Sergei Ignatov Continues His Story of Discipline and Desire
"I'm for a contemporary circus - an esthetic and romantic circus. A mature circus of taste."
Translation by Christopher Majka from an article in a Soviet circus magazine.
Photos courtesy of Karl-Heinz Ziethen.
Continued from Part I
Marcel Marceau once said that in the artistic process what is most important is not the work itself but the preparation for it.
It's eleven o'clock in the morning - I begin my rehearsal. An enthusiasm for any subject gives cohesiveness to the technique of a juggler. I devote an equal amount of time, energy and attention to balls, rings and clubs.
I begin with balls. I spend about half an hour working with between one and five balls in front of a mirror. The most important thing is the alignment of the body and giving the utmost attention to maximally relaxing the muscles. This is possible only with the proper placement of the pelvis and even shoulders. The rehearsal of a trick should proceed from the simple to the complex. The correct posture and an equal amount of time spent on throws from the left hand as well the right, enables one to achieve an exact rhythm. And because one hand is less developed than the other, it's essential to give it particular attention. I begin with a number of balls which anyone can master - two. Rhythmically I throw one from each hand. After that I work with three, four, five and so on. Eventually you arrive at a number of objects which are difficult to control. After this it's essential to return to the tricks which one does well and use them to check one's posture and alignment. I rehearse for about an hour and quarter with balls.
Then I take a five or ten minute break, clear out my head and let tense or tired parts of my body relax.
I then spend a little over an hour working with rings. I try to breath smoothly and easily throughout the whole rehearsal. I never stop breathing.
When you change juggling objects you engage a different group of muscles. I rehearse with rings using the same system I use with balls. Clubs are the most difficult objects to juggle. They can strongly develop one's juggling technique. Independent of the correct placement of the body, it's possible to grip a club tightly and throw it altogether incorrectly. There appear problems in the technique of instantaneous correction of errors. And if these aren't immediately mastered then they become habitual and grow to gigantic proportions. I spend about an hour working with clubs.
After I stop rehearsing I spend about 20-25 minutes stretching those muscles which are especially tired. Every time you feel such internal fatigue you should also feel a sense of elevation and pleasure from your work.
The time is 3:15. I return to the circus hotel. At circus school it was wonderful when, for a period of three years, there was an extraordinary teacher around me who could continually correct and direct me towards my goals. We created together but it remains for me alone to continue after graduating.
We are soon left to our own devices. At that moment it is essential to shake the hand of our older comrade. We've been lucky. Five people of the 1969 class went into the 'Karandash' collective (1). We felt not only that handshake but also its powerful strength thanks to which we could work peacefully and perfect our technique. Mikhail Nikolaevich Karandash liked to associate with youngsters. He dissolved into youth, warmed himself in its energy and gave of his wisdom, experience and knowledge. To learn doesn't mean you have to cram. It's enough to simply find yourself under the guidance of such an exceptional person. Everywhere - in life and on stage - he was an extraordinary comedian, so much so that we were unable to determine the line between his life and his art. He was fascinating in his illogicality, both in life and in art. And he loved to make presents of books!
In his conversations with us he gave the example of an extraordinary thinker. He discussed the simple with allegories while explaining the complex accessibly and straightforwardly. Everywhere and in everything there presided in him elements of play, and we engaged in that game, which forced us to think and imagine. Karandash never approached anything at random or carelessly, but with foresight. He always saw a path - how to most easily accomplish something. And we, working and rehearsing, grew from day to day and from month to month. At that time we didn't suspect that he was engaged in a secret process, teaching and imparting the knowledge of life. And only now do we realize how lucky we were. For a period of three years the subject of our involuntary studies was the great Karandash himself.
And how many new names did Mark Solomonovich Mestechkin open to us, seeing them in the programs of the Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoi Boulevard! It gladdened me to work with him for four days.
Yuri Vladimirovich Nikulkin, Irina Nikolaevna Bugrimova, Alexander Markianovich Voloshin. We could perceive within ourselves how good their talent was and how talented they were. If it hadn't been for them there wouldn't be a history of the soviet circus, and perhaps, not even of us. We compared ourselves with them, learned from them and continue to learn from them to this day.
I often recall the director, Sergei Andreevich Kashtelyan. He could be melancholy or ill but he was always youthful in his inexhaustible passion, his creative energy and his interest in whatever was new and experimental. I worked with Kashtelyan both during government concerts and as part of two festivals - in Berlin and Havana. In terms of tact, gentleness and hospitality it would be difficult to find his equal. And while working with him we constantly heard his words: "Well, let's try it!" And he continually tried and created unique acts both for the stage and the circus.
