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Slava Polunin wants to convince people that they have wings

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Paris-based clown Slava Polunin about making fantasies, bringing comedy and metaphysics together, and a notion of living life as a work of art.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Aug 05, 2022

I was 10 or 11 when I first saw Asisyai on Soviet TV, an adorable creature in a puffy yellow gown with red slippers, scarf, nose, and chaotic hair. He was running from one giant toy phone to the other like a madman insinuating a call between two improbable characters to set up a romantic date. It was funny, clever, and catchy all at once. The man behind Asisyai, was Slava Polunin, a clown who became instantly one of the most popular entertainers in the country. He kept producing new characters and spectacles taking over the world, infinitely multiplying his fanbase — children of all generations.

When Asisyai broke into our lives, Slava was already in his early 30s, a charismatic performance actor. He was born in 1950 in a small town Novosil, 350 kilometers south of Moscow, in a family of toy store workers. So, playing was quite natural to him from the start. Slava was entertaining others for as long as he can remember. He imitated such comics as Norman Wisdom or Charlie Chaplin who he saw on television. Once he saw someone funny and interesting, just one hour later he would be performing in front of his friends, making them laugh. He likes to say, “I am a silent storyteller. My closest relatives are Munchausen and Gulliver.”

  • Licedei de Leningrad Assissai Revue | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Licedei de Leningrad Assissai Revue Image: Yuri Belinsky, Courtesy of Slava Polunin
  • Portrait de Litsedei | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Portrait de Litsedei Image: Valery Plotnikov, Courtesy of Slava Polunin

Polunin’s life is a never-ending festival of engaging and fantastical performances. Bizarre and absurd, they are no doubt works of art to be inhabited, enjoyed, and shared. He was just 18 when he started Litsedei (the old Russian term for wandering actors who put on other people’s masks), a popular mime-clown theatre group that still operates in St. Petersburg. Among his many projects is the Caravan of Peace, a gathering of mimes from all over the world who gave street performances as they travelled through Europe for six months in 1989. In the 1990s he performed with Cirque du Soleil, but it was his Slava's Snowshow, created in 1993, that made him the star as, over the years, the performance became a hit in over 80 countries. In the meantime, Polunin smashed the boundaries of what a clown is expected to be — funny, sad, poetic, or scary — by venturing into such territories as symbolism, metaphors, theatricality, and pure magic.

In the following conversation with Slava Polunin, we discussed the artist’s childhood, how he dreams up his beautiful shows, reasons for bringing snow into the theatre, why it is only worthwhile to do things that are impossible, and about his Mouline Jaune near Paris, a laboratory of creativity where life becomes a work of art for everyone who makes an effort.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: I read that Max Ernst is your favorite artist. What do you like most in his art?

Slava Polunin: I am particularly influenced by his metaphysical series of psychedelic collages that take us out of our reality. I love them for their magical power, and I am fascinated by the fact that something handmade such as these works can impact people so profoundly. Yet, they can be quite dangerous. That’s why I rarely look at them, perhaps once in five years, when it is absolutely necessary.

La grande famille Varsovie Mir Caravane 89 | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
La grande famille Varsovie Mir Caravane 89 Image: Jean Mazelier, Courtesy of Slava Polunin

VB: When you were asked, “How often do you lie?” You said, “I lie every day and many times but what others call lies I call fantasies.” How and when did you start creating your fantasies?

SP: Creating fantasies is my main preoccupation. I am a maker of fantasies. That’s what I do best. It started from the time when I was a child when my mother and father worked in a toy store. I would often get lost there. I also loved reading and I would create games based on stories such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Then I started developing my own stories and building them with my own hands. We lived near a forest and a river where I would go alone to work on my special projects. Later I found out that those things were called Land Art. [Laughs.] I added to the works of nature, building four-story huts made of sticks and leaves, cities out of snow, or a slingshot three times the person’s height to shoot huge beets. Then I started organising celebrations for my friends at the house of pioneers where the youth hung out. We built stage sets for concerts. That was my favourite pastime — to enhance space and life.

VB: You once pointed out that the 1968 student protests led to new forms of dramaturgy, both in theatre and circus. Could you touch on that? 

