27 May 2013

Astana's Circus - a fabulous family treat.

The old Soviet circus tradition has proved enduringly popular in Kazakhstan and Astana has a permanent, all weather Circus building set in a park with a fountain and statues that echo the circus theme.  Some are normal statues but some are green sculptures with plants placed on a wire frame.  These green sculptures cannot last the winter so during that time they are covered with ‘coats’. The circus itself is shaped like a flying saucer with flashing lights peppering the roof it is a dramatic part of the Astana skyline.  

The Flying Saucer Circus

The statues in the park have a circus theme

Green giraffe statue still wearing his winter coat
Inside there is an outer ring complete with popcorn and cotton candy stands, when animal shows come to town many of the performers showcase the animals in this part of the building and people line up for photographs with snakes or performing dogs.  The inner part of the circus has a large ring and 2,000 seats.  The best seats face the entrance, these fill up first while the seats at the ‘back’ tend to be less well liked.  Shows typically run for a few weeks with performances at weekends and on public holidays and are always popular.  We will usually go towards the end of the run when there is a greater choice of seats for a lower price  (Tickets cost about $15).

People buy toys and sweets before a performance.
The ring is huge and the arena can seat 2,000 people - here people are just arriving for a show
There is a large permanent staff at the circus but the real treat comes from the touring circuses.  In recent years Astana has hosted a number of Russian shows as well as a Tibetan and a Ukrainian circus.  Just the other day we saw advertisements for a Vietnamese Circus – it was, apparently the first time that this particular circus had toured to Central Asia and the flyers promised a spectacular.  Most importantly for us we heard that there were no animals.

Animal acts are popular.  The Camels are favorites and give rides after shows
Animal acts remain very popular here and people are genuinely surprised when we explain that we do not enjoy watching performing animals.  Some expatriates feel so strongly that they decide not to go to the circus at all.  We feel that the quality of the acrobats is usually so high that it would be a shame to miss what is a genuinely enjoyable event.  We tend to go and enjoy the show but leave after the first act if we know that there will be a lot of animals in the second.

The animal acts range from the terribly sad to the bizarre to the downright strange.  We found the dancing yaks terribly distasteful (they were obviously in pain) and I hate to see the performing bears as they look so very unhappy.  One act displayed 12 performing domestic cats – each one had mastered just one trick and we got the impression that they had trained the trainer to give them treats rather than the other way round.  The most bizarre act we have ever seen was a dog and duck balancing spectacular.  We watched for a rather bemusing five minutes as two Dalmatians sat calmly with ducks on their noses before the dogs took hold of each end of a pole and the ducks walked between them.  All the animals looked perfectly happy and the audience loved the show – we were the only people who did not seem to ‘get it’.

Dancing Acrobats
Most shows follow a standard format and popular acts include jugglers, unicyclists and hula hoop girls.  Sometimes these acts will combine in unique ways – one act showcased some double-dutch skipping unicyclists.  Some of the circuses concentrate on showcasing their individual stars or use a gimmick (one ‘Water’ circus flooded the ring and had a lot of synchronised swimmers performing while the main stars performed on a small stage just above the water), other circuses tell a story.  The clowns are usually excellent, talented acrobats in their own right but with a great sense of comic timing.  Our children are desperate to sit in one of the front rows so they stand a chance of being chosen to ‘help’ the clowns in one of their acts but we have become wise to this danger and buy seats towards the back.

Clowns invite children to participate.
The stars of the shows are almost always the aerial artists.  It is quite something to see people somersaulting 30 meters above the ground with nothing but a wrist or ankle strap to keep them safe.  The safety equipment is there and some acts do use it, we have found that tightrope walkers usually clip on or use a net.

The Vietnamese circus lived up to the billing – from a spectacular opening to an outstanding closing with some truly wonderful acts in-between.  The aerial  artists were possibly the best we have seen, many performing the most amazing gymnastics hanging in the air and holding on with just their teeth.

Vietnamese Circus
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

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