Russian philosopher-clown simply expects you to find him funny

The traditional image of a circus clown is a knockabout, slapstick comedian, always tripping or being drenched with water, a runaway from school, traveling gypsy-like from big top to big top. But one of the world's most famous clowns is very different.

Yes, Oleg Popov wears a big red plastic nose and a yellow frizzy wig, a black and white checkerboard cap and baggy pants. Yet he is also something of a philosopher, a man who quotes poetry. He doesn't work desperately to make you laugh and avoids slapstick; he relies on a slow, steady approach, a lift of the eyebrows, a gentleness.

He expects you to find him funny: He doesn't demand that you do.

Mr. Popov has been a clown for 35 years, the star of the Moscow State Circus for decades, and holds one of his country's highest awards, ``People's Artist of the USSR.''

Mopping his face in front of a light-bulb-studded mirror in London the other day, still in makeup and with his red plastic nose in place, Popov talked to me about the art of being a clown, occasionally nodding to several other clowns as they came in to collect props. His own yellow wig and black and white cap lay on a red-lacquered trunk with his name stenciled on it.

``You can't teach someone to be a clown,'' he said, leaning forward. ``Every clown reflects his own generation, and his approach must be unique. I select five or six youngsters and produce an act with them in which they develop their own talents.

``Mayakovsky [the Russian poet] once said that young poets shouldn't write as Mayakovsky writes, but should write as themselves. So they have to make their own image.''

Popov's benign and amiable clown was the main attraction of a Moscow State Circus tour of Britain, the first for 15 years. A 70-strong ensemble appeared in Dublin and Belfast, in six cities in England (including London), and for a week at the Edinburgh Festival.

Unlike the usual performances back in the USSR, the British shows contained no animal acts, only clowns, acrobats, jugglers, trick cyclists, and illusionists. This was due to strict British quarantine laws, but also to strong public feeling here about making animals perform in public.

Popov said he was surprised. To him, people go to a circus to see animals first and jugglers and clowns second. Soviet audiences expect the unusual and exotic on their evenings out, and acts can range from hippopotamuses and llamas to cats and cockerels.

In the Soviet Union, circus is big business, and its performers are ranked with musicians, dancers, and artists. There are 70 permanent circus buildings around the vast country, and the shows are always packed.

Like ballet dancers, future circus stars are selected as young as six years old and sent to special free state schools where they combine their education and the development of their talents in the sawdust ring. Artists must be educated. Should a student's grades drop, so does his training time until he improves.

(Introduced to some British circus performers, Popov asked what circus-education degrees they held. The Britons, mostly from gypsy families who had had almost no schooling at all, coughed and spluttered. He also asked if they had dachas -- summer homes -- as top Soviet performers have. There was more coughing.)

The Moscow State Circus was brought to Britain by the Entertainment Corporation, a London-based company that has broken the long drought of Soviet-British cultural exchanges.

With one exception, all performances here were held in traditional theaters rather than in circus tops. How did Popov feel to be up on stage rather than down in a ring surrounded by the audience?

``Obviously the atmosphere is different because you cannot see the faces. But to me it shows that the art of the circus has reached a position high enough that it can be put on the same stages as opera, ballet, even Shakespeare.

``Anyway, actors are such creative creatures that they `feel' their public, rather than needing to see them. It's the same when we perform on television.''

In most cities the circus held workshops with local schoolchildren, where the Soviets taught them tricks and showed them what happens backstage. ``Children poured in,'' said a circus official.

Popov was pleased: ``It keeps the circus alive. It encourages the young to follow tradition.''

Popov's clown character, like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, is immediately recognizable.

He walks with a swagger. His face is straight but his eyes expressive. He is also a juggler, tightrope walker, musician, and philosopher.

His final skit on the British tour was understated but effective. Popov strolled on stage with a basket and settled down for a picnic in a spotlight representing the sun. It edged away from him, and he followed it. After several attempts to catch it, he tried coaxing and stroking the circle of light as if to say, ``If you love me, I'll love you.''

He sat in it, drank a bottle of milk. When it was time to leave, he scooped up the light into his basket. All lights went out in the theater, but his basket began to glow as he carried it offstage.

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