Slava Polunin talks to the Adver about her new latest production Snowshow

How did you begin in clowning?

 I was born in a small town in the midland of Russia, in a family that has have never come close to art or show business.

It was an simple childhood of an ordinary little boy who loved to run into the forest or to a river, listen to birds singing or go fishing, play with the other boys or just daydream...

As a child I watched “The Kid” by Charlie Chaplin and it impressed me to a great extent. I immediately made a cane for myself and started to copy Chaplin’s walk, which set my classmates and friends laughing. Probably the idea of my future occupation unwittingly started to form itself around that time. I believe that I was born a clown, but the conscious desire to be one appeared much later.

It was not me who discovered that I was to become a clown. One remarkable theatre director and scholar once told me: you know, you have such a powerful grotesque manner and you appear so natural that you are not just a mime now, you are a real clown.

I started out with pantomime. I was really into this mysterious silent art. I devoted quite a few years to eccentric pantomime. Most often I was working with my performing partner Alexander Skvortsov. Our duo became popular with the audience right away. We worked at the most prestigious venues across the country but did not turn down opportunities to work in students’ cultural centers or deep in the countryside because we really loved what we were doing. We were enjoying the thing we did so much that we could not decline a single proposal to perform.

ON BEGINNINGS ● Your story begins in Soviet Russia, in the heart of a strict and crushing regime from which you engaged on a long journey following your dreams. Tell us more about this journey.

Speaking of the art we were practicing, it was never an officially acknowledged one, it was a silent kind of art, and thus a very elusive one, hard to control (so generally, we weren’t strongly encouraged to carry on). But we had, nevertheless, lush conditions for our work. The state provided us with free teachers, facilities for rehearsing and everything we needed to focus on our art.

● When and how did you decide to start sharing your poetic universe with the public ?

We fell in love with the art of pantomime through Marcel Marceau and Charlie Chaplin, and for a good decade we fully dedicated our days and nights to that, no holding back. Eventually it happened, so that more people started to like what we liked. We made it on television, then everywhere else, and found ourselves famous - people were waiting for us everywhere.

● What are the most gratifying aspects of your work? What motivates you to continue incessantly to share your poetry with people around the world?

The art of clowning cannot exist in solitude. It’s not like writing. You can only create something when you have an audience on the other side, people in whom you want to induce laughter, or whom you want to move to tears.

● If you were not an artist performer, what other professions do you think you would have chosen to be in?

When I was a child I dreamt about being a librarian or a woodsman. And those dreams also came true – I have a huge library and I live in the woods.

● Have you ever thought that clowning can become your permanent occupation? How long have you been doing this? How did you become a professional clown?

Maybe, I've never asked myself that. I just loved what I was doing. At first it was an eccentric pantomime; my stage partner and I used to make the audience roar with laughter.

Then, at the turn of the 80ies decade my own clown character named Slava (or Assisyai) appeared, and he allowed me to talk with the audience not only about funny things, but also about the sad, the kind and the tender… Besides, I believe that clowning is a much broader notion than just a circus genre or a form of entertainment.

Clowning is a certain point of view on the world, an ability to see things in a way that differs from what people usually see, Maybe it is a special form of dementedness. It is a great pleasure to live and create things in this dimension. Once you start, you cannot stop.

I was pushed towards understanding that our creative endeavour had brought us close to clowning by one great director. He told me: «You are so natural in grotesque, that your behaviour is no-longer eccentric, it is clownish». And then I started to search for «my clown» - the make-up, the costume, the nose, the colors, the manner of walking, the rhythm... everything had a meaning.

● What kind of tasks did you accomplish?

I had done a lot of things. From the scrupulous training in plastique to make my body eloquent, through to to the serious study of the classic theatre, circus, entertainment, cabaret, cinematography and other experiences. As a matter of fact, the talent one receives as a gift from someone (God, parents, nature) is nothing but a basement that you can use to build your house with your own hands and with your own effort. What this house will be like depends on you and on the amount of work you put into it.

● Clowns always appear to be happy and joyful onstage. But what are the things that can make you unhappy?