SP: It wasn’t the student protests that started these changes. But rather they were a part of much bigger universal energy waves and shifts. In the 1960s, the entire world was changing. Even Russia, which was so isolated, from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, was going through the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, looking for alternatives in every field. That was the time when the entire planet had become warmer. Those of us who were 15-25 years old in the late 1960s, were natural-born reformers. Just look at the list of the most distinguished personalities among comics around the world. We were all born around 1950: Italian Leo Bassi [b. 1952], Czech Boleslav Polívka [b. 1949], Americans Bill Irwin [b. 1950] and Jungo Edwards [b. 1950], and many others. We all come from the same nest. We wanted to discover our own purpose in life.

Slava Diabolo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Slava Diabolo Image: Elena Kramer, Courtesy of Slava Polunin

VB: 1968 was also the year when you founded Litsedei. But by the early 1990s, you left this successful project, saying, "Time has come to say goodbye to my darling [theatre] to go somewhere where no one has gone before.” Where is that place where no one has gone before? 

SP: Well, surely, there were those who wanted to peek into such places. Many tried to find them. But such examples are quite rare. Of course, Chaplin experimented with tragicomedy, which enabled viewers to recognise a tragic actor. But hardly anyone ever tried to go into metaphysics. Comedy and metaphysics were considered quite distant from one another. That’s where I wanted to peek into. That led to such a show as Life of Insects [1984], which tested the world of the absurd. Or, to such a show as Diabolo [2006], which was devoted to metaphysics. These themes are powerfully explored in art but modestly in clowning. Of course, Marx Brothers went in that direction. And Joseph Grimaldi turned his magical performances into theatrical phantasmagoria back in the 19th century. But when I started my explorations no one could teach me that. So, I simply went ahead and started my own experiments. The whole point was to stretch the boundaries. That’s what I do to this day — going into very different places such as singing as a mime and crying as a clown.

VB: Soon after leaving Litsedei you created your most famous spectacle, Slava’s Snowshow, which is a play of words — in Russian the word snezhnoe is a combination of the words snow and gentle or tender. And the English word snow, when read in Russian, means dreams. The idea of using snow is clear; it is a genuine symbol of Russia and, as you said, snow gives our world — often dirty and ugly — a transformative power of making it instantly beautiful. But tell me, how did this idea of bringing snow into a theatre, quite literally, come about?

SP: It happened gradually. By then I have already created 15 or 20 different shows. Nevertheless, I did not feel I fulfilled my potential because I was directing a theatre and had too many responsibilities. I did for others more than I did for myself. That’s why I wanted to create my own show, a dream of my life. But what really directed me first toward the snow was the scene of the storm in King Lear during the dialogue between Lear and the Fool. That’s what originally sparked my search — to bring together clowning and tragedy, to bring a force of nature to the stage. That’s how I understood that I needed wind, energy, and a dynamic force. Then I came up with the idea of finding an aircraft engine, a real one that would smash everything with tremendous power. [Laughs.] Well, the point was to place a person right against it to resist the natural world. Once we had the wind, we needed something that would be blowing away. So first, we had curtains and other objects backstage. All of that was flying around me. Then I found a huge gauze cloth. And finally, it became apparent that we needed snow. Snow has an incredibly capacious meaning — beauty, fear, horror, innocence, purity, all in one. And then, of course, the image of Russia is inseparable from the snow. I understood that I found something that’s very meaningful to me and to everyone. Everything else followed.

Slava Snowshow Yellow in snow storm | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Slava Snowshow Yellow in snow storm Image: Veronique Vial, Courtesy of Slava Polunin

VB: Michael Chekhov said that the most important thing in theatre is not the plot but the atmosphere. He thought that in the theatrical ensemble of soul, spirit, and body the most important element is the human soul. It is the soul that engages the viewers and that’s what creates the atmosphere of any show. How do you conceive your shows and where do you derive your ideas from?

