Monday, Dec. 22, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Forty feet above the ground, a woman daintily danced across a thin wire. The newspapers called her a “prima ballerina on the high wire,” but that was 12 years and several knee surgeries ago.
Las Vegas resident Fatima Gadjikovrbanova was once a high-wire star with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and now a little older, she struggles to walk, let alone attempt her old stunts.
But that’s what she’s set out to do.
In a thick Russian accent, Gadjikovrbanova said she’s determined despite the odds against her.
“When people say how old am me, I say I left my age in the last century so I don’t remember, but for my age people would retire, but I start work again.”
Gadjikovrbanova’s career was on hold until now because she had been tending night and day to her husband, who fell into a coma after falling down stairs in Las Vegas in the early '90s. Since being in the circus is more of a lifestyle than a job, she’s been anxious to get back into it.
Life in Russia
Growing up in the small mountain village of Dagestan, Russia, Gadjikovrbanova was surrounded by tightrope walkers. Her father fell in love with the circus at age 7 when he attended a show in the Ukraine, which prompted him to learn and perform the high-wire act that took him around the world.
He also fell in love at the circus, but Gadjikovrbanova’s mother had a difficult time performing while also raising seven little girls.
“All my sisters worked on high wire,” Gadjikovrbanova said. “We started at 3 or 5 years old and would fight for it.”
All seven sisters eventually excelled at the high wire -- her oldest sister still performs in Portugal at the age of 67. But Gadjikovrbanova, who is an American citizen, refuses to reveal her age. The Los Angeles Times described her as "an acrobat of a certain age" in a 2007 story.
It was always Gadjikovrbanova’s dream to learn every act in the circus, and in the Moscow State Circus she was given several opportunities to learn the ropes. One time when an acrobat broke her knee, Gadjikovrbanova said she trained for sixth months and performed the original acrobat's act. She has also worked in flying acts, as well as those involving bears and elephants.
While she honed her skills with the Moscow State Circus, a group she toured with for four years, her greatest memories are with Ringling Brothers. She said she was approached by Ringling Brothers owner Kenneth Feld in 1991, who had seen her act in Moscow, but when she accepted the position, she didn’t know what the next five years would hold.
“In Moscow circus, you had to go from office to office for this costume or that and they would say why we don’t have this, we don’t have that,” she said. “But [in Ringling Brothers], they made our costumes, they gave us everything necessary for the show and life. They would feed us for free and help us with everything.”
She also had the opportunity to learn English. Gadjikovrbanova would ask others how to say simple phrases like, “I want to go to the store,” and would write them down using Russian phonics.
She was approached in 1993 by Ringling Brothers to pose for a U.S. stamp in a series released commemorating 200 years of the American circus.
The stamp series consisted of four stamps: a ringleader, a clown, an elephant and a female trapeze artist. Even though she performed the high-wire act, Gadjikovrbanova accepted the challenge and posed for three hours, and with hands torn and blistered, she still worked later that evening.
Tragedy hits close to home
Not long after the stamp’s release, tragedy struck. In 1993, Gadjikovrbanova’s husband, Sasha, fell 40 feet from the high wire, breaking both hip bones.
Doctors said he might never walk again, although he was on his feet six months later.
During his recovery he took another fall. While inside a house on vacation in Las Vegas, Sasha fell down a flight of stairs and the blow landed him in a hospital, where he remains today in a coma. With her husband bedridden in Las Vegas, Gadjikovrbanova decided to settle down in the valley to be with him.
For nearly four years Gadjikovrbanova tended to her husband daily. She visited him in the hospital to feed him homemade meals. When he was transferred to a nursing home she changed his clothes, sheets and exercised him.
Gadjikovrbanova said she became depressed and stopped caring for herself because she was so focused on Sasha.
“I decided to stay with Sasha because I can’t leave him. It’s my husband … before when I lived with him, I made it 35 years, and I was always thinking we have such a good life, but we argue like many other people and we even broke up one time … but what has happened to him I realized one thing, he’s my husband and I don’t want anybody else in my life.”
Gadjikovrbanova eventually put more trust in the nurses to care for her husband and the former circus star, now out of shape and unable to perform her high-wire act, got a cleaning job to pay the bills. She now works at the Origins store in Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile, where she has been for six years. When she initially was hired, she surprised manager Colleen Trust with her bold personality while Gadjikovrbanova was looking for a temporary holiday position.
“She came in one day and we were pretty busy and she walked right up to me and said, ‘Why you no hire me?’ … ‘You need to interview me.’ And I pretty much never met anyone like her in my life,” Trust said. “I interviewed her, and just her personality, you kind of can’t not like her, and she was like ‘I sell number one for you, I’d be the best in the whole store. I show you I can sell anything right now and I don’t even work here.’”
The business relationship quickly turned to a friendship. Trust also met Sasha in the hospital. Trust said his room was covered in photos from their circus days.
“It was an experience that when I left there that night, of course you get into your car and you break down,” Trust said. “Before we would be like, ‘why don’t you let him go?’ because he’s on life support, but after seeing him I would never in a million years let him go. And now I understood why and I was like ‘shame on me for not understanding love.'
"I would never give up on somebody.”
Getting back on her feet
Gadjikovrbanova said the hard work in recent years has helped her appreciate the life she had before and she wants to get that former life back.
There’s only one problem: It's been years since she last set foot in the big top and those years wore on her knees. She’s had several surgeries on both knees, leaving her without a meniscus or cartilage in either knee -- not ideal for tiptoeing across a wire, but she started out slowly at the Sandou Production Circus School, 6375 S. Arville St., in the southwest Las Vegas Valley.
“I start at the circus studio, I come and see the people look at me, their looks say, ‘Why’s she coming, she’s now fat, she’s not young anymore, what she wanna do?’ and now two months later they say, ‘Fatima, we heard you practice, you were fantastic.’”
Although she hasn’t mastered all of her old tricks, the progress she’s made has her thinking about wanting to return to Ringling Brothers and touring the United States again, this time without her husband.
“I will never leave my husband … but I have to do my act. I don’t have choice because if I don’t practice now, my knee is already damaged, so I have to take chance now," she said.
She’s back in Moscow now for more knee treatments and to determine her chances of joining up again with the Moscow State Circus.
“I can work another 50 years, hopefully, maybe 20, and after 20 years, you talk to me and say ‘You still on high wire?’ and I say, ‘yeah, why not?’”