Touching the Impossible: A Conversation with Slava Polunin

April 25, 2021   •   By Johanna Skibsrud

VYACHESLAV IVANOVICH (a.k.a.“Slava”) Polunin is a performance artist and clown creator of the celebrated performance piece Slava’s Snowshow and founder of the Academy of Fools. Born in Russia in 1950, he began the pantomime theater Licedei in the early 1980s (the word literally translates as people who make faces”). The group operated for 20 years, staging such successful shows as Dreamers, From the Life of Insects, and Catastrophe, and organizing public events and carnivals that during a time of strict control over artistic production in Russia celebrated creative freedom. In the early ’90s, Slava created a new theater company whose show, Slava’s Snowshow, premiered in Moscow in 1993 and has toured continuously ever since. In early 2013, Polunin became artistic director of the oldest and biggest circus in Russia, The (Bolshoi) Saint-Petersburg State Circus. 

I visited the Moulin Jaune, or Yellow Mill — Slava’s legendary creative laboratory outside of Paris — in May 2019. Before sitting down to interview him about his life and work, I spent the morning wandering in the Moulin’s extensive gardens — past winged pianos, colorful caravans, chairs suspended on ladders, tea sets suspended on trees … I peered out onto the river through a series of empty window frames and watched a team of workers pour cement for the construction of a yellow brick road. An ongoing project, the gardens are both a tribute to — and an immersive celebration of — the intersections linking art, ritual, and everyday life. They are a book of questions: What is a window? What happens when we look at it, or through it, in a different way? As well as of foolish propositions: Flight is a winged bicycle. A chair on a ladder. A swing. A rose.

I’d come to the Moulin after a year spent studying performance and clowning pedagogy, an interest I’d developed almost by accident — the result of a chance meeting between Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (in the introduction, Adorno suggests that thinking is a form of clowning) and a graduate literature class I was teaching based on the work of Surrealist playwright Alfred Jarry. When I related this to Slava, he nodded appreciatively. Jarry had pride of place in the almanac for the International Academy of Fools — a resource Slava was currently working on that would, he said proudly, very soon be made available online. “So yes, we’re very close, we’re treading the same path,” he told me.

Our conversation took place while sitting in the airy upstairs living room at the Moulin Jaune. Accompanying Slava was his assistant and translator, Maria Lentsman.

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JOHANNA SKIBSRUD: I want to know what a fool is. I want to know about the relationship — which seems, on the surface, to be a perfect contradiction — between foolishness and dedicated study. How can one learn from a fool, or learn to become one?

SLAVA POLUNIN: For a clown, this sort of contradiction is natural. When the great Russian clowns worked in the circus, for example, and the director was rehearsing the program, the director might be going into very fine detail with the acrobats and the jugglers. But then he would say, “Here comes the clown.” The clown wouldn’t even know what he was going to do yet — and that’s important. It’s important to the clown’s job that his process is uncertain, incomprehensible. It’s important that he doesn’t know.

But certainly, not everyone who doesn’t know what he or she will do if their presence is suddenly announced on stage is a clown. What is it that makes a clown special? What allows him or her to perform not-knowing in a way that is funny, or surprising? In a way that inspires?

It’s a certain energy of life. Many students come here to the Moulin. They perform chores, simple everyday tasks. I’ll say, “Get a beer,” or they’ll be digging in the garden, and … if I see a certain energy. If I see they want to blow everything up, do things in a non-habitual, unusual way, then I’ll say … that’s a clown.

Something that sticks with me from your book Alchemy of Snowness, for obvious reasons, is your suggestion that female clowns are quite rare. Why is this? And … is it still true?

No — that was back in the early days of Snowshow. Now it’s vice versa. Now it’s one man to five women … The men, you see, always want to break the walls with their foreheads. Then the women come in and actually inhabit the space — and make it better. Of course, that’s the case in any profession. But to speak more directly to your question, I’d say that nowadays women are not afraid to be funny. Nowadays, they also want to be — and are allowed to be — you know, crazy and limitless.