Of course, there are things that sadden life, but I try to see them as lessons that one has to learn. It’s not difficult to amuse me for I am very seldom in despair. Of course I have been through my share of depressions, disappointments and sadness, but the support from my family and the strong belief that I sense the situation correctly, as well as the precise understanding of my purpose in life have always helped me to overcome this state of mind. ● What do you get or enjoy from making people laugh?

I love happy people. I am so lucky that every night I can see a thousand joyful faces!

● How important do you think your role to make people laugh is, especially in Russia in the 1960-s and 1970-s?

It is important to bring joy to the people at any times. I do not think it is more important back then than it is now.

● How does growing in a small town like Novosil influence your work as a clown?

I believe that living outside of the cultural capitals shaped my dedication: I really wanted to do pantomime, but there wasn’t anywhere I could do it in my native town, so I left for St.Petersburg. Besides, we didn’t have much to keep ourselves entertained with in Novosil, so books became my best friends. And one more things is my love for nature, the kind of love that is shaped in one’s childhood. Up to this day, nature is an unsurpassable source of recovery and concentration. When I need to make an important decision, I leave to stroll in the forest or along a river bank - for me it is the only way to think things through.

● What inspires you now? What other companies/ productions/forms of entertainment do you enjoy?

Many things: nature, children, books, I am a true book lover: I have an enormous library that I have been collecting and savouring all my life. As for theatre, I love bright visuals, and perhaps for that reason my favourites these last years are Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson.

● What relaxes you most? I can relax the most when I am out in the nature. I love to steal into the forest or go fishing on a river. There is nothing more beautiful than that.

● I read in an interview that one of your inspirations was Monty Python and also Fellini. Why is that? Monty Python is in my opinion the summit of humour - it is clever, absurd, witty - the kind of humour I love. And Fellini is a genius of crafting poetic universes. His films are saturated with poetry, they comprise funny and tragic, heart-wrenching and cruel, and each frame, each character is elevated to the level of intense poesy. He is an artist of wonder, inimitable in his art.

● On Cirque du Soleil I hope CDS feels that I have provided Alegria with a soul. In return, CDS gave me experience with the realities of running a business nowadays.

● What are your plans for the future? Starting from a certain moment I stopped separating my life from my art, so everything that happens to me - whether important or not - is equally valuable to me, because it is my life. And it is full of events. Today I make large street events in various cities across the planet, I am writing a book. In general, I don’t have much time to get bored.

● You have lots of projects in Russia and all around the world. How do you manage all of them? I love to tackle the impossible, the unachievable, unrealistic. improbable. Luckily, I am surrounded by people who share that love. This is how we make many things possible.

● What’s the best place you’ve ever performed? There are a lot of places where i like to perform. Russia is at the top of that list because Russians are a beautiful audience and they feel the show in the most profound and sincere way.

I also love performing in London, the audience is very demanding and very thoughtful at the same time. Japan, Mexico, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, etc.. The list is too long as each place show different angles of all the experiences I love.

ON SNOWSHOW This show was actually conceived in the early 90's. It embraced all my favourite topics and items. In a sense, I was working on this show for many years, collecting bit by bit until it became a whole, in order to express myself in fully. Many things in the show come from childhood memories, like the image of snow, for example.

Our show is not only different year from year - in fact, it is different every time, because it allows big room for improvisation. I make my best to prevent the artists in the company from knowing who is playing who until the last moment. I also try to set up some unexpected things. That way improvisation becomes very natural and the show remains full of life.

● What should one expect from the show?

I think that in the first place one should expect a journey into the childhood. Into your own childhood sparkling with your dreams, into mine - covered by the snowy blanket, into ours – filled with anticipations and dreams. A trip into the world of bright colours, true feelings and important small details, that one only notices when little. In any case, each person sees his (or her) own story in the show, his own world. This is very important to me.

The most magical aspect of this show as in any form of artful theatre – is the intimate communication with the public, which in this case is non verbal elusive fibers of contact which often appear between an artist and spectator during the show. This very subtle interaction is something that creates the magic of the theatre.