SP: The closest thing I can think of is to compare this process to how a numismatist collects his coins. Or the way a bird is constructing its nest — one feather at a time. The same goes for any creative process — as an artist in any field you look everywhere around you and around the world, and you select only those objects and images that draw your attention. Soon you have all your pockets full of these things — ideas, scribbles, drawings, memories, phrases, and all kinds of findings — and then they clutter your desk and all your space. What happens is that you gradually collect the world that reflects who you are. And then when the wind, from such a place as Shakespeare’s storm, comes it puts into place a whole chain of things that used to sit in your head or were piled at your place. Why I do these things, I have no idea. I only look for things I like and when I like them. I spend time with all these things consciously and subconsciously, and then suddenly, when the moment comes, they become relevant and even essential for whatever reason. Any image may become a whole world, which can trigger an idea for a new spectacle.

VB: When you talk about all these things being collected are you talking about your library, studio, theatre? Where do all these things reside?

SP: First, my library is phenomenal. I own tens of thousands of books. I suspect that my library is one of the best in the world in my profession. For example, I have over 100 books just on Pulcinella. There are at least as many books on Pierrot. I have collections of books on fools, jesters, tricksters, and idiots. I have at least 50 books on what in Russian is called yourodivy or holly fools, those who may be taken for insane wanderers but actually possess the divine gift of prophecy. Many more books on shamans and clownery from all epochs. And apart from books, I collect images, films, objects, and so on. Everything that I like, I collect. I always set on these journeys where I can bump into something that may potentially become very close to me. I know films by Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and my favorite Harry Langdon, almost by heart. All silent cinema is an incredible wealth of the art of clowning.

VB: You once said, “I am a visual person, a plot comes secondary. I am fundamentally in search of emotions.” Could you give an example? 

SP: Of course, a plot is important, but it is not the most important thing. Why do some people come to my shows 20 times? They don’t come because of the plot. They know it by heart. For example, in the Chinese opera, everyone knows the plot, but that’s not why people come. They want to see the actor and what will be his or her mood today and how it will impact the performance. Michael Chekhov went even further. He said that an actor should impress not with mere skill but expose his soul by dissolving with and embracing everyone in the theatre. Creating a particular atmosphere is the most important thing. A good actor can stand and stare at the audience for five and more minutes and the audience will not get distracted because everyone will understand that something important is taking place; that’s the power of the personality of the actor. This is what I learned from Michael Chekhov and Antonin Artaud — the power of the actor can be not only intellectual but also metaphysical. 

Slava Snowshow Greens on the ship | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Slava Snowshow Greens on the ship Image: Veronique Vial, Courtesy of Slava Polunin

VB: And you said, “The process is more important than the result.”

SP: It is similar to the atmosphere. The result is the plot — what someone said, how and why he said it. But the process is about what is happening with you at this very moment. I always tell my students — guys, don’t rush anywhere. I don’t expect any results from you. It is all about what is happening with you right now. The process is a deeper notion than the result, which is merely proof of something because of something. But it is more important to feel that you are flying, not just arriving somewhere or even achieving something. What’s important is to feel fulfillment while trying to reach your goal. Reaching that goal is not as important. For me happiness is not about achieving something; happiness is about trying to achieve something.

VB: Someone said about you, “He breaks the world of rules.” What do you think?

SP: It is said that a clown is the king of chaos. [Laughs.] All other people try to reach stability in life. But a clown is doing exactly the opposite — rocking the boat, spilling, and scattering, and he doesn’t let anything freeze. The clown is happy when life is boiling. Just like a child who says constantly, “And what are we going to do now?!” [Laughs.] The clown can only live when things are moving and in joyful chaos.

VB: What did you mean when you said, “I only want to do what’s impossible. Because everything else will be done by others.”

SP: I always try to do too many things, often five or more huge projects at a time. If I get stuck working on one project, I will advance on another. Or I may recall a solution that did not fit an old project but may be perfect for the new one. Navigating so many roads at once gives me a very important sensation of being fulfilled in life. So, for me, this impossible way of being is quite natural — to be constantly alert and intensely busy in my quest to keep discovering something new. This is how my projects grew in size and ambition. I started with small projects that led to impossible ones. Not all of them get realised but many do. Several of my projects were done on a mega scale, such as the Caravan of Peace back in 1989, which brought together 60 theatres from all over the world, as we were moving through Europe for six months. The idea was to discover new types of relationships between art and life. It was the time when international borders were being redrawn and when new relationships between people were emerging. Or in 2001, we invited 300 theatres from around the world for the Theatre Olympics in Moscow. Just imagine — 300 best theatres! During that entire summer, Moscow was boiling with activities — both in theatres and on the city’s streets — exploring all kinds of alternative forms of experimental theatre, including mixing performances and organising them in various spaces. So, if you want to try something worthwhile, it may as well be something impossible. Because, sometimes, the impossible may happen.