That’s interesting to me. I hear you speaking about breaking down walls, but then I also hear you speaking about a capacity for limitlessness. Are boundaries necessary in order that they might be broken? How do borders — and being able to see or move beyond them — work to create the humorous, the absurd?

All art is about looking for ways of surpassing its own boundaries. Each period, each approach, brings new elements to what’s being presented or explored. For example, at a certain point, the ugly — or what was once considered ugly — becomes part of art. Or the terrible becomes part of art. It’s the same with comedy, with clowning. To be a clown is to discover where the boundaries are, and then to flip them. This is true in a physical sense —

The clown is almost literally “backward” — he does things and sees things the wrong way round …

Yes. But it’s true in a metaphysical sense, as well. For me, the metaphysical has always been the opposite of the comical, but that doesn’t mean that it’s off limits, or I don’t go there. It’s always been interesting for me, personally, to touch upon the things that are impossible. To touch on the metaphysical is to touch on a borderless space, and therefore also to enter a space of danger, of fear. 

What is at stake at this point — at this border with the impossible? What is there to be frightened of?

Let’s just say that something I really don’t like is how many American screenwriters — having seen how efficient it can be to combine the terrible and the frightening with humor — have created the “clown killer.” This is not what real art, real clowning is about. It’s an artificial formula created to get instant reactions, to get hype and success.

The “clown killer” as a sort of a shortcut …

Yes. But there’s a much more powerful line that, for some reason, the screenwriters are not exploring, and that is the fear of the child when he meets the clown. It is his being-afraid. Because what the child is afraid of is not the clown, it’s the unknown. For the child, the clown represents an encounter with a new universe — with the infinite unknown of the world. So, you see it really is too bad that this very powerful, very great idea has been so often flattened into two-dimensions.

Your gardens seem to be a good example of your own approach, which I read as a concerted resistance to the two-dimensional. One thing I was struck by in my stroll through the gardens this morning, for example, was the evidence everywhere of your travels and connections all over the world. How does the garden work as a three-dimensional, or even four-dimensional, expression of your relationship to place?

The first thing is that I am perhaps more of a traveler than a clown, even though to me it’s one and the same thing. I just really love to see what’s beyond the horizon. Even back in the day, when I was in Russia, I used to put little flags on the map — all the places where I wanted to go. It’s the same thing today, except we’re almost running out of places to go. So now I’m thinking, what else can I create? What else can I put into the garden? I guess you could say that, in order to travel a lot, I chose the profession of a clown.

Do you have to adapt your show, your aesthetic, or your sense of humor, depending on where you travel?

I had to learn is that you have to be without language for people to understand you everywhere. This is why I started with 10 years of pantomime. When I got that far — reached the point of not having to use language — I moved on further. The next step was gags, funny actions. It doesn’t matter who you’re with, or how long you’ve known them — once you’ve made a joke, you’re friends already; you’ve removed the defense mechanisms. I spent 10 more years of studying humor and laughter — trying to figure them out — then I stopped being interested in that question and developed an interest in strange behaviors, unusual actions.

The absurd and the fantastical became my focal point and this was when I befriended Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch [operators of the German performance troupe Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch]. Pina Bausch, when she was asking her actors to do something, would say, “Perform two actions at the same time that are impossible to do at the same time.” For instance, have a cup of coffee and crawl at the same time. It’s through experiments like this that I began to study and explore the mechanisms of the world. And it’s as a result of this approach that I could travel to Japan where normally clowns are a complete flop … Really. They are a very serious people and not one American or European clown has ever won the battle with the audience in Japan. You have to use the absurd and the poetical in order to make a connection with the audience in Japan. 

I think I have an idea about what you mean by the absurd from the example you give: “Have a cup of coffee and crawl at the same time,” but what do you mean by the “poetical”?

To be poetical is to have an attentive attitude toward the details of the world. It’s a drop. A note. It’s seeing the whole world within a single detail. A single movement. For the Japanese, that’s enough. One look, one movement.

