Circus court battle could bring the house down

  • 2000-12-07
  • Nick Coleman
Behind the fruit machines and news kiosks that line the entrance to Riga's circus lies a different land. It has captured children's imaginations for over a century, and deeply influenced one of modern cinema's giants, Sergei Eisenstein. But now, amidst an ownership dispute, the circus is struggling to survive. Nick Coleman reports.

Resourcefulness is essential in the circus business. Anyone barging into the auditorium of Riga Circus one Saturday in October would have seen one of manager Lolita Lipinska's latest fund-raising tactics. A boxing ring had been erected and a tournament was taking place between two teams of students, one from Belarus, the other from Latvia. Since the participants looked less well-fed than the glamorous model holding up the score cards, the fighting seemed unlikely to last long.

As Lipinska, a former trapeze-artist and now the circus' ring-mistress, attempts to make ends meet, she knows a more important battle is being fought in Riga's regional courts, one that is typical of the privatization process in post-Soviet Latvia. According to Audis Raudins, lawyer for the Ministry of Culture, persons distantly related to the circus' founder, an ethnic-German by the name of Albert Salamonsky, are charged with fraudulently using the name of a dead relative when they claimed the building, following the collapse of Soviet-era state ownership. In a separate case the ministry is challenging the family's high rent demands.

"They are demanding 5 percent of the value of the land annually, but this is a cultural institution, not a commercial operation," said Raudins.

Ever since it opened in 1888 the circus has faced competition from modern entertainment media, and so periodically doubled as a cinema in the early days, says Lipinska.

Unlike the Nikulin's Circus in Moscow, also built by Salamonsky, the Riga building has remained virtually unchanged. Beneath its red dome the young Sergei Eisenstein, whose influence on cinema history was to become legendary, was enchanted by the dancers, jugglers and monkeys, the trapeze artists and clowns who presumably combined in the same heady atmosphere, heavy with sexuality and the smell of animal urine, as they do today. Trips to the circus were among the few pleasures Eisenstein shared with his otherwise severe architect father. Later, he wrote of the circus' profound influence on his directing life, which began in a Red Army traveling theater troupe during the Russian Civil War.

But some things have changed since the early days. The brash tunes of the in-house band are now interspersed with prerecorded disco beats. The circus has also changed since the days when performers moved around the Soviet Union in a highly centralized system intended to rival circuses in the West.

"In those days there was propaganda throughout circuses, theaters and cinemas," said clown Vladislav Roudenko, who, with his partner David Levitsky, is the mainstay of the current performance.

"Acrobats would have to march round the ring dressed as sailors and waving flags. Now circuses are democratic."

Nor have travel opportunities decreased with the collapse of the Soviet system. Sergei Shitov, a graduate of Moscow Circus School, who comes from the radiation-contaminated city of Gomel, in Belarus, has performed his melodramatic ballet-on-a-tightrope act as far afield as the Seychelles and Mauritius, he says.

"The opportunities I've had have been wonderful. It's not difficult for me to be away from home," he said.

Latvian circus performers are now able to think in a more individual way and to combine elements from Western and Russian circus traditions, says Lipinska. While the current show comprises performers from all corners of the former Soviet Union, Latvian performers are currently working in Lithuania, France, Greece and Spain, she says.

But those performers who come from circus families (Lolita's son is a crocodile tamer) seem to have only a vague concept of home.

"We don't know what it's like to live in one place," said Roudenko. "This has always been our life. This job brings joy to us, as well as to the audiences. We can't do anything else."

Whether the monkeys feel the democratic spirit is uncertain. But the high prices charged for circus animals induce trainers to look after them well, says Lipinska.

"The artists have to take care of them better than children," she said. "They give the circus its daily bread."

In their old age smaller animals stay with the circus as pets, she says, while the larger ones are sent to zoos. One monkey's retirement plan involves, it seems, spending time between performances on its handler's shoulder in the circus lobby, scrutinizing his fruit-machine playing tactics.

The building's facade, with its elaborate but non-functioning illuminations, is now a sorry sight. But the circus - its situation exacerbated by ownership rows - is part of Latvia's national culture, says Lipinska, and should receive the kind of support other European states provide for the arts, she says.

"The state should give the circus official status as a cultural body," she said.

"We're totally self-supporting. In the past we haven't been able to pay the wages on time. Economic conditions mean the auditorium is not always full. If the circus' legal status could be decided, if the state could at least help preserve this listed building, we could look for new investors and modernize."

Eisenstein would have sympathized with this precarios situation. While filming The Battleship Potemkin his actors were forbidden from smoking, because the ship beneath them was stuffed with explosives and the surrounding water mined.