Refreshed from a decent night’s sleep, Katya and I headed downtown. It didn’t take me long to become reacquainted with the city, which now felt like a second home, as opposed to my first trip when it felt like another planet. For the most part, everything was pretty much how I remembered it, however I did notice a couple of new residential skyscrapers taking shape not far from Katya’s apartment building. Unlike the drab, cinderblock style of Soviet-era apartments, these new buildings were both modern and very western-world glass and metal structures.
One of my regrets from my first trip was not visiting the Dnipropetrovsk State Circus. This time, I was determined to rectify the situation. I was especially intrigued by promotional posters and billboards throughout the city, advertising “The Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk.” I had to see this for myself. As on cue, a stray mutt passed by.
“I guess there’s no shortage of performers,” I remarked, half-serious.
“Hey, it’s definitely possible,” Katya said, fully-serious.
I had been to a few circuses in my lifetime, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of a Ukrainian one. Unlike circuses back in the U.S., which roll into town for a day or two, the circus in Dnipropetrovsk runs from early spring through early fall. As is turns out, Ukraine is a hotbed of circus talent. In fact, many circus performers in the U.S. hail from all across the remnants of the former Soviet Union.
After purchasing tickets for a matinee performance, we headed to a nearby market to purchase warm beer and peanuts. We then entered the circus building, which had been built in 1980. For some odd reason, the lobby included a pet store. Various souvenirs were offered for sale around the perimeter of the lobby concourse by vendors dressed as clowns. As somebody who has a complete and utter fear towards these sinister spawns of Satan, it’s a wonder I didn’t head for the closest exit. The fact that they spoke Russian somehow made them even more horrifying.
We headed to our seats in the back row of the 300–400 seat arena, which was probably about three-quarters full. This was quite impressive considering that the circus is pretty much always in town in Dnipropetrovsk.
As we waited for the show to begin, Katya used an armrest to pop the caps of our beer off just before the chimes of what sounded like a very depressed clock rang—a cue for the audience to be aware that the show would begin in ten minutes. We used that time to make out in our seats, because nothing says romance like a Ukrainian circus. Five minutes later, the clock chimed again. A buzz filled the air. Katya explained that the chimes were ringing out the melody of the Moscow Circus. It sounded more like a funeral dirge to me. Finally, the lights dimmed and a spotlight shined upon the house band, perched in a balcony overlooking the crowd, which was now going bananas in anticipation. The band provided accompaniment for the performers throughout the entire show, which included everything one would expect to see at a circus: tightrope walkers, gymnasts, lion tamers, monkeys, clowns and performers inside giant, glow-in-the-dark worm-like creatures that resembled Slinkys on acid.
Prior to the intermission, a woman was brought into the ring from the crowd. She looked understandably shocked and confused. Moments later, a man was rolled out by a gang of clowns. He was positioned inside a giant ring—his arms and legs spread out like da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” drawing. After the clowns released him from the wheel, he got down on one knee in front of the woman and proposed. She accepted. How could she not? The crowd went crazy. All I could think was, why didn’t I think of that?
During the intermission, children lined up for elephant rides. More impressive was an enormous swing that was lowered from the rafters. And when I say enormous swing, I mean a swing that almost spanned the entire circus ring. I watched in utter fascination as approximately twenty children were strapped in at a time before being swung back and forth by some sort of contraption made up of levers, whirligigs, and gizmos.
The second half of the show began innocently enough with a half-naked gymnast twirling up and down a rope like a stripper on a pole. The next act became the realization of my worst nightmare as a posse of clowns ran into the ring, then up and down the aisles, searching for some poor soul to include in their act. I made it a point not to make any eye contact with any of them whatsoever. In retrospect, I think this may have been the wrong tactic, because as it turned out, that poor, unsuspecting soul happened to be me. Next thing I knew, I was being pulled from my seat and dragged down the aisle and into the ring below. Katya, meanwhile, couldn’t stop laughing as I looked back at her in a desperate plea for help.
The procurer clowns brought me down into the dirt-floored ring, where I was instantly surrounded by at least a dozen more clowns. One clown in particular kept running around me in circles, making funny faces three inches from mine. This had to be—indubitably—what Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell is like.
The leader of the clowns commanded me to do something—in Russian.
“Nyet, Russiky,” I pleaded in desperation.
Apparently, he either couldn’t understand me, or chose not to. He continued barking at me in Russian, repeating the same command over and over—until it finally occurred to him that I couldn’t understand Russian. Once this understanding was finally established, he instead gestured for me to sit upon the raised feet of a clown who was laying on his back. A third clown was positioned in the same manner five feet away. I did as instructed—or at least I thought I did—but I was apparently not positioned the way they wanted me to be. Another clown helped adjust me into the proper position, at which point the clown that was holding me up began bouncing me up and down on his feet, as though they were spring-loaded. However, my position was still apparently not to his liking. The more they tried, the more it was becoming evident that it was no use. The poor clown holding me up was struggling to withstand my weight. Finally, his legs buckled and I fell right on top of his face. He rolled over, holding his nose in pain, as blood gushed out, soaking the front of his costume.
As the crowd booed, I was scolded by the clown leader, who pointed toward my seat. I trudged back toward Katya, head bowed, equally ashamed and traumatized. Just what it was that the clowns wanted me to do, I’ll never know. But I imagine it had something to do with being catapulted from one clown to the other. I couldn’t really imagine any good coming from that, so I am quite sure that it was for the best that it didn’t work out.
When I got back to my seat, Katya was laughing even harder.
“It’s not funny,” I said.
“It is hilarious,” Katya replied, cracking up.
Meanwhile, the clown whose face I fell on was being helped out of the ring, holding a bloody rag up to his possibly broken nose. One might assume that considering the way I felt about clowns, I would have claimed this moment as a victory. But instead, I felt sorry for the poor clown. I never thought it possible that a clown could elicit my sympathy. Then again, the more time I spent in Ukraine, the more I learned that anything was possible.
When the clowns finished up their act—which I had clearly curtailed—it was time for the grand finale: the Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk! I was dying to know how they would manage to make dogs fly. Would they be shot out of a cannon? Surely, they wouldn’t be that cruel.
Initially, this trick was accomplished by having dogs wearing little backpacks walk up a ladder practically to the roof—a height of at least one-hundred feet. When the dogs reached the top, they would walk across a diving-board-like platform and then jump. Half way down, a little parachute would open, allowing them to land safely in the arms of their trainers.
And then, they brought out the cannon, which was pointed straight up into the air. And—just as I imagined—dogs were shot out of it.