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December 20, 2014

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Russian immigrants discover life after the circus

Of many elite athletes, circus performers who migrated to Las Vegas for a better life get chance with Cirque du Soleil

Image

Leila Navidi

Nikolai Melnikov, bottom, along with his partner Iouri Safronov, perform a hand-balancing act in “V The Ultimate Variety Show” at the Miracle Miles Shops in Planet Hollywood December 16, 2010.

Russian Circus Performers

Nikolai Melnikov performs a hand-balancing act in Launch slideshow »

Russian Cirque Performers in Vegas

In 1993, 13 Russian circus performers were hired by Cirque du Soleil and moved across the globe to perform in the finale of Cirque's first Vegas show, Mystere. Just two years later, the Russian trapeze act was removed from Mystere, but most of the performers have stayed in the U.S. Meet three of the Russian artists and hear their stories of growing up in the circus, the culture shock of Vegas compared to Moscow, and how they made lives for themselves in America after Cirque.

They are trailblazers who helped launch a new dimension of entertainment on the Strip, even if today they are living mostly in obscurity.

There’s Vadim Bolotsky, his career derailed by injuries, who ended up pursuing construction jobs before retiring to Pahrump where today he tends to his chickens.

And Vladimir Mialovski, who went on to open a martial arts studio in Las Vegas.

And Nikolai Melnikov, who is performing in a second-tier Strip show.

They are three of the dozen Russian master trapeze artists — one-time stars in their homeland — who contributed to one of the turning points in the evolution of Las Vegas entertainment: the Christmas Eve 1993 debut of Cirque du Soleil’s flagship show “Mystere.” Their overhead derring-do would be the flying grand finale of the show.

These elite athletes and circus performers from the former Soviet Union banded together when their country fell apart, the ruble was devalued and employment prospects grew dim — at a time when Cirque du Soleil sought Russian talent. So they practiced for more than a year in Moscow for a new career, then quietly immigrated to America and made a new home for themselves in Las Vegas.

Over time all but one stopped performing — 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 Russian entertainers and their families.

•••

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 had 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 into his gymnastics career 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; 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, and when he 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 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.”

“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 head first, speeding down like a bullet for about 80 feet until I hit the net.”

Indeed, the trapeze was his platform to execute complex tricks at speeds up to 60 mph. He and his fellow troupe members were akin to human Blue Angels, enjoying the rush of speed, precision and risk, he says.

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.’ ”

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Vadim Bolotsky smokes a pipe in the backyard of his home in Pahrump November 11, 2010.

But 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.

He lives in Pahrump, where he takes care of his son, does odd jobs and volunteers at the nearby Amargosa Opera House. “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 trampoliners. In fact, seemingly every act imaginable from the zany world of the famed Moscow Circus seems to have shown up in the Nevada desert with its hilarious, talented and unique ability, making 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 in the world outside of Las Vegas. In Moscow, many of them had performed together.

Although no one knows for sure exactly how many have arrived — usually the words coming out of their mouths are “a lot” — the sense is that about 300 performers, maybe more, have moved here from the former Soviet Union.

What is certain is that in a city that has seven Cirque du Soleil shows and many others with circus acts, a bona fide circus school, Russian-owned touring circus companies, and the claim to fame as the convention capital of the U.S. that has circus performers entertaining conventioneers, there is no other city in America with so many people in the world of Tsirk, the Russian name for their circus.

It’s a world that dates from 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 Tsirk was born.

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Vadim Bolotsky helps Sandy Scheller into her costume during the show "If These Walls Could Talk" at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, Ca. Saturday, November 13, 2010.

Fast forward several 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 joined the circus. Although 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 on the Strip, according to that 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 costumes.

They are hanging by cables high in the theaters and flying overhead. They are the clowns in “O” and the acrobats in “Mystere.”

But what they will tell you is 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 onstage and give their favorite performer flowers at the end of the show,” Bolotsky says. “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, both jugglers, spent performing in one city. By the time he was 4 he was standing in front of huge audiences. He had 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, signed up for Cirque du Soleil, Mialovski calculates with a laugh that he had performed enough years in the circus to retire. He chose not to go into his parents’ profession — he preferred the trapeze over juggling.

“It was a way of life,” Mialovski says. “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.”

They were jokers and jesters, travelers and entertainers. Like the A-list of Hollywood, they were elevated to a rare status: 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 Yeltsin — and not a television reporter — who broke the news to the Russian Federation that their beloved national clown had died. 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 hands, waiting to say goodbye, while the nation’s army stood by, soldiers camped out in trucks, ready to maintain crowd control if necessary.

