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  • The Three-Ringed Life: An Aerialist Reflects on Soaring with the Circus

    Elena Panova
    Elena Panova at the Cirque d’Hiver-Bouglione during the 1997 Festival Mondiale du Cirque de Demain in Paris.
    Photo courtesy of Dominique Jando

    This is the first in a series of interviews exploring the lives of people in the circus and their experiences on the road. The name of this series, “The Three-Ringed Life,” reflects the three social arenas: the personal, the professional, and the space in which the two intersect. When seen together, the three rings create a narrative as vibrant and varied as a three-ring circus.

    Elena Panova is a Russian-born aerialist currently living in the United States. She was active in the circus for twenty years, starting her career in 1985 with the Moscow Circus, then in 1991 she went to New York City to work with the Big Apple Circus. She settled in the United States and continued to tour the world. Although now retired from the spotlight, Panova continues to teach and inspire the next generation of circus performers as the aerial department director at Circus Center San Francisco.

    At the 2017 Folklife Festival, Panova can be found teaching a swinging trapeze class in the Festival’s Circus School and participating in discussions on the Circus Stories stage.

    In this excerpted interview, Panova combines practical observations of the hardships and joys of circus life with reminiscences on her own personal experiences. For Panova, it is a love of one’s art that keeps a circus performer going through all the long hours of travel, practice, and performance.

    How did you get involved in the circus?  

    I was born in Russia, in a small town 350 kilometers east of Moscow. There were a lot of activities for children—classes for dancing, circus classes sometimes. It was free, and kids could go and do whatever they liked. When I was fourteen, I saw an advertisement for circus classes, and my friend took me there. When I started, I felt like it was a thing I had been missing. I loved it from the moment of arriving there.

    When I finished high school, there was a choice of where to go. My coach from this kids’ class proposed that I go to Moscow and try to audition for the professional circus school, which I did. I finished at the Moscow circus school after four years, and then I became a professional performer doing swinging trapeze. I worked for twenty years and traveled all over the world.

    What was traveling like?

    My first trip outside Russia was to Cambodia, right after the circus school, because we had Russian and Cambodian students together in the graduation show. That was a very hard experience, but it was very exciting as well. You’re very young and you go somewhere and it’s so romantic, so exciting. But conditions were very hard because it was just after the Cambodian civil war, so there was nothing. But for the audience, it’s the same everywhere—very appreciative when they see great things.

    After that, I went to Mongolia, and then I traveled in Europe with the Moscow Circus. But when you traveled at that time with the Moscow Circus, it was a very different experience than you have now because the country was closed, and you were kind of isolated from everything. We traveled within Russia as well, because every major city in Russia has a circus building.  

    Elena Panova
    Elena Panova backstage with coach Victor Fomine.
    Photo courtesy of Dominique Jando

    Did you ever feel homesick?

    Oh no, because you’re so young. I feel homesick now, but when you’re twenty, twenty-five, that’s what you want in your life—you want to travel and see the world. I was so fortunate to be able to do that.

    How did you stay connected to home?

    All my roots are in Russia, and even when I travel somewhere else, I always call my family. When I was in Europe, I went almost every year to visit them. I cook Russian meals—I do things the Russian way, like we do in Russia. You carry it all your life—you don’t forget it. You’re still Russian.

    What was the hardest part of being on the road?

    One of the hardest things was my first trip to Cambodia, because you had to think all the time about what you could eat or what you could drink. That was a very hard experience.

    In terms of the profession—it’s very tough, circus life. You really have to love it, because it’s a lot of inconvenience. Travel is great, but sometimes you have to travel a lot, like go across the Atlantic five times a year or something like that. Physically it’s hard. And then when you’re putting your show together—I was an aerialist, so I had to be responsible for making sure that my rigging was safe.

    This kind of sustained focus, that’s the hard part of our seasons. You have to have a sort of regime in your life. You eat when it’s the right time to eat, for example. It’s tough, but you have to do it because otherwise you cannot survive. You have to really love what you do, and when you go in the ring, when you perform, you feel how the audience appreciates you, and it pays back all the inconvenience.

    Elena Panova
    Elena Panova in costume.
    Photo courtesy of Dominique Jando
    Elena Panova
    Panova now works as a circus coach at Circus Center San Francisco.
    Photo courtesy of Dominique Jando

    Did the circus feel like a community?

    Yes, of course. You live together all season, and the season was sometimes nine months. If you live with all the performers and all the workers, with everybody, you live like one family. You travel together, tent goes down and you pack your things, everybody lives in trailers, everybody basically moves together, you arrive in the next place together. As long as you go with the circus all season, that’s your family.

    Julia Berley is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a rising junior at Emory College of Emory University, double majoring in history and psychology.

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