Interview with Taras Pozdnyakov

The fourth World Circus Day takes place on April 20, making this an apt time to consider where the industry is going. Despite infiltrating other areas – such as theatre, dance, opera, you name it – that all want a part of it, is it moving on?

During the past 20 years, while traditional circus has understandably stuck to its clown routines, sequins and sawdust, contemporary circus – led by directors and creators with a clear vision – has emerged from the early days of grungy ‘new’ circus to take the art form to sophisticated heights.

But now there is a movement that classifies its art-house approach to presenting circus talent as ‘post- circus’. Ukrainian director Taras Pozdnyakov founded his Kiev-based circus project Raw Art in 2005, and although its website advises, ‘Forget about circus’, his astonishing acts have since found enviable success at the world’s leading circus festivals. But just what is meant by post-circus?

Pozdnyakov explains: “Large-scale blockbusters, such as Cirque du Soleil and Franco Dragone, pursue commercial goals and are purely entertaining. I think this has little to do with art. In Raw Art, by stressing the artist’s thoughts and feelings we not only try to surprise the audience with our artistry, but also get them willing to think and sympathise with what’s happening on stage.

“As in any other circus, the basis for our art is tricks, but they are not the aim, rather a means of reaching our goals – creating the whole atmosphere of an act with alternative music, minimal costume design and experimental staging, getting in touch with the audience and searching for new forms of the circus art.”

And it does so with the lightest touch. Pozdnyakov draws his inspiration from films, books and art, but says the main source is probably music: “Ninety percent of my acts originate from the images and impressions that come to me while listening to it. The only art form I don’t search for inspiration is circus itself. Unfortunately, modern trends in circus upset me much more often than they inspire me.”

That might sound strange coming from someone born into a circus family. Before its collapse, Pozdny-akov’s parents were circus artists in the USSR, but afterwards moved to a small family circus in Berlin. Today, they work at the Kiev Municipal Academy of Circus and Variety Arts, which, since its creation in 1961, has become synonymous with excellence.

Pozdnyakov’s father Juriy, a juggler, is the dean of the circus faculty and his mother, Natalya, teaches hand-balancing and contortion. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Taras would follow them into the business. Like many teenagers, he played football but also the violin and guitar, listened to music and read books. At 15, he went to the Kiev school and, to his father’s delight, specialised in juggling.

Juriy was his lone teacher. Pozdnyakov says: “It took him four years to teach me the most important and useful skill in my life – to set myself unattainable goals and reach them through hard work.” After graduation, Pozdnyakov worked with Anatoliy Zalevskiy’s theatre Rizoma but found that juggling alone didn’t fulfil him, so he took a course in circus direction at the Kiev National University of Theatre, Cinema and Television.

Though his main job is circus director, he also teaches at the academy. Since he works with his parents in Raw Art, most of its acts feature hand-balancers and jugglers. It promotes artists who are eager to contribute their own ideas to the development of the circus as a modern art, and Pozdnyakov describes the selection process as vital.

“It is both difficult and easy,” he says. “I always try to choose them very carefully, and they choose me in turn, as my approach to circus direction has a lot of drawbacks. The gloomiest are the long time it takes to make an act and the demands I make – demands of myself as well as the artists. People who have slightly different moral and ethical principles from mine often reject my methods and leave. It’s normal.

“But sometimes the process of choosing happens very easily, almost independently from me. I just meet someone and realise that we need each other as two parts of a whole. The main principle is that the inner world of an actor always matters more to me than tricks. Tricks can be learnt, while becoming a good person, on the other hand…”

The first act Pozdnyakov directed was the Iroshnikov brothers’ hand-to-hand number, which showcased stunning skills. The artists were dressed simply in black and, with Alexander’s floppy hair hanging over his face, it had a young, street attitude. It won a gold medal at the 2004 Cirque de Demain festival in Paris, and a Silver Clown at Monte Carlo’s International Circus Festival the following year. Not bad for a debut.

Then two more acts – Question by breathtaking hand-balancer Sergey Timofeev and Sea Story by juggling prodigy Alexander Koblikov – also won gold medals at Cirque de Demain in 2008 and 2009, and Koblikov won silver at Monte Carlo this year, though gold would have been more fitting. Stripped down, stylish and apparently effortless, Pozdnyakov’s acts blow a fresh wind through the circus world, but he remains underwhelmed by such achievements.

“After reaching the peak of a mountain, you realise the climbing itself was much better than sitting on top,” he says. “I’m never completely satisfied with either my work or the artist’s. There is always room for improvement. Even at my first Monte Carlo Festival, when, after the Iroshnikovs’ act, the whole audience, starting with Princess Stephanie, rose from their seats, I was probably the only one still sitting. Yes, I was pleased with the guys, but I saw where they had to improve.

“Unfortunately, festivals often become peaks in artists’ careers. Their victories breed false ambition, take away their motivation, training stops and degradation inevitably comes. It’s a long time since I saw the Paris and Monte Carlo festivals as goals that a modern artist must strive to achieve.

“The judgement at these festivals leaves much to be desired. The choice of acts and the subsequent distribution of the prizes are increasingly puzzling. I’m not keen on the concept itself when, instead of a creative atmosphere, the festival turns out to resemble a sports competition.”

Raw Art has achieved this success with no funding. In the same way that art-house cinema may be beautiful and awe-inspiring but rarely makes money, it’s clearly not a commercial undertaking. The project is sponsored entirely by Pozdnyakov, his family, their manager Elena Gladei and its members.

Pozdnyakov admits: “I’m astonished myself how we still exist and develop in this world where everything is based on money. It’s hard, but we cope. Though we’ll need more finance to make a complete show, I’m sure we’ll find a way.”

In the future, he hopes to work with artists other than Kiev graduates, but says a number of problems must be solved first, the main one being the lack of their own training space. “We practise for four hours in a gym where the Circus Academy trains, then we pay to stay for two more hours. Six hours a day is very little for us. And as I’m planning to extend the Raw Art project outside circus art – I’m attracted by photography and video – an all-day gym becomes of vital importance.

“Being an art-house project, Raw Art has all the natural drawbacks. If we manage to make some money we’re glad, but it’s not our ultimate goal. Unfortunately, sometimes an artist’s desire for money overcomes their desire for creating and training. Sad but true, though Raw Art is an umbrella, not a cage.”

His ambition is to put all his acts together into one production, but he knows it won’t be easy. When their own training place is found, however, new horizons will appear: “I hope that Raw Art will not turn into a banal studio for preparing circus acts and shows. We will develop, we will search for new forms of self-expression and I don’t think we’ll limit ourselves by the framework of the circus art alone.”

It may seem ironic that the philosophy behind Raw Art, though almost anti-circus, is one of the most exciting things driving it forward. The calibre of Pozdnyakov’s artists, combined with the exceptional nature of his presentations, makes the prospect of a full-length show, with perfect act following perfect act, one to savour.