We started juggling in the Toronto airport. While waiting by our gate, fellow traveler Tracy Hewat used her new red beanbags while I learned to throw playing cards by tossing them at her from across the room. We probably didn't look like a normal tour group, and we weren't. Circus Smirkus was going to Moscow.
In December 1989 my mother called me to say that Rob Mermin, founder and artistic director of Circus Smirkus, was planning a trip to the USSR. I had been a member of the Vermont youth circus since its start three years before, and was one of those asked to join Mermin on the trip.
Foreign exchanges had been suggested for Smirkus, but seemed so distant that none of us expected such an opportunity so soon. But after Mermin made a preliminary visit to Moscow that winter, we flew out of Montreal on June 8.
Our group included 11 young performers, all at least one-year Smirkus alumni. We were acrobats, clowns, tightrope walkers and three 15-year-old jugglers - Nolan Haims, Duane Barnett and me. We traveled with five Smirkus adults, including Mermin, Tracy Hewat, and professional juggler Stewart Lippe. A local newspaper sent a reporter and photographer, and an independent videographer joined us in Moscow. The trip's cosponsor, Project Harmony, sent interpreter Dave Hosford.
Our Soviet hosts were waiting for us in Moscow, offering the customary flowers and buttons. A bus took us to the circus hotel, "Arena," where we stayed for six days.
On the first day we took a brief tour of Moscow, including lunch and dinner at the "old" Moscow Circus building. We saw the show there that night. There were several animal acts, tightrope, skateboards and an impossible magic act, but no juggling.
We started our own circus work the next morning. The bus took us to what we thought for days was the Moscow Circus School, but turned out to be just a studio. There were nine young Soviet children there, sons and daughters of Moscow Circus performers, and some of them hoped to continue with the circus.
They included three Soviet jugglers - Ruslan Anokhin (12), Misha Ivanov (10) and Peter Sarach (12). Ivanov's solo act included unicycling, five balls and a split while juggling. Anokhin was working on five clubs.
Though his juggling was very good for his age, it seemed Anokhin hadn't had time to play, to get fluid and comfortable with his props. His clubs were very light, with a long wooden handle and a six-sided plastic body. They seemed home-made, as did most other clubs I saw (at least four different styles) in the country.
The following day at the studio Lippe developed a group juggling act. Each of us took a Soviet partner. The act began with each pair sharing three objects. Then the Soviets, all three smaller than us, sat on our shoulders and everyone juggled at once. Anokhin and I followed with a club "duel." I did a trick and then he did it. We did under-the-legs, back crosses, and kickups. We passed for 10 showered throws, and I collected all six to finish. Haims did five rings. We all did about 20 seconds of random solo juggling and took a final bow.
While we were practicing in the studio, there was a juggler on the side doing five and six balls, then kicking up the seventh. He caught balls on his feet, and even juggled two with one foot. Another unknown juggler worked on five clubs.
That evening's performance at the "new" Moscow Circus building was a completely different experience than at the old site. This building was modern, with technology to match. Three of the five changeable ring floors were used in the show, including a water tank filled during intermission. This livelier show featured comic camels, a monkey act ending with a parody of Cossack horse riders, and a sizable tiger act.
The four men in the main juggling act put on a fast-paced club passing routine, constantly turning, weaving or lying down. They continued with two eight-club patterns, still moving around. After a few variations with 24 metal dishes, all were shot incredibly fast to one man who caught them all on the first try.
The two clowns in the show did a beautifully simple reprise with just three clubs. One carried the other, who juggled the clubs, under his arm. After being set down the juggler went through a series of positions, essentially walking on top of the other, who executed a slow backwards roll. The juggler lost neither his control of the clubs nor the resigned expression on his face. He was picked up and carried off by his partner as slowly as the two had entered.
The circus was uniquely exciting because of the water used during the entire second half. Almost all the acts included it - magic, clowns, even the hand-balancers on a circling boat. The last act was flying trapeze with neither lights nor net. The artists, rigged with wires, wore glowing costumes.
