The Flying Trapdoor: Navigating life after Cirque du Soleil
Thu, Jan 20, 2011 (midnight)
Photo: Leila Navidi
They are trailblazers who helped launch a new dimension of entertainment on the Las Vegas Strip, even if today they are living mostly in obscurity.
There’s Vadim Bolotsky, his career derailed by injuries, who ended up working construction before retiring to Pahrump, where today he takes care of his son and does odd jobs. And Vladimir Mialovski, who went on to open a martial arts studio in Las Vegas. And Nikolai Melnikov, who now performs in a second-tier Strip show.
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They are three of the dozen Russian master trapeze artists—onetime stars in their homeland—who contributed to one of the watersheds in the evolution of Las Vegas entertainment: the Christmas Eve 1993 debut of Cirque du Soleil’s flagship show Mystère. Their overhead derring-do, choreographed by Pavel Brun, the former Cirque du Soleil artistic director who’s renowned in Russia, would be the high-flying grand finale of the show.
This was a special group of elite gymnasts from the former Soviet Union who watched as their country fell apart, the ruble lost its value and employment prospects grew dim. So they practiced day after day for more than a year in Moscow, then quietly immigrated to America and made a new home for themselves in Las Vegas.
Over time they left Cirque du Soleil—their contracts not renewed or their bodies too banged up and fatigued to continue. But they stayed in Las Vegas, part of a small, distinguished community that over the years, by some estimates, has grown to nearly 2,000 entertainers from the former Soviet Union.
Vadim Bolotsky is bitter that he had to stop performing on the Strip after only five years, a flying career cut short by injuries. Starting in kindergarten, he received the most intense training in the world as a Soviet gymnast, and his favorite exercise was the trampoline. “Anything that got my body floating in the air, I’d go for it.”
Dreams of Olympic competition gave way to new hopes after he discovered the Kiev Institute for the Performing Circus Arts. He saw young students training high in the air on the trapeze. “I saw these people just floating through the air, flying off a trapeze, and I was instantly sold. I discovered that with the trapeze you could stay in the air longer than the dismount off a high bar. Right then I decided that’s the only thing I wanted to do, ever. I didn’t care what it was going to take.”
Seventeen years later he took a 22-hour train ride from Kiev to Moscow, armed with his four-year degree from the circus institute, in search of work in the nation’s capital. A friend told him that an odd Canadian circus with no animals was holding tryouts for a trapeze act slated to work in Las Vegas. He had never heard of that circus, he said; no one had. But he didn’t care. It was a job working in the air. He showed up to the tryouts, and the rest is history.
He practiced for about a year, he said, and when Bolotsky was handed his contract with Cirque du Soleil for $60 a show, 10 shows a week, he signed on the dotted line.
“It was very simple,” he says. “You wanted to work, you signed. You didn’t want to go work in Las Vegas, you didn’t sign. End of story.”
At first, America was a dream, filled with months of firsts for a group of kids from the Communist bloc who thought they’d been dropped into paradise. “My first Jacuzzi dip. My first car. My first time getting a driver’s license,” Bolotsky remembers.
“It was a great act,” he says. “The death drop was my favorite. It’s when I hung upside down from a bar attached to the ceiling by nothing but my ankles. I would let go of my feet and drop headfirst, speeding down like a bullet for about 80 feet until I hit the net.”
Indeed, the flying trapeze was his platform to execute complex tricks at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. He and his fellow troupe members were akin, he says, to human Blue Angels, enjoying the rush of speed, precision and risk.
But two years after his arrival, he and the others found themselves back on the ground. Their trapeze act was removed from the show. Bolotsky became the signature Red Bird character for three more years. Most of the others were reassigned to new roles.
“To the audience perhaps it looks like fun,” he says. “And it was a fascinating challenge, at least in the beginning, to try and be the best bird I could be. But it’s really hard. The bird is always moving, it’s always about the legs; it’s very dynamic acrobatics, and of a 90-minute show, I was moving 40 minutes, without stopping, crouched down. I had to remember everything I did in gymnastics and hand-balancing, which I had stepped away from for a good five years at that time. It was very hard on my body. I would ice my knees in these 13-gallon kitchen trash buckets full of ice between the shows, take five Ibuprofens, whatever it took for the pain. But as they say, ‘The show must go on.’”
The pain and injuries caught up with him. His contract nonrenewal letter from Cirque du Soleil hangs on a wall, framed. It’s a sign of closure, he says.
He stayed in the entertainment business—behind the curtains, as a rigger.
