Russian circus show ‘Balagan’ puts the spotlight on visuals, riveting central acts

By Mel Shields — Bee Correspondent – (Published February 05, 2006)

The new show “Balagan” at the Eldorado is an amalgam of cirque, commedia del arte, surrealism and old-fashioned slapstick. It has tumblers, clowns, strongmen, fliers, jugglers and even a woman who’s pretty mean with hula hoops. Its moods range from joyous to eerie, and anybody who tries to figure out a plot in the midst of all the shenanigans is doomed to failure.

It appears there might be logic to the madness. After all, this foppish fellow keeps writing in this dusty book, and this beak-nosed fellow carries this giant egg around, and this elegant woman with her legs replaced by a wheeled pedestal chair keeps dancing around. There is a nightmarish figure carrying a lantern, a fellow who leaps across the stage in jumping stilts, another who comes rolling across in a giant wheel splayed out like a Da Vinci drawing, and even a little critter that scurries its way around like a runaway furry vacuum cleaner.

It’s not much ado about nothing, but it is much ado about not much. It’s all in the visual onslaught. It’s all about having plenty going on at any one time, an ever-varying feast for the eyes. The old three-ring circus used to create some frustration because it was impossible to watch what was happening in three places at once. The venue here is smaller, but there’s more happening as characters emerge, carry out business and disappear up, down and around, while the central act keeps performing.

Ironically, rarely is any of this detracting. Most of it becomes animated wallpaper contributing to the overall atmosphere, but not destroying the party in the room. Those central acts, in short, are riveting.

“Balagan” is Russian for a marketplace circus where a great deal goes on. The show features 22 performers from Russia, Ukraine, China and England, and it climaxes with one of the best acts seen anywhere.

Roman Tomanov is seen throughout the show, dressed in a Little Prince-style costume and clowning in multiple scenes. But at the end, he shows his skills as an athlete who wraps himself in straps suspended from the ceiling and flies with strength and artistry. Strap acts are so frequent now they’ve almost become clichés, but it is unlikely anybody can equal the skill demonstrated here. Only 16, Tomanov creates gasp-inducing moments and ends the act, and the show, with a stunning moment of virtuosity.

Another highlight is the comedy of Jonathan Baker, whose brown raincoat and plain hat garb contrasts with the glitter of everything else.

Baker is a classic clown, a man of pitfalls and illusion, playing off audience members before the show and taking a solo spot in it. He swallows a sword and gets it stuck, he juggles upside down, and he does amazing things with polka dots. Sometimes he is best when he is simplest; an encounter with his coat, hat and a coat rack is pure Chaplin.

Alexander Chervotkin is a clown prince with silent-screen perfection in facial expression and timing. He also does wondrous things, in this case with miniature revolving unicycles. His wife, Elena, somehow manages to dance on what looks like the bottom of a desk chair, and does so with grace. And aerialist Mikhail Chebotarev pulls off a graceful set suspended and wrapped in flowing silk.

Fans of the hula hoop will be envious when they see what Polina Volchek can do with them in this show. Even Nadejda Koudriavtseva, performing the old standby act of balancing on a stack of chairs, spellbinds with a series of poses and contortions.

It’s hard to imagine a balancing duo better than Yuriy Motuzenko and Anton Savchenko, the little fellow moving and stretching and posing while supported on the big fellow’s hand or foot or head.

Las Vegas has cirques that are larger and performed in theaters equipped for every special effect imaginable, but when all is said and done, the only special effect worth the trouble is that created by the human body.

Moment for moment, costume for costume and artist for artist, this show is as entertaining as productions four times its size.