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  • A Circus Love Story

    Elena Panova
    Elena Panova on the flying trapeze.
    Photo courtesy of Dominique Jando

    This love story begins in the City of Lights.

    The year is 1987. A blond-haired, bright-eyed Russian trapeze student arrives in Paris.

    Elena Panova is here to compete in the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, which convenes performers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Communist Eastern Europe is still secluded from the rest of the continent, so this is Elena’s first artistic presentation to the West.

    For her, the romantic nature of the city has fused with the enchantment of circus.   

    On the other side of the stage, circus historian and former professional clown Dominique Jando sits in the jury. By 1987, the renowned Frenchman has become the associate art director of Big Apple Circus, a nonprofit centered in New York City.

    When her turn comes, Elena performs elaborate tricks on the trapeze with daring innovation, fluidly transitioning between movements without pause. Her fearlessness is more appropriate for a child on a swing set than for someone so frighteningly high in the air.

    By the end of her act, Elena captivates the audience—and Dominique. 

    “She recreated completely the swinging trapeze. With one heel hanging and full swing, she did so much we had never seen before.” Dominique exclaims. “She was the buzz of the festival.”

    After the performances, the jury deliberates until about two in the morning. They return to the hotel where all the performers stay to update them on the awards ceremony.

    Elena has won gold.

    “She was nearly going to bed, so she came down to the hotel lobby all disheveled because she didn’t think she would win anything,” Dominique says. “Actually, I fell in love with her when I saw her without the trapeze. That was the moment.”

    Dominique Jando and Elena Panova
    At the awards ceremony of the 1987 Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, Elena Panova (center, in sequins) receives a gold medal alongside Dominique Jando (center, in suit) and other members of the Soviet delegation.
    Photo courtesy of Dominique Jando

    Fast forward thirty years to a mercilessly humid afternoon in Washington, D.C. Elena and Dominique are clinging to the shade of a large elm on the National Mall. The two have just ended their panel on “Immigration and the Circus” at the 2017 Folklife Festival.

    A petite woman who radiates elegance and strength, Elena speaks in a heavy Russian accent. Her husband Dominique, jolly and mischievous, eyes her with adoration through lenses that are perfect circles. The two reminisce on that week in Paris and the subsequent evolution of their relationship with each other and with circus.

    According to Elena, their story actually started long before the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. 

    When Elena attended the State College for Circus and Variety Arts in Moscow as a trapeze student, she had to study the history of circus. Dominique, who already gained the reputation of a circus history scholar, had just written a book that was used in numerous schools, including Elena’s.

    “The book was just published, so this was part of the curriculum of class on the circus history,” Elena laughs. “So that was the first time I saw his name, ‘Dominique Jando.’”

    After the two officially met in Paris, Elena returned to her home in the Soviet Union. In 1991, Big Apple Circus contracted Elena to work for them. Within two hours of her arrival in the United States, Elena and Dominique began dating.

    After seven years of long-distance, with Elena traveling around the world to perform, the pair got married in 1999. They’re not too sure of their exact wedding date.

    “Our wedding was during rehearsals, so there was so much craziness,” Dominique explains. “We just found one day and we rushed with some friends as a witness. We had a friend who married us. Each time, we say we have to celebrate our anniversary next time because it’s probably twenty years together. And we always miss it, and then we’re like, ‘Oh shit, it was last week!’”

    Dominique Jando and Elena Panova
    Dominique Jando and Elena Panova present at the 2017 Folklife Festival about immigration experiences in the circus.
    Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Elena was married once before, when she was very young, to another circus performer. They struggled to maintain a romantic relationship while also prioritizing hectic work schedules and professional ambitions. As she talks about her first marriage, nostalgia tints her voice.

    “We were very independent from each other,” she says. “Because we were just starting our careers, we would never compromise for each other, so we did long distance for seven years. Then when we came back together, we realized that we didn’t need each other anymore.”

    With Dominique, the relationship dynamic was completely different. Though long distance proved to be difficult, their mutual respect for each other’s art strengthened their bond.

    “He is so respectful of what I do because he basically saw my premiere in Paris. He would never say to me, ‘You have to stop and stay with me all the time.’ Even if it was hard for both of us, during the seven years—” Elena pauses and cracks a smile, “—he called me every day.”

    Because his job stationed him in New York, Dominique was able to occasionally visit Elena during the seven years. It always felt like home.

    “There is this sense of family that’s very strong,” Dominique says. “If I had not been a circus man, it would have been very, very difficult, but because we have this connection all this time, it was like she was never really gone.”

    Rather than divide, the circus world created a community in which Elena and Dominique could grow closer. The two now live in San Francisco, sharing the world of circus with their students and two cats.

    “We are circus people,” Elena says. “When we are here at the Festival, it’s fun because we see so many friends. We love our world, and we love when we are with each other. No one is excluded from the world he or she is in.”

    Laura Zhang is studying neuroscience and Plan II Honors at The University of Texas at Austin. She is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and exudes a passion for social justice, stories, and dogs of all kinds.

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