Following a visit the next day to the new circus building to watch the tigers train, we returned to the old circus. The retired clown, Yuri Nikulin, now manager and artistic director of the old circus, watched us perform a brief Soviet-American show. He talked with Mermin for some time afterwards, giving him some very positive comments.
As we were leaving the building, Haim and I saw 14-year-old Sergei Ignatov, nephew of the great Soviet juggler. Little Sergei was juggling five propeller-like objects, which looked remarkable when spun in the air. Right next to Sergei was a woman multiplexing six balls, and working on seven.
Morning and afternoon practices the next day ended with dinner at the new circus. At the same time, yet another unknown juggler was practicing. She was doing back cross flashes with four clubs. Her five club back crosses were not as good, but five and seven rings were. The last trick I saw her do was six rings while balancing a pole on her forehead.
One of the most exciting moments of the trip came when we finally visited the Moscow Circus School a day later. Former Moscow Circus juggler Violetta Kiss, now a teacher, briefed us on the school's history and then announced that we would have a juggling clinic.
Haim got tips on transitions between four club patterns, and on learning five clubs. I was doing five balls when Kiss started watching me. Through Dave Hosford, our translator, she told me to move the whole pattern to the left, and lean more to the right. My right shoulder had to go back, and my right arm throw further across my body. When I didn't do what she wanted, she appeared behind me and moved my arms in mid-juggle.
Within an hour our clinic was over, and Kiss gave us some final tips: in practice, make a progression, building up in numbers; something should be accomplished every day; make sure the juggling pattern is right in front of your nose, and symmetrical; be aware not only of the pattern but of body posture and appearance. She accepted our most sincere thanks and we left.
We left Moscow altogether, traveling northeast to Yaroslavl to perform. The circus building there (one of 70 nationwide) seated 1,600. Billed as the Soviet-American Youth Circus, we played to two full houses. Anokhin and Ivanov had solo acts, and we did our joint number. Other Soviet solo acts included Luda Nikolaeva's foot juggling and Natasha Avgustova's contortions. Little Ira Boordetskaya (10) did a hula hoop act to the USSR's favorite lambada song, and some incredible acrobatics with her father and his partner. After the second show the director of the Yaroslavl circus presented us with certificates and souvenirs.
A few hours after returning to Moscow we boarded a train for a 36-hour ride to Anapa, a Black Sea resort town. During the first night, Haims and I started joking with one of the Soviet girls - Katya Ignatova, Sergei Ignatov's 12-year-old daughter. She was a delight. Her specialty was hula hoops, but with her three pink juggling balls she did hilarious impersonations of Michael Moschen, Kris Kremo and her father, laughing all the time.
Two days later we performed for 8,000 people in the opening ceremonies of Anapa's first international children's performance festival. It was an amazing evening, with music, dancing, fireworks and short previews of the acts to be presented by the children's groups.
The acts were presented in competition, and ours featured mainly the Soviets in our group. But we also did our joint juggling, and added a little flair - Barnett with Lippe's fire rings, Haim with a flaming devil stick, me with torches, and torch passing between me and Haim.
An abundance of awards was presented at the festival's closing ceremonies and our circus acquired a few. Mermin and Alla Yudina (the head of the Soviet group) were honored as artistic directors. Ivanov and I both received juggling awards, and three others got individual awards.
We flew back to Moscow three days later without our Soviet friends. Although some we would not see again, most joined us in the USA in August for a successful two-week tour of Vermont and Massachusetts. Our juggling act for this, and the regular Smirkus tour preceding it, was inspired by the plate juggling and club passing we had seen in Moscow.
Back in the states, our troupe diminished as the bus ride from New York to Vermont progressed. Of the five left at the final stop, I was the last off. The return to the usual was sudden, the memories numerous, the sense of loss acute. I started juggling the next day.