You talk about exploring the “mechanics of the world.” Would you consider these mechanics universal, then? A sort of physics? Or a way of tapping into aspects of life, of human experience, or our perception of it, that are true everywhere?

If you look for something your whole life — really search for something your whole life — then it’s universal. But then, there’s no one way of expressing or interpreting this thing. You come to London, for example, and you pause for 10 seconds: the audience is with you. It’s following you, it is very attentive … You come to Spain and you spend one second not doing something and they think, “Hey, what’s happening?” In Spain, unless you come up to someone and start strangling them, they’re not going to give you their time. They need passion and they need physical expression. Every country requires its own key …

It’s like, if you come into a room and in the same family you see a grandma, a little kid, a punk, and a professor. You have to talk with each and every one of them in their own manner — otherwise you won’t be able to make friends. When you come into a new country, it’s the same thing. You have to ask, “What are these people about? Are we talking to punks or professors?” The universal, the unified, is this attention to detail.

So, it’s not about what gets said. It’s about paying attention and finding, through the space of that attention, a way of speaking to everyone. I remember I read somewhere that you try to avoid reading the newspapers so as not to let the details of the outside world disrupt or constrain your own experience, your own freedom, your joy. And yet, your work is so explicitly interested in paying attention to and making contact with people, with communities all over the world. What is the relationship for you between this interest in people and community and the impulse to avoid, or remain at a distance from, contemporary social and political issues?

Well, I do have a sketch that was especially popular in Russia back in Brezhnev times. So, I’m there and I want to take something — but there’s another clown in the same sketch and he motions, “No, you can’t take that thing, it’s not allowed, not allowed.” So, I try to take another thing, but again he says with one word, “Not allowed, not allowed.” I try again and again, but each time I try to take something it is never allowed. Finally, I explode. It’s a ball that I wanted to take, and I kick it into the audience, and as I kick it, I scream the second part of this word the other clown is using, which is “not allowed, can’t do this.” The word without the “not” does not actually exist, but I used that part without the negative and created a word that had never existed before, but it became very popular. “Nizzya” means “can’t,” and so, stripped of the negative prefix “ni,” “zya” becomes, “yes I can” in a single, made-up word.

For me, it’s a philosophical concept. It’s about the degree of freedom you can claim, and in different areas of the world, at different periods of history, it’s going to resonate in different ways. In the Brezhnev times, this sort of “yes, I can!” in one word, which never existed before, was popular because people really wanted to do things differently. They wanted to change the world, which had become still, motionless. So, it’s not me doing politics. It’s people, and politicians, who react, who listen, and who occasionally hear or do not hear. When they are presented with this impulse toward freedom, they either realize that same freedom in themselves, or they repress it, suppress it.

So, this a very interesting story to follow up on, because 10 years passed from the time that I originally did this sketch and when I came back to Russia, freedom was overflowing. It was almost to the degree of anarchy. I asked myself, why would I be needed here? I am the symbol of freedom, but these people are free already. It turns out, though, that Russian audiences have come back to me. This could be because the particular kind of freedom they are experiencing has started to destroy the possibility of the spiritual. People have come back to me not in order to find freedom but in order to find some sense of the personal, the human. So, this word, this “yes, I can” word, is now about defending what it means to be human. All of this is to say that, when you are doing this kind of work, you are not doing politics. You are studying the personality, studying yourself. You’re learning what you need and what you don’t need, and how to go about it, and all of those things. I’m not interested in politics, no. I’m interested in human being.

So, again, we’re talking about a certain necessary tension between limits and freedom? Is to be human to recognize these limits, to a certain extent? To understand yourself in relation to them?

You do always have to look for a balance between order and anarchy, limits and freedom. You can’t do one without the other. Once you expand your range, your degree of freedom, you have to look for ways of anchoring this freedom with more certainty. This is why, on the one hand, a clown is always seeking to disrupt things, break things open, but on the other hand, he always holds tight to his heart. What’s most important for the clown is to give as much love as possible — and to get as much love as possible. It’s this recognition of the tension between anarchy and order, with love in between, that gives balance and that doesn’t let you destroy the world. If you hit your mother or your friend or someone who’s close to you with a giant spoon, they probably won’t be so happy about that after. This is true. So, when I see that my clowns are being a little overly aggressive with the audience, I tell them, hang on a second, wait for the people to fall in love with you. When they do, they’ll let you take another step. Not 10 more steps, just one more … It’s always a balance.