● Why not use any language? I love absurd and fantastic reality and i do not trust “spoken word" - that is what made me choose clowning. For me, expression without words is much more organic and natural than using words on stage, visual language is much richer, more personalized and elusive, that’s why I haven’t even thought to use words.

● Who comes out of the show most enchanted, children or adults? The main part of the theatre audience for us are always grown-ups. Children are already a happy crowd of people, they haven’t yet touched the troubles of life, and the entire world is open and boundless. Imagination and joy fills them if they are not in a challenged social situation. Adults, however, often make themselves very rigid, complicate things, and start digging deep into the convolutions of life as soon as they grow up even a little bit. And yet, if one stays connected to his inner child, everything becomes so much easier and jollier. This is what we try to do.

● What makes Snowshow an everlasting world wide success? The fact that we do not use spoken words in our performances is just one of the reasons why SNOWSHOW has been touring the world so successfully and for so long. The second reason is that I really like traveling. The third - I talk about things that are central to everyone’s life: simple and eternal, things that any human being can relate to - on friendship, solitude, life and death. The fourth - I do this in an original way, trying to find a new way of saying those things each time I'm doing something on stage. The fifth - I admire this world and I am very glad to be here, so I suppose every person wants to join me in this feeling. The lists goes on to reasons number 6,7,8,9,10, and so on… Of course, the show has a special edge for each country’s audience. For instance, its absurd side comes in handy in the UK. The passionate side becomes more prominent in Spain. Its wide and filled soul is summoned up in Russia. Its poetic side starts to sound clearer in France.

Brits can sit quietly throughout the show, but stand up and applause for 30 minutes afterwards. Italians can jump up to the stage if they see something that touches them.

We carefully study the country or city that we are going to, and listen to the audience throughout the first couple of performances to grasp the main emotion in the theatre, and catch the thin gentle strings connecting people in the audience to people on stage.

● How did you select the music for this show? I ask this because you have an eclectic list of pieces like “Chariots of Fire”, “La Petite Fille de la Mer”, “Oh Fortuna” and “Ravel’s Bolero”

I have a vast collection of music. Whenever I her an interesting piece, I make sure I find the original track and add it to my collection. So when the time comes to create a show, I fetch these treasures from the chest and make them part of it.

● When do you play yourself in SnowShow or other projects? How do you choose which one to play? Nowadays my students do most of the work in the show. The aesthetics of this spectacle demands full immersion and ability to live in the midst of it. It is simply not enough for an actor to play a character. Instead they need to learn to live and feel like inhabitants of this strange world. This is not easy.

● When you put a mask on your face, who / where do you dream to be? What do you think about “the masks” that people put on their faces every day?

A mask is how a human being protects himself. Humans are essentially vulnerable and easy to hurt. To protect themselves, people wear a mask, it is how they hide their true identity.

● What kind of feelings do you want to pass to the audiences through your show? The main feeling that people share spontaneously is the joy of returning to a stage of childhood where a sense of playful freedom overcomes our fears and habits. This is what I have dedicated my life in achieving on a daily basis.

● Why is the interactive participation with the audience in ‘Slava’s Snowshow’ so important? The most magical in this show as probably everywhere else in the art of theatre – this is communication with the public, but it’s not a verbal connection, these are elusive fibers of contact which can appear between an artist and spectator during the show. This subtle interaction is something that creates the magic of the theatre.

● Why do you wanted to use the element of snow in the show? What is the magic about it? Many things in the show come from childhood memories, like the image of snow, for example.

What I love most about theatre is the magic. Initially, theatre consists of ritual, magical and aesthetic, but the magical part has been vanishing since. I would love to bring it back.

Snow is one of the magical things. It can be unbelievably beautiful, it brings immense joy, when you build snow fortresses, speed down the slope on a sledge, when you can surround your house with an army of funny snow people - snowmen… But snow also means danger. The scary stories of people being swallowed by the snow blizzard is everywhere in old Russian tales and literature. I remember it from my own experience - when I was small, my mother often left on trips for her job. I would come out on the porch to say goodbye and see how their car dissolved into the snow mist. I was always frightened by those departures, since I worried that my mum would get swallowed by the snow.

