When he died in August 1997, thousands of mourners filed by as Nikulin — named a hero of socialist labor in the Soviet era — lay in state in the middle of the circus’s single ring.
So it was startling the other night to hear the ringmaster who was presiding over that very space introduce this season’s clowns as Americans.
Meet Alex and Bella.
Like so many of their fellow U.S. citizens, they were born elsewhere — in this case, the former Soviet Union. Bella, originally a dancer, is from Latvia; Alex is from Russia. He proposed to her at this circus in the early 1990s, when Nikulin was still alive.
Alexander Chervotkin and Bella — her real name is Elena Chervotkina — moved to the United States nearly 20 years ago when Alex got a contract to teach physical comedy at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Baraboo, Wis.
In 1997, Kenneth Feld, the Ringling impresario, hired them to appear in Las Vegas, where they spent several happy years doing their Ultimate Wheel act, which remains the heart of their performance. Alex rides around on the wheel, a sort of unicycle without a seat. If only it were that easy. Eventually, he has three of the wheels spinning around the ring while he chases them, pedaling along on one, then jumping off and leaping onto the next one, and so on as the wheels keep going. At one point, he jumps over Bella.
“In Las Vegas, I jumped over her a lot,” Alex said. “We were a lot younger then.”
Alex, now 42, and Bella, 40, traveled here from the United States in February for a seven-month season. He’s a hobo-style clown with big black glasses, ill-fitting jacket and too-short pants. She has red hair, long and flowing as a feather boa.
Home is Winston-Salem, N.C. Why there? As with everything in their lives, there’s a story.
A circus heritage
Alex starts with the story of his grandmother, Nina Kornilova, now 86. “She was a ballet dancer,” he said, “and in 1942 or 1943, the Ministry of Culture summoned her to Moscow from the provinces.”
“ ‘Oh! The Bolshoi,’ she thought,” Alex said. When she arrived in Moscow, she discovered how very wrong she had been. “She was told she was assigned to the circus. She would be dancing with elephants. She stayed and married the elephant trainer.”
A 1944 film clip shows the Kornilov family performing in the Tsvetnoi circus, their Indian elephants surrounded by beautiful young women dancing, Nina among them.
Alex’s father, Yuri, and his mother, Natalia Lesnikova, had a clown act that they performed at Tsvetnoi and other circuses all over Russia.
Nikulin, the famous Tsvetnoi clown, was such an institution that when he died, President Boris Yeltsin paid his respects. The procession to the legendary Novodevichy Cemetery (Peter the Great packed his first wife off to the convent there) included six trucks overflowing with flowers and wreaths. That’s how people who have endured long passages of grim history treat someone who makes them laugh.