Circus in Bishkek

Published: February 21, 2013

“Moscow Oceanarium” / Московский Океариум
January 26-February 17, 2013
Saturday and Sundays, 12:00pm and 4:00pm
Price: 500 som – 700 som

On Sunday afternoon, my London School colleagues and I caught the last day showing of the circus that has been in town the past month, the “Moscow Oceanarium.” I have been looking forward to this day since I first arrived in Bishkek, when I saw the splashy (no pun intended) posters plastered all over the city for the production – “Московский Океариум.” A Russian circus! I thought to myself. I could not think of a more exciting cultural experience to welcome my arrival to this post-Soviet wonderland. Fantastical images of skating bears, kalinka music, and beautiful acrobats whizzed through my head. (I suppose now is as good a time as any to disclose that I have never attended a circus before, and that at the time of arrival I did not know that a bear mauled two trainers during a performance in Bishkek in 2009.)

The цирк (circus) did not disappoint. Tickets prices were very reasonable, ranging from 500 som to 700 som (about $11-$15 USD.) There were no bad seats. We were about three rows from ceiling, but they were hardy “nosebleed” seats. More importantly, the audience was great, filled with happy young families, especially young children, all looking for a fun Sunday afternoon. As my colleagues and I entered the dark arena through the velvet curtains, found our seats and started munching on our kettle corn and candy bars, we smiled at this scene around us.We were in good company.

Many of the show’s impressive acts were performed by husband-and-wife teams from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. A unicyclist circled around the circus ring, while his wife weaved in and around his body like a nonchalant boa. An American Western routine included gun-toting cowboys galloping on fake horses, and a couple attached to a metal circle contraption that wheeled them dizzingly around the ring — all to the tune of “Cotton Eye’d Joe.” There was a cat-and-dog routine, where a fluffy white feline and three black dogs performed carefully orchestrated moves.

And, of course, there were clowns — a man and woman doing slapstick pantomime routines between the “real” acts. This dynamic duo was impressive. Whether they were ripping each other’s clothes off, revealing polka dot underwear, or squirting water into each other’s hats, they were always able to make the kids laugh. Even my colleagues and I, who considered ourselves “not about the clowns,” could not help chuckling, even after the 10th time the male clown tried to pour water over his silly sidekick. Maybe it is because I have met so many English teachers lately, and have heard so many stories of the difficulties of holding children’s attention for long periods of time. But I had to shake my head at the clown’s effortless ability to hold this crowded arena’s young audience in the palm of their painted hands. As the appropriately cheesy Master of Ceremonies continued to say throughout the show, in his thick, rolled r’s — “Bravo.”

Horse riders I was also fascinated with the show’s national components, most evident in the horse acts, where decorated steeds ran round and round at incredible speed while riders dressed in traditional costumes from Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan flipped their bodies around, under, and over them, to the tune of drumming Asiatic music. Again, going back to my experience at SRAS, perhaps it was all those assigned historical readings on the Scythians and Huns, the Eurasian ancestors of today’s Central Asians, that I internalized this deep historical connection. But that afternoon I did not see “circus performers,” but a people in their element, a people with deep pride in their historical roots; a people whose ancestors were so closely connected to the horse that supposedly they inspired the legend of the centaur. Oh, please, you say. Too much! Okay, fine, maybe so. But when those riders ended the first act by standing on their steeds and waving the national flags of Russia, Ukraine and Khazkahstan, I could not help but believe that there was something more to it than circus flash.

Intermission When intermission came, my colleagues and I pushed our way through the velvet curtains out into the atrium for some fresh air. However, the sensory explosions continued, with the smells of sticky, sweet pink cotton candy; bubbles; flying plastic toys; beautiful Chinese porcelain (I have never been to a circus before in the United States, but I will bet that not many of them have vendors selling elegant porcelain tea sets); furry cartoon characters shaking the eager hands of children; and clouds of smoke around the bathrooms, an area which I suppose became the designated smoking areas. I spotted the clown duo, whose boundless energy did not waver with every excited click of parents’ cameras, amidst hurried cries to their children of “Поехали! Поехали!” (“Let’s go! Let’s go!”)

Then just like that, the bells clanged, signaling the end of intermission, and the atrium emptied as fast as it filled.

The second act featured the main stars of the “Moscow Oceanarium:” two seals and a 600-kilogram walrus. The two seals were cute, balancing balls on their tales, climbing up and down a podium, and weaving in and out of the legs of a blond Russian girl in a sailor outfit. The walrus, however, stole the show. By sheer size alone, the walrus could have just sat in the middle of the ring. But it lived up to its weight. Also, if the walrus was tired after almost a month’s worth of shows in Bishkek, it did not show it. It tangoed, clapped with its fins, feigned sleep, did pushups, crunches (shoot, I can’t even do that many crunches, at my weight), and even danced to a traditional Russian dance. If there ever was a way to make up for the show’s lack of a skating bear, as described in my initial fantasy, watching a 600-kilogram walrus wear a babushka’s scarf while dancing to kalinka music,was it.

When the circus ended, my colleagues and I enthusiastically joined the audience in steady, synchronized clapping, as all the performers lined the ring for their final appearance, on their final day, in Bishkek. It was a heck of a show for $10. As I collected my belongings and made my way to the velvet curtained exit, several performers waved the flags of Russian, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

About the author

Eirene Busa

Eirene Busa is a Master’s Candidate at Georgetown University with the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. She has a BA in History and a Minor in Middle East Studies from the College of William and Mary. She studied Russian at the NOVAMOVA Russian language school in Kiev in the summer of 2012. She is currently in Bishkek with the SRAS “Home and Abroad: Report” program

View all posts by: Eirene Busa