ON SNOW - What is the material of the magic snowflakes? It is a huge secret so I can certainly tell you: it is a special kind of paper that doesn’t burn. The size of each flake is precisely calculated in the way so that they float downwards in a very special way.

ON CLOWNS AND CLOWNING ● What is the difference between the circus and the theatre clowns?

When the circus had lost its poetry and started to prefer technology and tricks, the clowns left the circus for cinema, theatre or street performance. And there they obtained their freedom and their own space. They stopped filling the gaps between circus numbers and became the masters if not of the entire show, than of its important part. Clowns feel cramped on the circus arenas, for them the world is not enough. Only a few clowns managed to drag their own world into the circus, into somebody else's show. And this is exactly what a clown does – he creates his own world!

● What does freedom mean for a Clown Freedom is essential for a clown. But we need to understand that freedom does not mean disorder, nor chaos. We talk about freedom of choice, thinking, expression, about the freedom to do what you want and say what you feel when face to face with the reality of the moment (which we do not choose).

● Which are the main characteristics a clown of your company must have? You know, I do my best to invite the happiest people to my company. People who are capable of be surprised and delighted by every minute of their life. It is in the midst of such people that one wants to travel, create, co-exist. Only from these people stem genuine clowns.

● I love the expression of ‘Expressive Idiotism’. What did you meant by that? As soon as I started doing pantomime, I wanted to shift everything to a more cosmic scale. We started studying eccentric comedy, tried coming up with gags and got so far that we caused the audience go hysterical with laughter. We figured out that in order to work, a number needs 7-8 gags in it. What we would do is stick 20-25 gags in a number, not giving the audience enough time to laugh at one before we throw another one at them, and then another, and so on. This is what later became known as ‘Expressive Idiotism’ ON THE ACADEMY OF FOOLS ● What do you teach at the Academy of Fools?

The Academy of fools unites people who know how have fun in life, how to be happy. This is what we learn from one another.

The Academy of Fools gave me an excellent opportunity to gather my friends together and have fun. But this is a very important institution that opposes vanity and exceeding seriousness of the world. People are so focused on their careers, on their problems, on their incomes, that they no longer feel the taste of life. They have forgotten what it feels like to smell a flower, to listen to a bird’s song, to lie on the grass on a summer day staring at the sky for hours… The main purpose of the Academy of Fools is to make sure that these pointless things do not disappear from life. We have a countless number of things of similar importance. And if we ever stop doing those things, people would drown in seriousness and lose an ability to smile.

ON HAPPINESS The happier you are yourself, the happier your audience is. I gather only happy people in my team. That is my secret.

- Picasso once said: I studied all my life to learn how to paint like a child. Is your task the same: create simple things like a child's dream? Yes, I am sure that by following his childhood dreams one can become happy. As for the clowns, they are certainly envoys of children in the world of adults.

ON FAMILY - Do your sons collaborate with you?

Yes, one of my sons is a technical director of the show and the other one is a clown.

-Your mum wanted you to become an engineer, is she still upset or did you manage to change her mind?

One day I got a job as a solo performer at the music hall of Leningrad. My mum saw me in the midst of this splendeur and magnificence, finally decided I’ll do fine and forgave me.

ON AWARDS AND ACHIEVEMENTS ● You have been named as the Best Clown in the World before. What does that title mean to you? It is flattering, of course. And a great responsibility. But as for me, I value titles like “the President of the Academy of Fools” much more. I titled myself thus when I invented the Academy. Or “the Andersen’s Envoy in Russia”. The Queen of Denmark (the home country of the great storyteller) conferred this title upon me.

Clowns are different like all the other people. Some are serious, some are giggly, some are easy going and cheerful, and others are dark and gloomy. But the character one creates always reflects one’s personality. That is why the search of one’s personal clown’s mask, the creation of each clown is a very personal and time-consuming affair.

