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.
Here is the second statue: Nikulin, wearing his flat round battered clown hat with the turned-up brim, sitting hunched over on a curb next to his grave. Yeltsin, Khrushchev, Chekhov, Shostakovich — all are spending eternity nearby, no doubt gladdened by the diversion.
Circuses are numerous in Moscow and have their own buildings. The new Moscow State Circus seats 3,500 people. The Tsvetnoi circus accommodates 2,000.
The nearby Durov Animal Theater, founded by a clown in 1912, features mice who chug along on a railway. A clown named Yuri Kuklachev runs his cat circus in a former movie theater. Once when a reporter asked him how you get a cat to walk a tightrope, he looked surprised by such an obvious question. “You give them food they like,” he said. “Something really good, like soup.”
Alex and Bella love performing in a circus with its own building, especially this one. They had their wedding reception in the circus.
“My blood is in the walls,” Alex said. He had been helping out with the elephants because his aunt was pregnant. An African elephant who apparently did not like a new costume got spooked and bolted. Alex tried to stop her.
“She got a little busy with me,” he said. “She didn’t break anything, but a few things were rearranged.”
Bella, safely upstairs, was 41
2 months pregnant. “Who’s going to bring the news to the pregnant wife?” Alex’s uncle asked.
When the Soviet Union broke up, Alex’s parents moved to Europe to perform. In 1995, they visited the United States to see their baby granddaughter. On their way back to Europe, they stopped in New York and, on a lark, filled out papers for the U.S. green-card lottery. Alex’s mother won.
They moved to Winston-Salem, where they had friends teaching the Stanislavsky acting method at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Alex’s mother became a massage therapist, and his father got some acting roles and built a house. They had been traveling all their lives, and it was the first house they had owned. In 2007, Alex and Bella moved there, too. That’s the North Carolina story.
Ready for home
As the season here wound to a close, they were eager to get home to the United States. “We grew up there,” Bella said.
And they love U.S. audiences.
Russian audiences are tough, they said. “They buy a ticket,” Bella said, “and they don’t believe they’ll get what they pay for. You have to prove yourself every time.”
Americans arrive at a performance assuming that they’ll get a good show, Alex said. “The American audience — it’s a dream for a clown,” he said. “They’re already laughing when they see you.”
The other day, as the two clowns were peering out from behind the circus curtains, watching the audience file in and preparing to pick out the people they would pull into the ring during the performance, they were startled to see a group of Tibetan monks in their traditional robes. Could they make them laugh? Yes!
After a short break in North Carolina, Alex and Bella are on the road again. This time, it’s off to Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
“We’re performing at the first dinner show in the history of Mongolia,” Bella said. Another story, no doubt, in the making.