“I got to see people like Billy Joel and the Rolling Stones and Kiss.” Those gigs ended and he shifted to construction work—framing houses, laying tile, painting, roofing.
His life in Pahrump also includes caring for his chickens, a reflection of his life in the Ukraine. “I live a very slow life, like I did when I was growing up. I really miss greens, like trees, but I think the desert is my calling. I like desert. I like heat.”
Bolotsky credits an American friend—“my savior”—for teaching him English. “I started learning faster than the older performers,” he says. “My friend took his time with me by introducing me to his family and teaching me word by word.”
And he is certain about this: “I don’t want to go back to the Ukraine. I think Nevada is my home.”
They are Russian clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, hula hoopers, high-wire walkers, animal trainers, magicians and trampoline performers. In fact, every act imaginable from the zany world of the famed Moscow Circus seems to have shown up in the Nevada desert. This group, with its hilarious and unique abilities, makes Las Vegas the only city in the world to claim such an out-of-the-box immigrant community.
These circus performers with a “Russians in the City” upbeat attitude and hunka hunka bodies make for an unusual Russian and English-speaking population that exists nowhere outside of Sin City and, of course, Moscow, where many of them performed together before moving west.
While no one knows for sure exactly how many of them have arrived (usually the words coming out of their mouths are “a lot”), estimates range from 1,000 to 2,000 individuals—about 300 families, maybe more.
There is no other American city with so many people from the world of tsirk (the Russian name for the circus). Here they find work at seven Cirque du Soleil shows and many others with circus acts, a bona fide circus school and Russian-owned touring circus companies.
Tsirk dates to the 18th century, when Russian Czarina Catherine the Great heard about a strange band of traveling acrobats who did tricks on horses and rode in a circle. She ordered it to come to Russia, and the world of tsirk was born.
Fast-forward four centuries, and for the first time in history, thanks in large part to the end of the Cold War, many migrated to Nevada at a fortuitous time when the city was embracing family-friendly acts.
They’re aware of their talent, unsure of their place, almost always unrecognized. It’s an immigrant story of East meets West in the showrooms of Vegas, where old traditions often clash with the modern world of showbiz.
Like Bolotsky, many are world-class, Soviet-trained athletes who then joined the circus. While their numbers aren’t easily tracked because of how they quietly rotate in and out of work—currently there are 73 Russians performing in the Cirque du Soleil shows, according to the company—what is known is this: They have changed the city with their talent and torsos, often hidden behind elaborate masks and Cirque’s whimsical New Age costumes.
They are hanging by cables high in the theaters and flying overhead. They are the clowns in O and the acrobats in Mystère.
But what they will tell you is this: they also come from a world where circus was a national obsession, akin to Major League Baseball in America.
It was different, it was personal, and it was for families. It was nothing like what you see on the Strip today.
“In Russia, children walk on stage and give their favorite performer flowers at the end of the show,” says Bolotsky. “The performers give them a kiss on the cheek. No one gives flowers here.”
Vladimir Mialovski spent most of his childhood in the ring with his parents. He loves talking about his circus family, growing up on trains, in dressing rooms, and in schools where he was “the circus kid” who spent his entire education changing schools every two months, the amount of time his parents, a juggler and a trapeze artist, spent performing in one city. By the time he was 4 he was standing in front of huge audiences. He had already been thoroughly trained, like most circus children, for a star-studded life that he knew would one day be his.
“Circus in Russia was real high class. We were stars,” he says. By the time he got to the red ring in downtown Moscow in 1992 and signed up for Cirque du Soleil, Mialovski calculates with a laugh that he had performed enough years in the circus to retire.
“It was a way of life,” Mialovski said. “We weren’t rich, we lived in basic hotels next door to the circuses, but we had a lot of fun, and we got to see the entire country.” His favorite part of his childhood, he said, was in the winter, during school vacations.
“I got to work in local theaters, performing in winter shows that Russian kids watched over their winter break. For me it was practice, and I got paid. We worked three shows a day.”
They were jokers and jesters, travelers and entertainers. Like the A-list of Hollywood, they were elevated to a status unknown in the West: The nation held the director of the Moscow Circus, Yury Nikulin, in as high esteem as then-President Boris Yeltsin. When Nikulin died, it was President Yeltsin—and not a reporter from national television—who broke the news to the Russian Federation. For a week the nation mourned. For two full days thousands lined up outside the downtown circus in the Russian capital with flowers in their hand, waiting to say goodbye, while the nation’s army stood by, soldiers camped out in trucks, ready to maintain crowd control if necessary.
