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Riga circus struggles through legal battle

  • 2001-03-22
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - With the crumbling red dome of Riga's historic circus close to collapse, a court decision this week brought little hope that its fortunes might soon be revived. The Ministry of Culture has said it will fight a ruling taking the circus, which was founded in 1888, out of state hands.

Ever since Latvia's independence was restored in 1991 a myriad of combatants have been battling over the Baltic's oldest (and indeed only) circus. Chief among them is circus impresario Gunars Katkevics, the director, who wants it to remain in state hands as a cultural institution.

"I'm resisting in the name of the people of Riga and their children," he said.

But Dzintra Zilde, outgoing city councilor and one-time circus dog-trainer, hopes she will soon be allowed to take over. On March 15 the Riga Regional Court upheld her claim to the circus, which was seized by the Soviet state more than six decades ago.

She was bequeathed the circus by Juris Bevins, a distant relative of its German founder, Albert Salamonsky. Bevins died in a car crash in 1998. Other descendants of the Salamonskys are still claiming a share.

Zilde has previously accused Katkevics of cruelty to animals and discrimination against Latvian performers, referring to him as a "commandant." She now denies ever complaining about the number of performers from the former Soviet Union but still says the circus' treatment of its animals is illegal.

Katkevics rejects both charges. He points to the lack of a circus school in Latvia and says the circus can only afford Moscow-trained performers. "These artists are the best in the world. Russia still supports its circuses. I'm not with the East, but I have to cooperate with it."

Two weeks ago Andis Raudins, a lawyer for the Ministry of Culture, said the state was not interested in retaining the circus. The situation has apparently now changed and the state will appeal against the decision to award Zilde the circus.

"This is the question of the rule of law. We have no right to give up," said Raudins.

Visiting the circus today, you push your way past fruit machines and news kiosks in the lobby, and cross a corridor heaving with children, teenagers and parents buying cotton candy, beer and squawking glove puppets.

In the arena, excitement runs high as the band strikes up for the first show of the new season. The performers enter, led by dancers in fishnet stockings, sequined leotards and feather headdresses.

"The 21st century circus!" proclaims the ring mistress. A couple of clowns take over. Then come acrobatic domestic cats and a glistening strongman.

Acrobats in space-age costumes hurl themselves through the air between two swinging platforms. Two elephants balance on rolling drums and do headstands. The audience is spellbound as the trapeze artist swings in a wide arc overhead, flipping herself upside down.

But confusion breaks out when a bear, after driving around on a motor scooter, runs for the wrong exit, alarming the spectators. Katkevics springs from the seat where he's been taking notes, and the animal is soon captured. "Bears have poor eyesight," he says.

Monkey trainer Irina Peradze says cases of animal mistreatment are the exception, not the rule. She holds out a photo of Nama, the bigger of her two macaco monkeys, cuddling her on the sofa back home in Moscow.

"I brought them up as part of the family. They're our partners. We never leave them alone in the flat. It would be like leaving a 3-year-old child alone."

On holidays in her native Georgia, Irina and her family go for picnics in the forest, or visit the Black Sea coast. "They're very good swimmers," she says. She doesn't train the monkeys for their trapeze act, she "educates" them, she says.

Daria Zhdanova, a journalist at the Russian-language newspaper Chas, believes the current conflict will run and run. "There is no law protecting denationalized cultural monuments. A lot of our cultural institutions are going through the same thing; the Puppet Theater, the Music Academy, all are in this position. Relations between Zilde and Katkevics are so bad and the circus' new owners will be able to charge rent. I'm afraid we could lose our circus."