From A to Z
There’s no relationship between what I have studied “officially” and what I am doing now. At first I was a student of the Economic Institute, then of the Culture Institute, a faculty of the Mass Show. But in fact I studied in the library, from 9 am till the closing hour, for 7 years, including a visit to the army. The rector, when giving me the graduate diploma, said: “The fact that Polunin has graduated from our institute proves that there are no eternal students”. I had no particular choice for reading; I read everything as a mean of self-education. I especially loved the Silver Age newspaper files. In the army I fell for Dostoyevsky. He is a top of the top for me, too. I was thinking: “You feel bad? Then you’ll feel even worse”. Notes from the Underground was my table-book. With Dostoyevsky one manages to keep aloof of their occupation, to observe a process from the side, – this being the only way of life in our country till this very day. Granted, after Dostoyevsky I compiled a list of other 100 books I had to read, but he is fundamental for me. Today I have a huge library, which is my favorite thing and my treasure. I am like a stingy knight, trembling at it, and I can’t wait to please myself with my favorite book or a book I haven’t yet read. In fact, a pleasure of reading is the biggest in my life. I am like this only because at the beginning I got stuffed and gained such a pleasure of digesting what I have read.
As for my profession, here I started with the naïve things, a mere eccentric pantomime. My ideal was an early Chaplin. I took eccentricity very seriously and studied a theory of trick. When Buster Keaton worked at the film studio, he carried two suitcases of tricks with him – two actual suitcases with files of enlisted tricks, a real collection. I did the same. I even elaborated a theory: if a turn consists of 25 tricks, it can be considered classical. I worked at the rhythm, at the techniques; I elaborated a whole eccentric scale. But when I reached the top, I lost the interest: quantity didn’t provide quality. I could make people roll in the aisles, it didn’t take any effort, but I suddenly understood: laughter is not so important. I began doing only 5 tricks instead of 25, so the techniques did not go against the rhythm of personage’s character development. I concentrated on the personage, on his condition and thoughts. Thus eccentricity changed to poetical process. At this point I staged my favorite performance The Dreamers – about children at play. They didn’t play war; rather, they played romantic games: they went into space, they traveled by sea to the unknown lands, they told fairy tales to each other, they examined insects. A child is one of the symbols of clownery. He has different moods and conditions. At play he is reactive, when talking to the adults, he’s trying to imitate them. But I chose a condition of exploring the life, as the one I prefer the most. By the way, when the child is exploring something, he is very slow and careful with details. My guys were doing all this so ardently, so freely, with such a gift! The dynamics of the play was great, and the performance was very beautiful. On the example of a child we demonstrated that fantasy on its own is good, and by its means the child is creating his world. That was my good-bye to eccentricity and hello to the next stage.
I needed a perpetual change. It took me 2 or 3 years to penetrate one tendency in the art of theatre from the bottom to the top, to consider its aesthetic opportunities, to provide a creative potential. But as soon as I’ve reached the top and gained success, I felt bored. Once the audience has accepted you and showed you its preference, you run out of you “energy drink”. I personally experienced the decay. So, I didn’t leave one performance for another, but rather I went from one aesthetic system to the next. I went from eccentricity to lyrics, from simple action to meditation; afterwards I began getting into contact with the audience. It seemed to me that the classical pantomime of Marcel Marceau, for instance, was too far away from the audience. It was as if he said: “Look at me and follow me, I am your ideal. Keep your mouths wide open and admit that there is something magical in this life, like, say, me, a boneless man”. That was in the 70s, the era of aesthetism. Then another borderline manifested itself because aesthetism did not satisfy the audience anymore. People began taking it offensively: “You all are the stars, and we’re but nothing and nowhere?” I felt that pantomime is losing its spectators, they have a lack of something. And against the usual clownery I began counting down the number of tricks, I hid my skill, the techniques in general, so that nobody at all would see that I was capable to do something. That cut down the distance between the audience and me. If the former believes that one of it can go on stage and do the same thing as you, it means you became the next best thing for them, not a great actor. And if you’re the next best thing, the type of relationship changes immediately. At that time I had a turn Ni-iz-ja-a! (No-o-o-o!). I didn’t demonstrate any professional skills there at all. A turn The Blue Canaries turned to be a red cloth for a bull: four clowns are marking time – and that’s it. One TV-maker told us: “Take this nonsense with you and keep it for a good memory”. And he wasn’t wrong: none of us was doing a double somersault, nobody could actually sing, the harmonies were paper-made. What is the trick then?
The example of the circus helped me to understand this trick. The circus began to lose its audience when it lost poetical emotion and simplicity. It reached unbelievable technical quality – the entire world said ‘Oh!’ when they saw a somersault on the stilts through a double ring. But what’s next? There was no simplicity, like in Picasso’s A Girl on the Ball. There was no tenderness and naivety, like in Fellini’s films. The Skill reached the top, but what about the Soul? And I understood that nobody needed my experiments with a boneless body. At first I demanded my guys to be straight, slim, brawny, to do yoga, ballet dancing. But later it became clear that good-looking people do not fulfill their task; they rather broaden the precipice between the audience and us. We were in deep shit. And it was then that I forgot any former principles and began to take in the troupe the one-eyed, the cross-eyed, the ugly, the strange, the bold, the paunchy, as long as they delivered something nice to the performance. I’m joking, of course. Different to it, what was I like myself? Oh, how I was dreaming to make an ‘aesthetic regularity’ of myself! But then I thought: why the hell do I need it? And I stopped caring about it. I was arching my back, and my wife hit me on it, but eventually she gave up, and this hump became a part of my personage. A count-off point had changed; I began paying more attention to the inward, not the outward. And I said to everyone: “I prohibit any professionalism in my theatre. The main things are the eyes, the atmosphere, my pleasure and involving of everyone in my pleasure: it is the touch to the people in the first row, – we are all together”. So we began crushing the wall between the stage and the audience, we began clutching people at the hitch. The more hitches are there between them and us, the more successful the performance is, as I thought. Nobody could guess what had happened: “They cannot do a thing, then why do they possess the audience?” Simply the mood became a measure of it all.
We are all in the course of the art history, and we cannot forget about what has passed by us and developed into solid categories in the heads of people. If the crowd is moving in one direction, screaming, then, maybe, you should take an opposite direction and keep silence? We need to find the means to be heard and to be noticed, we need to make people want to listen to us. The circus has lost the poetic emotion; I’ve decided to bring it back. It was a resistance to the flood that I thought was heading to the dead-end.
Afterwards there were new visions. At first we performed in small halls, for 100 people. Then we realized that we can hold attention of 10 thousands. That demanded a change in the space for a performance, we needed more freedom. And we went down to the audience, I found interest in the carnival, in a street performance. Suddenly I realized what I had really wanted all my life: I wanted a colourless life to be beautiful and colourful every day. When we went out into the street, we wanted people who were walking towards us to stand still awkwardly, to open their mouths wide, then to drop their bags and to follow us, as if they were charmed. Like in the film The Jolly Fellows, if you remember. At first the audience stared, commented, then it began to follow us, to help us. Finally it got used to all this. I was satisfied as I brought it up: it learnt to work on its own.
Translated from Russian by Julia Shuvalova.