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Vladimir Mialovski teaches a martial arts class inside his studio in Las Vegas November 18, 2010.

On the Strip, Russian performers can’t seem to explain enough that in the Motherland they wore few masks and showed off their faces, had names and reputations, developed tricks the public came especially to watch; the best even got posters with their pictures, akin to Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin, two legends from the entertainment world the Russians in Las Vegas frequently refer to.

“Russian circus is a good circus,” Mialovski says. “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 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.

“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 “Mystere” 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.”

More impressive than his former upside-down nightly escapades on the Strip is his 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 his accomplishments that comes 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 kids of today. He sees they struggle with focus issues.

“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 the show “V The Ultimate Variety Show.”

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Nikolai Melnikov, center, Iouri Safronov, right, and other performers greet fans after "V — The Ultimate Variety Show" at Miracle Mile Shops in Planet Hollywood on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010.

Life in the circus is far more demanding physically and far more painful than the entertainers let on and 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 Las 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, do something rare: In less than six minutes they execute 19 tricks. In Russia, they explain, there is an adage: If a costume gets in the way of a trick, ditch the costume. In Las Vegas, he says, it’s the other way around. A new way for a new world, but they aren’t sure it’s better.

Like Russians in the National Hockey League, they 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 with my act in Las Vegas. Not everyone is so lucky.”

Kim Palchikoff is the director of “Tsirk: The Russia-Nevada Circus Project” sponsored by Nevada Humanities and the UNLV Oral History Research Center. She spent more than a decade as a features reporter in the former Soviet Union covering, among other things, the transformation of their world-famous circus.

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  1. Thank you, Kim, for a wonderful story.
    Outstanding, & a fascinating read.
    Spaciba!

  2. What a great human interest story, absolutely fantastic. Thanks for the research and the article. More like this please!

  3. Not only is this an extremely well-written article, the accompanying photographs take the story beyond words and thus complete an incredible package. Both writer and photographer are to be commended for their work. Likewise the Sun for publishing it. For anyone will to take the time, view the photos full-screen. It's worth waiting a few seconds for the screen to refresh.

  4. Great article. Very interesting. Interesting to get the scoop on how little these performers were paid by Jerk de Soleil for performing such a dangerous job. JdeS should be ashamed.

    Also puts into perspective how badly many want to live in America. Working 3rd shift taxi driver to remain here.

  5. Fabulous article - fascinating.

  6. good story

  7. Enlightening human interest story, well written easy to read and follow. Sad though that so many after being exploited by the Cirue are now being exploited by taxi industry in Las Vegas. Its amazing what sacrifices people make just to eat and keep a roof over thier heads.

  8. Good article - more please.

  9. Rich44,
    Not sure anyone can argue that Cirque exploited these performers (any more, in a way, than any performer is exploited by his or her employer).

    Working for Cirque in Las Vegas was a whole lot more attractive for these people than the alternative of remaining in Russia. I have no doubt they worked hard in their Strip jobs but it seems unfair to suggest the Russians were exploited. They were talented performers who pursued the opportunity to work and live in Las Vegas.

  10. I think this is the first and only time in the history of the Las Vegas Sun that I can agree 100% with all the other readers/commenter.

    Kim, not only do you have a better sense of the English language than most Americans, your ability to tell a compelling story is so interesting every word needs to be devoured.

    The photographer is equally a creative artist.

    The Russian and Ukrainian performers have my standing ovation. I welcome them as my neighbors and fellow citizens.

    Take our governments and the politics out of the equation and the people of America and the former Soviet Bloc will get along just fine. We'd embrace one another's warm heart.

    Pssst! Sun, hire both this eloquent writer and superb photographer and then just stay out of their way!

  11. Kim, this is a beautiful article. You should be very proud of yourself. Continue to write your words of passion.

  12. !

  13. Cliff,

    Glad you liked the package. While Kim is a freelance writer, both the photographer, Leila Navidi, and the videographer, Katie Euphrat, are members of our Las Vegas Sun staff.

  14. Kim, this is a fantastic story. I enjoyed the read very much. Please write more...and let us know when you do!

  15. What a wonderful story about a segment of the Russian population here in Las Vegas. I would love to learn more about the performers and other Russian immigrants living in our community. Kudos to those involved in this story.

  16. Thank you Kim for writting this piece. Too often we only see the beauty of what these performers do on stage, and while we sit there in awe of their feats we don't often think of the struggles and sacrifices it takes to get there. And lets make it clear - anyone who's body is thier main source of income does make great sacrifice. My best wishes to all these men and their families....I hope all find happyness or at least contentment in Vegas.

  17. amazing piece, talented writer. more please.