreneurs and performers were foreigners. In 1849, the State Imperial Circus opened in St. Petersburg with the special department for training Russian circus artists. Extensive pantomime or dumb show of military-patriotic nature became the major circus genre by the end of the Nicholai reign. Tsar Nikolai was personally involved in stage directing, dramatized battle scenes and peculiar numbers in which he himself took part: he demonstrated how to impersonate officers correctly, keep the guns at the ready and march in lockstep.

Brothers Akim, Dmitry and Pyotr Nikitins, sons of a former serf peasant established the first circus. They began their art journey as entertainers, performing in the streets to the music of a barrel organ that their father played. In 1873, they opened a small settled circus in Penza (the Ice Palace). Later the family opened a circus in Saratov (1876) and in many other provincial towns. From 1911, the Nikitins settled in Moscow in their own stone building on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. Akim was the leading comedian, performing as a clown and playing various musical instruments. Pyotr amazed audiences with his physical strength and dexterity, while the eldest, Dmitry, was a clown. Russian artists were the only performers in their circus, which was an important stipulation for the brothers. The Nikitins family, similar with other circus in Russia at that time, formed a circus dynasty.

The brothers Vladimir (1863-1934) and Anatoli (1864-1916) Dourovs are known as the founders of a dynasty that delighted audiences with their performances for over a century and a half. Striving to theatricalize their numbers and rejecting to show refined training, Vladimir Dourov showed amazing tricks with animals.
Babe elephant was spinning a barrel organ crank, a sea lion was play the pipe, another one was beating a drum, the third -- was clapping with his flappers. A pelican played the zittern; the other pelican impersonated Isadora Duncan. An ox rode a horse and a reindeer. A cat, a dog, a pig, a rabbit and a fox got along peacefully at the same table. Vladimir Dourov developed a special kind of clownery involving animals.

Vitaly Lazarenko, a remarkable clown and acrobat, also worked for the Nikitins family. Ivan Poddubny, multiple time World Champion in wrestling and consummate strongman, and his pupil, who was World Champion as well, Ivan Zaikin, started out with Nikitins as well. Masterful jugglers Ksenia and Mikhail Paschchenko demonstrated their skills. The Nikitin brothers emphasized that Russian performers should be dressed in traditional national costumes. Equestrians and equestriennes had to be dressed in Russian pinafore dresses. Their circus participated in the coronation events of Nicholas II. During the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896, the Nikitins constructed a circus on Khodynka Field with the stable for one hundred horses.

Albert Salamonsky erected the first stone circus building on Tsvetnoy Boulevard (opened on 20.10.1880), later stone stables was added to it and swimming pool for aquacades was equipped. Gradually, circus performances were transformed into a collective concert, comprised of unrelated numbers. Prior the circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard appeared performances were staged exclusively for adult audience. The circus of Salamonsky was the first one that organized matinees for kids, Sunday shows and Christmas festive events for children, from which every child returned with gift.
By the 90s of the 19th century, more than fifty circuses and similar number of circus show-booths were functioning in the Russian Empire.

A distinctive feature of the period was that circuses belonged to private owners - entrepreneurs, many of whom had nothing to do with the arts. Impresarios and sprechstahlmeisters provided artistic direction. There were hardly any stage directors in circuses, therefore circuses' popularity and, consequently, profitability depended almost entirely on the talent and creative insights of the artists, and many of them did indeed maintain a high artistic level of circus art.

In 1919, the Salamonsky and Nikitins circuses were nationalized and Williams Truzzi* was appointed artistic director of both circuses. In the 1920s, he employed poets, decorations and painters, stage directors and choreographers. All this raises the level of circus performances. Receiving strong support, circus began to develop not only as part of the entertainment industry, but also as an art form.

*Williams Truzzi, a direct descendant of the famous Truzzi-Franconi circus dynasty, was born in 1889 in Poltava

In the arena of the old circus. / D.S. Al’perov - M., 2006. С. 78
Dourov V.L. Animal training / V.L. Dourov - Moscow, 2010. С. 140
About Genres of Soviet Circus / Z.B. Gurevich - M., 1984. С. 251
Ten trolley buses of clowns / V.Y. Nikulin - Samara, 2003. С. 88