On the Strip, Russian performers can’t seem to explain enough that back in the Motherland they wore few masks and showed off their faces, had names and reputations, developed tricks the public came to watch; the best even appeared on posters, akin to Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin, two legends from the entertainment world the Russians in Vegas frequently refer to.
“Russian circus is a good circus,” Mialovski said quietly. “There was always the feeling of excitement, sweat, we were trying out new tricks the whole time. There was adrenaline going all the time.”
So why leave for Las Vegas?
“Cirque du Soleil offered us more money than we could make back home. No one thought about whether or not to go or not to go to Las Vegas; we didn’t know the word ‘negotiate,’ and we wouldn’t have tried even if we did. This was our chance to go to America. We were the lucky ones. The rest of the nation was falling apart.”
He added, “I am not really complaining. I am here now. Still, I thought we should have gotten more compensation, because we worked in the air; it was extremely dangerous, especially since we had to work the entire show before we worked our trapeze act. Imagine, we were already tired by the time we went up in the air and then worked with flying performers for another 15 minutes. That would never happen in Russia.”
Mialovski’s contract with Mystère was not renewed in 1996, so he set his sights on becoming a coach. Returning to Russia was not an attractive option. “I don’t know many people who want to return to Russia. It is hard to get a job with a good salary, and I don’t know the place anymore.”
Even though he misses stage life, he said leaving his circus job was not hard, “because I grew up with sports and coaching. Circus is very physical work and teaching others is part of our circus culture. The hardest part was adjusting to personal life. I got married and my wife wanted a prenuptial agreement. We don’t have those in Russia. But I didn’t care. I signed the paper.”
More impressive than his former upside-down nightly escapades on the Strip is his current passion for the martial arts and teaching American children the lessons he learned as a child. Standing in his studio, the International Academy of Martial Arts, he has a wall with accomplishments that have come from a lifetime of circus philosophy: do everything step by step, have concentration and focus. His own efforts have paid off: He was a 2004 inductee into the U.S.A. Martial Arts Hall of Fame and is a three-time world champion in tae kwon do.
He worries, he says, about children today. He sees how they struggle to concentrate.
“I worry that kids these days are getting their black belts too young,” he said. “The martial arts are not strict enough. I teach them discipline, what I learned as a kid. They have to learn to focus.”
It’s another Friday night backstage in a dressing room at the V Theater. Nikolai Melnikov, a former trapeze catcher who worked with Bolotsky and Mialovski, points out that he has no pictures on his wall, and he likes it that way. He is quiet, very quiet, and lets a bench press tell his story: He is the strong man in a stunning hand-to-hand balancing act in V, the Ultimate Variety Show.
Life in the circus is far more demanding physically and far more painful than the entertainers let on and than the public will ever know.
His partner, Iouri Safronov, does the talking for the duo. His side of the dressing room wall has Russian icons, photographs of their act over the years, and a shirt with Cyrillic letters on it: Rossiya (“Russia”). He is less worried about the state of the circus in Vegas, and more about his hometown of Voronezh, Russia, known for its strong gymnastic tradition.
“Every time I go home, I see there are less and less gymnastic coaches,” he said. “After retiring, in the Soviet Union, gymnasts and acrobats became coaches. They aren’t doing that anymore. The pool is shrinking. These people, who used to become coaches, they come to work in America, here in Las Vegas, in the shows. Now the system is falling apart, and the numbers of Russian gymnasts are getting less and less.”
But out on the stage, where the heart and soul of circus takes place, the team, performing just a few feet away from the first row, does something rarely found on this street: In less than six minutes they execute nearly 19 tricks. Back in Russia, they explain, there is an adage: If a costume gets in the way of a trick, ditch the costume. In Vegas, he said, it’s the other way around. A new way for a new world, but they aren’t sure it’s better.
The Russian performers seem to all know each other, or know of each other; they trade phone calls and a few—not many—teach their children what their parents taught them. But there is no talk of returning to Russia.
“There are many (Russian circus) artists without work here who work graveyard driving taxis. Still, they have gotten used to life in America and know that the government circus has suffered in Russia, and they would not have the same life as before,” Safronov says.
“I have been able to work in Las Vegas. Not everyone is so lucky.”
Kim Palchikoff is the director of “Tsirk: The Russia-Nevada Circus Project,” funded by Nevada Humanities. She spent more than a decade as a features reporter in the former Soviet Union covering, among other things, the transformation of its world-famous circus.
This story previously appeared in our sister publication, Las Vegas Sun.