This article was originally published in the Night & Day section of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
For many, circus clowns are a living nightmare — a childhood trauma linked with garishly overdrawn features and zany balloon animals. Stanislav Knyazkov is no such clown. Though he’s performing as part of the duo Stas and Vas at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey “Fully Charged” circus this weekend, the Russian native opts for a minimalist costume. He sports makeup that’s more Ziggy Stardust than Bozo the Clown, so those with not-so-fond circus memories might have less to fear from the latest leg of “The Greatest Show On Earth.”
Nonetheless, Knyazkov asserts that clowns of all kinds deserve more credit for their unique brand of comedy. Interspersed between high-thrill acts, it’s the job of the clown to bring some much-needed laughter to the show.
“We recharge the audience,” Knyazkov said, dutifully plugging the circus’s techno theme.
Though Knyazkov has more than a decade of experience on the road, his time studying at the Moscow School of Circus and Variety had an enormous impact. There, he met his partner Vasily Trifonov and developed his own clown character.
“I knew nothing about circuses,” he said. “But one of the first names I heard was Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, because it’s part of the American history. I remember there was a room where I was studying (at school) and there were a few posters from the show. I never dreamed I’d be in it today.”
His teachers also encouraged him to learn from comedic legends outside the circus.
“One of my teachers said we should go watch all of the old Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Marx Brothers films,” Knyazkov said. “He said you have to learn what the secret of comedy is — and maybe you’ll never find out, but you should see what genius is.”
Such influences are apparent in the Stas and Vas act. The pair recall duos like Abbott and Costello, with Stas as the straight-laced leader and Vas as the clumsy sidekick.
But Knyazkov is eager to adapt. The actor said he’s constantly learning from the hundreds of performers in “Fully Charged.”
“I see young guys dancing hip-hop and using skateboards … and that’s a part of culture I would love to learn,” Knyazkov said.
Stas and Vas won’t be attempting any break dancing or kick-flips, but Knyazkov said they have added American references to their act, including parodies of “The Matrix” and Michael Jackson.
For him, the circus’s old-world sensibility is now coupled with distinctly modern elements, making the show an entirely unique spectacle — comparable, he said, to the opening of the Olympic Games.
“We now have a lot of special effects,” Knyazkov noted. “But this just helps people bring all of their skills, not hide them.”
But even with a theme that embraces technology, Knyazkov said the main focus of the show is still “human emotions.”
Arielle Sallai is a Union-Tribune intern. firstname.lastname@example.org (619) 293-1561