Le Moulin Jaune aerial view | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Le Moulin Jaune aerial view Image: Courtesy of Slava Polunin

VB: You call your Mouline Jaune a laboratory of creativity. It is a kind of fusion of life, art, and nature. There is a magical lake with fog, floating beds, and windows; there are black and white gardens and rooms that allow people to return to their childhood or to travel to the worlds of the wildest fantasies. Every fragment of this place is a small spectacle and a miracle. What inspired you to create it aesthetically?

SP: Here at the Mouline Jaune, I am merging art and life. How do you turn your life into a work of art? How do you bring directing, choreography, dramaturgy, acting, clowning, scenography, and so on into human life? How do we turn every day into a work of art? Thousands of people from all over come here because they heard that we help those who want to realise their dreams. Here they can.

My library has many books on eccentric architects, buildings built by amateur architects, and non-professional, self-taught builders. I studied how these people expressed themselves by building their dwellings in very extraordinary ways. The reason behind all this is that these people try to open their personalities. They want to discover who they are. For example, I am a bit of an anarchist. I never liked to comb my hair. If I lost my shirt button, I would not tie my shoelaces. I always walk in the middle of the street. I don’t like when I see fences. In short, I have this feeling that I don’t have enough freedom. And so, I am constantly trying to express myself. I like bright colours. I want to colour this world. I like when walls are crooked. I like when my friends are dancing and singing all the time. I like to create such a fun world around me, and I want to widen its boundaries to involve more and more people — my house is too small for my character; that’s why it extends to the garden around it, then the city, and then I want more people from around the world to take part in my celebrations and festivals.

Le Moulin Jaune, Black Garden | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Le Moulin Jaune, Black Garden Image: Courtesy of Slava Polunin

VB: Was Salvador Dali’s house in Figueres one of your inspirations?

SP: I consider Dali to be the great genius of eccentricity. I can’t say he is among my favourite artists, but I love him as a personality that opened up and expressed himself to the world. His life was a work of art. And then I learned a lot from such artists as [Niko] Pirosmani in Georgia, Gaudi in Barcelona, or Ferdinand Cheval, the French postman who spent 33 years building his whimsical ideal palace in southeastern France. For me, these people are from a different planet, but they exist among us and they live in every part of the world. It would be fantastic if people, at least in part, tried to be like them. Most people have a passion to express themselves, but it is dormant and just needs to be awakened. My Mouline Jaune is such a place and everyone who comes here is encouraged to express themselves in their own ways. It is a special incubator for people who want to and need to express themselves in every creative and unexpected way possible.

I like to live my life to the fullest. I don’t teach anyone. In my theatre artists create themselves. I only set the tone. I always say: “Do what you want and how you want it. Break all the rules but find the most important thing.” You will never achieve anything without committing to it fully. You will succeed only if you are free and if you believe in yourself. That’s the most important thing. I convince people that they have wings. As soon as they realise that they will take off. 

For me, happiness and creativity are the same things. You need to create your life as a work of art. Another thing that is important for being happy is not to criticise others. I will never tell an actor that I don’t like something. Instead, I will focus on what I like, even if it is just one thing, and I will say: “It was fantastic!” This is what I tell my three sons all the time — it is not only about achieving something, but it is also important to be in harmony with the people who are around you.

VB: Any advice you could give to a young artist?

SP: My first mentor Marcel Marceau told me, “Learn from the greats.” That was the best advice for me. If I could not work with some people directly, I studied what they have done in every detail. I collected the tiniest publications on Marceau about him not only as a great mime artist but also about his life. It is absolutely necessary to have not just one teacher but many teachers simultaneously. First, you imitate what they have done. And gradually, you start hearing your own voice. That’s how you become an artist.

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