Clown is an archetype. One finds this character in his or her early childhood and stays with it throughout the entire life. Clown embodies liberty: what a clown does and how he sees the world is what not so many people can afford to do. A clown does not conform with the conventions of the society, he has the frankness of a child. And this is exactly what most adults are lacking.

ON MOULIN JAUNE Slava’s fantasy homeland just outside Paris ● Why did you create Moulin Jaune?

The things I do cannot really be classified with the one branch of art or another. There are a lot of experiments, a lot of new things, which need to be first tested on small groups of spectators. Moulin Jaune is in a way my lab, where I can experiment.

That is not exactly a house. This is a center where we prepare our projects, shows, etc. We tried to create this place in accordance with the laws of theatre and nature. Every room, every bit of space is a separate world that obeys its own rules and has its own personality. There is, for example, a Grandma’s room, that is decorated with lacework and there are old framed photographs everywhere. Or there is a room, which we call “Nutcracker”, where anybody can feels him- or herself a child, who crawled under the table in the middle of a party. Everything in this room is huge and you suddenly feel very small.

● You have decided to live in your surreal property and make it open to the public so they can see how it is possible to have a daily life infused with poetry. How do you see this will this evolve over time?

Firstly, I don’t live at the Moulin Jaune. I live everywhere at the same time. Where a new project is starting, I go. I have just lived 3 years in St. Petersburg, helping to restore the art of circus, because it is currently in a very tight spot. I have no idea where I am going to spend the next 3 years, but the Yellow watermill is one of my favourite places. It is my creative lab and from there stem many beginnings. We have just carried out one remarkable experiment in our lab, I think it has a big future. The festival “How to teach a pigeon to fly” actually stands for “How to discover the art of dreaming.

ON RUSSIAN HUMOUR ● The show not only is very funny but also achieve great moments of poetry and even dramatic parts (like the scene with the coat). Why did you choose to do it like that? It is not easy to pin down. Perhaps, the Russian humour can be characterised by Gogol’s formula “laughter through tears”, or, in other words, it has a tragi-comical component.

Almost everything in life turns out to be a comedy for one and a tragedy to the other. It has to be the same on stage. It is not uncommon to have an audience here some people would be rocking with laughter and some would be crying at the same scene. Everyone sees whatever is happening differently.

ON RUSSIANNESS -You travel the world but speak russian, why?

I like to say that nowadays I am simply an earthling. However, I am definitely a Russian artist, it is the language I speak, I am brought up by this great culture, many images in my show are born in Russia.

ON SLAVA’S TEACHERS AND INSPIRATION (ITALY) Without any doubt, commedia dell’arte was one of my main sources of knowledge. I spent a lot of time studying this great tradition. As a consequence, the Servant of two masters staged by Giorgio Strehler, all the works of the great master Dario Fo, and Fellini’s films, of course. It’s hard to list everything… I often say that my teachers are: Marcel Marceau, Charlie Chaplin, a russian clown Leonid Engibarov… But I really love learning, so many and many other things shaped me as an artist.

I have already mentioned commedia dell’arte that I adore and that is the closest to what I do. But in order to find my language, my way of existing on stage, I went through different stages - from Stanislavskiy system to most avant-garde experiments like Artaud, Grotowski, Canter, Tomashevskiy, etc.

ON TEACHING I became a teacher while I was still a student myself. Well, in fact all my life I have been a teacher and a student at the same time. I think both roles are very important. But I do not teach in a conventional way. I try to discover the essential nature of my students, what they really are. In order to do this, I need to pull them out of their everyday life and take them on a journey to a world where imagination and creativity prevail. Once I summoned a group of 20 students, put them on a ship with ten or so teachers and we went on a boat trip down the Volga river. This journey went on for a whole month, and throughout the entire time people lived by the law of creativity and celebration.

ON SOCIAL PROJECTS I try to make people a little happier, a little better and a little more cheerful with my each performance. Isn’t that the most serious social initiative?

Snowshow is at Bristol Hippodrome, Bristol from Tuesday November 28 to Saturday December 2 For more details or booking visit