Speaking of destroying or not destroying the world … I can’t help wondering about the relationship between the sort of clowning you’re talking about, inspired by the desire to love and be loved, and another of the clown’s “artificial” or shadow sides — the ignorant or uncaring clown. Some of our contemporary political figures have been accused of being “clowns” in this sense, for example. Or, to take another example, it’s possible for intentionally damaging actions or remarks to be presented under the guise of humor, as in: “I was only joking…” How can we tell the difference between humor that challenges our understanding of the world in a careful, loving, and generative way and humor that more or less consciously does harm?

This political territory you mention is the territory I have the least interest in. Same as with those awful, awful killer clowns. Politics is a profession, and for politicians everything is professional. I’m not a fan of the professional, of professions. What I like is heartfulness and naturalness. Also, I don’t like to argue. Sometimes people ask me to participate in talk shows or whatnot, where you can really argue and discuss things — but I’m not a fan of that. I don’t like that. What I like is to inspire and to fall in love. This is the detail that is at the core of real clowning. A clown cannot survive without love. He needs to be surrounded and swimming in love, like a child. Which is why a clown gives so much of their love. He wants people to open up and not be afraid. He wants to give as much love as he possibly can.

This becomes evident when walking through your gardens. I heard the rose garden was constructed just last week — a birthday surprise for your wife. What other plans do you have for the gardens? What direction do you see your work moving in now?

A clown is a representative of three different worlds. One of them is the magical — a sort of beyond world. It’s like he’s an alien from another planet. The second is the everyday world. A clown is very invested in and very much a part of the everyday. He loves to have a good meal, loves to have a good snooze, never misses an opportunity to explore the joy of life. He is even excessive in that. The third is the natural world. It’s the clown’s profession to make people glad and happy, make them love this world. I say this so that you understand that I’m just using the nature, or the truth of the clown, here at Moulin. The Moulin combines and unifies these three different worlds, these three different spaces: art, everyday life, and nature. We’ve combined them so that they don’t have any boundaries between them — as if they’ve always coexisted and lived together, and there was never any difference among the three.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that people are becoming less and less interested in watching someone create and more interested in creating or co-creating, in actually participating in something. Here at Moulin, we’ve allowed people to participate in the creation of the world, in the creation of celebration. We offer the opportunity to anyone who wants it, anyone who has grown big enough for this desire to express — to really express — themselves. We fill this space with examples of where you could go, together, with us. Before each festival, for example, we’ll offer ideas about what costume you could wear or how you could behave or what you could do … But the principal thing is to transform yourself — then to start transforming the world around you. Anyone can come here. A thousand people can come. And they’re not spectators, they’re not the audience. They’re co-creators.

But of what? The most important thing is that we don’t create works of art here. Our job is to be attentive, to very carefully listen to nature and just sort of help it open up, help it realize itself, express itself. It’s the same thing with a human being. We’re not here to achieve goals. We’re just looking to find out what a particular person has a desire to do. And our main rule is that it’s not obligatory to achieve a goal. What is needed and what’s important is to move in that direction. Because that’s the moment of happiness: the movement toward a beloved goal. Which is why I am less and less interested in professional art these days and more interested in how to create art out of the everyday and within the everyday. My way of relating to anything and everything is through play. Because I remain a child. The way I relate to the world is I play with it. The garden is my sandbox.

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Assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona, Johanna Skibsrud is a poet and fiction writer whose recent publications include a novel, Island (Penguin, 2019); a collection of essays, “The nothing that is”: Essays on Art, Literature and Being (Book*hug, 2019); and a critical monograph, The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics (McGill Queens, 2020).