Occupy yourself, and on life's road you will necessarily meet like-minded people. And if you don't simply take them for granted, but learn from them, taking from them all the good which they have to offer, allowing that good to pass through your own mind, work, heart and feelings, then the result must necessarily transform itself into something original. That will become your individuality.
It's three hours until the evening's performance. I have supper and before taking a short rest I find a book to read.
Every creative person, trying to occupy their spare time, will discover for themselves a favorite pastime. Alexander Kiss used to make all the props for his own acts. He brought from abroad miniature machine tools and he loved to spend time at the workbench. Nikolai Ol'khovikov was a superb billiards player. Lev Osinski is interested in radio technology and knows and drives automobiles. On free days he often goes fishing. Valeri Panteleenko draws professionally. Leonid Yengibarov wrote extraordinary novels.
In 1970 working in an international program in the Circus Busch in East Germany, I for the first time saw the collection of paintings in the Dresden Gallery. In the beginning I spent more time looking at them then reading books about them. Absorbing their feelings, I didn't dwell long trying to understand the professional qualities of their creators. Of the Russian artists of this era I enjoy the canvases of Shishkin (2). His pictures were clear in execution, straightforward in composition and easily viewed and understood. I began to wish that all those same qualities would also characterize my own creative work.
It was 1972. All the time I kept reading more and more about art. No matter what city I was working in, there seemed to appear on my table all the recent books published about art and its history.
It was my fortune to spend time in such cities as Paris, Madrid and Rome. I became familiar with the collections of the Louvre, the Prado and the Vatican. And if it happened that I was unhappy because of anxieties or problems, my library shelf allowed me to escape. I opened a book and let my mind wander through the paintings of the Louvre, the Prado or the Metropolitan Museums. I saw again Van Gogh's (3) Sunflowers, the divinely musical canvases of Murillo (4) or the extraordinary realism of Courbet (5).
Russian painting has always greatly excited me - Rublâv (6), Levitski (7), Fedotov (8), Surikov (9), Repin (10) and Levitan (11). In them one sees a unique connection with the Russian land and its history. All Russian painters are united in their faith in the past, present and future of the Russian people.
If one is to speak of things which have truly shaken me, then I must recall Pokrov on the Nerl' River (12), Venice, Fujiyama (13), the impression of Liszt's hands in the museum in Milan, Michelangelo's 'Slaves' in a small room in the Louvre (14) and, of course, Murillo's 'Madonna and Child' in the Budapest Museum. While looking at it I was absolutely convinced that I could hear the music of a sonorous organ playing.
The time is five o'clock in the afternoon. After a quick nap I immediately begin to prepare myself for the evening's performance. My muscles are rested and restored and I'm ready to perform.
The highest level of juggling is when on stage you can perform those tricks which you worked on during rehearsal.
As soon as I finished circus school I started to work for Soyuzgostsirk (15). At that time I lost my 'eyes' on the world which had been those of Violetta Nikolaevna Kiss. The knowledge, which should have taken the place of my teacher, did not come at once. For the next eight years the task which I set myself was to perfect the technical aspects of my juggling and to increase the number of objects I could juggle. I rehearsed about seven hours a day. Moscow, the city where I worked for a year, gave me the opportunity to move forward. I worked with larger numbers of balls. I learned new tricks and changed the music and composition of my act. In 1976 I was already juggling eleven rings in rehearsal and was able to finish by pulling them all down over my head. I juggled five clubs nonstop for sixteen minutes and twenty seconds. I juggled five large balls without a drop for ten minutes.
In 1977, feeling both assurance and confidence, I embarked on the highest 'flight' in terms of my juggling technique. That year, IJA president Dennis Soldati, during a performance of the Soviet Circus in New York, awarded me a diploma as "World's Best Juggler." At the same time I received a medal and a certificate as an honorary member of that association. My performance was taped for the Boston archives of the history of the world's circus.
In June of 1978, in a performance at the Sochi circus, I juggled eleven rings. Depending on my form I continued to perform with eleven rings throughout that year in Sochi, Leningrad, Magnitogorsk and Dniepopetrovsk.
Over a period of five years I performed a series of tricks with seven rings which were combined into a two minute long presentation. They included a half-pirouette, half-shower and the most difficult trick with seven, juggling them with pancake throws - the so-called 'revolving door.'
At the same time I was able to achieve a very exact rhythm in my throws. "Rhythm is the most important feature of music," said Rimski-Korsakov (16). The journalist Galina Marchenko was able to sense the musicality in my juggling. Using the music of Chopin I embarked on new explorations. The fusion of music and juggling was the goal of my new work. Today it is the main direction in the development of the style of my act.
To find one's own place in the world of art it's necessary to think and work a great deal. Van Gogh overcame many limitations of his artistic background. He had no formal training in art but learned through experience, inner reflection, reading and acquaintance with people and nature.
After reading Van Gogh's Letters to His Brother Theo I understood how true art is born. It is within you, yourself. Within the world visible to you. The strangest thing about art is plagiarism. A copy is an insignificant imitation of the original, however good it might originally have been. Plagiarizing degrades the person who does it. A plagiarist steals from themselves. It's necessary to travel one's own path, however difficult it may be.
Be observant and alert. Don't neglect the fine details, they'll help you find your way out of dead ends and give you creative impulses. From time to time we awake, not from the deafening sounds of the throngs but from the subtlest creak of the door or from the unexpected turning of the key.
Outside it's dark - I'm on my way to work. The moment of contact with the audience is fast approaching. It is during these moments that the circus exists. The circus in which we exist - and with us our art!
In 1974 I was performing in Japan. To this day I recall the karate expert from the city of Nagoya. He taught in his own school. He invited us over as guests and demonstrated some of his abilities: he crushed tiles and bricks and broke wooden boards. Then he executed a number of simply supernatural jumps, demonstrating the forms of karate. We were captivated by all of this, but he said forcefully: "That was not karate. Karate exists only in the mind. Broken tiles and boards are only the external evidence of it's presence."
Thinking about succession I recall a generation of celebrated artists: Alexander and Violetta Kiss, Mikhail Egorov, Nikolai Ol'khovikov, Vladimir Dobeiko, Vitta and Zigmund Chernyauzkaz and the Zapashni Family. Their artistry developed in 1940's and 50's, over a period of 20-25 years in close connection with the development of the world and of their audiences.
But during the 1960's the pace seemed to quicken. In a short period of time a person could receive, absorb and comprehend a wide spectrum of information. During that time there appeared the first harbingers of a new generation - the clowns Gennadi Rotman and Gennadi Makovski, the aerialist Oleg Lozovik, the juggler Maya Rubtsova, the pole acrobats under the direction of Leonid Koctyuka and the gymnast Ludmilla Kanagina. But everyone was waiting for something special, and then Leonid Yengibarov appeared. Looking back at the times I would say he jumped across the bridges between the two generations. And then new stars began to shine: the flight of 'Galactica', the equestrian Nugzarov, the acrobats Shemshur and Kuzyakov, the animal trainers Lev and Vladimir Shevchenko, the gymnasts Yuri Alexandrov and the Panteleenko brothers. They blew like a hurricane across our art. Looking at their work I think more about them personally than I do about their acts. With their artistry they looked to the future. Their work says: "Look what we can do and who we should be." Their theme was humanity - their ideal was harmony!
And when in many acts the performers test the limits of gravity, I want to shout: "That was done yesterday." And I think that it won't be to the credit of the circus, if those who are watching, who might be specialists in atomic physics, give us as an answer an elementary exercise in physics.
I'm for a contemporary circus - an esthetic and romantic circus. A mature circus of taste and tact. And it is no accident that on the stages of our country and abroad there shine the names of those performers who I love so well! They have talent and unique acts, but they're not an end in themselves. Their essence is in the expression of something higher, something possible. That which the karate expert from Nagoya was unable to say in mere words.
It's seven o'clock in the evening. The performance is beginning. Lightly, without 'pressure,' I warm up my muscles, trying to get a feel for my whole body. About forty minutes before coming on stage I start to juggle, not giving particular emphasis to difficult moves. I continually return to the correct placement of my entire body. My concentration becomes focused. I pay attention to getting an exact rhythm to my throws. With the mental attitude and correct body placement the rhythm of the throws become very even, and with them appears an inner confidence.
Christopher Majka, the translator of this article, is a writer, biologist and juggler who throws objects in the air - and sometimes catches them - in Halifax, N.S., Canada. He will serve as translator for Ignatov at this summer's IJA festival in St. Louis.