Polunin has circled the world with Slava’s Snow Show – more than once. It’s easy to believe he’d find an audience to charm if he found himself on another planet. We met with Slava in Barcelona to see whether there was a place for our city in his personal universe
— Slava, all of your work, in one way or the other, has been about happiness. What makes you happy in Barcelona?
Everything, even the very simplest things. Barcelona is a one of a kind… country. Even the squares here have no corners. Whose idea was it to shave the corners off all the squares? Or take Gaudí. For me, he’s the man who exploded the universe. He was able to see the world completely anew, leading us to freedom in architecture. Or Dalí, everybody’s darling. He was the most fantastic fool the world has ever known. He consciously lived every step his life. I think he was one of the great creators of the sort that turn their own lives into art. The actual artwork doesn’t measure up, it’s more concocted. In the end, Spaniards are natural born clowns. They are passionate, they don’t know where to stop. This is why Spain has always attracted all the great clowns. Jango Edwards spent many years here and so did Leo Bassi. My own life is intimately tied to all these little mountain villages and to Girona. That town has a fantastic atmosphere, I love it.
— Have you come across many of your fellow clowns here?
There was this time when I was on tour in Catalonia and an English TV channel asked if I wanted to revive the Mr. Bean series. So we set up a meeting. Some Monty Python guys came to see me and Leo Bassi came with them. He was just walking down the street and saw us in the window. So he comes in to have a coffee and sees the bill lying there on a tray. So what does he do? He picks it up and eats it. The Python guys didn’t know how to react. But that’s not it. So we walked out into the street and here they just lay down on the pavement. That’s how we conducted our negotiations, with them lying on the pavement and while we stood and talked with them. That’s typical Barcelona. It is endless, reckless and unorthodox, and that’s the kind of people it attracts.
— So one could say the Spaniards have more or less your kind of temper?
Not quite. In their passion, their energy, they’re closer to Leo Bassi. I’m more about minimalism, about immersion. But the audience here has been fantastic.
— We see you here in Catalonia about once a year, right?
Well, I try, because I don’t have the time to get to distant islands. I’m a country boy and I don’t like spending all of my time in big cities. That’s why I live in the hills near Girona where nobody ever goes, there’s just a bunch of little villages and a whole lot of nature. I think cities are a mistake mankind made because it could not think of a better way to give people more opportunities. But I found a way. You have to live in the country and use cities only when they’re absolutely necessary. And there’s also the fact that, of all the places that I love, Catalonia is the closest to France, where I live now. I’ve got this project in France, the Moulin Jaune, it’s a kind of a center where you can search for another kind of life.
— Could you tell us more about the Moulin Jaune? What led you to set its sails turning in France, specifically?
It is my creative space, the place where I think about what I should do with my life, about what people should do with their lives. At some point I came across the story of Nikolay Evreinov, who was a philosopher and a theater practitioner. He thought that one should make one’s life a work of art. As I read that, it seemed a marvelous idea and I decided I would give it a try. As actors, we know what to do when we need a miracle to happen on stage. But what do I do when I need a miracle to happen in real life? I made a list of one hundred and twenty things I needed to do for things to be just right. The very first task was to find the right place. That took me about ten years.
— Why so long?
I made a list of twelve cities where I thought I saw a chance to find harmony. Barcelona, Amsterdam, Moscow, New York City, London, Paris and so on. I spent six months in each of these cities — well, right outside the cities — until finally I realized that every human age has its own harmony. It may be that New York City is the place to live when you’re twenty, while some other place is the right choice when you’re thirty. I’m sixty, so France seems the way to go, because it has the best cultural policies in the world. To make a long story short, in 2001 I found the where I needed to be. Half an hour to downtown Paris, half an hour to the high-speed train, half an hour to the airport. There’s a river, a mountain, a tree and two hundred watermills. One of these mills had no roof and no water, nobody wanted it. That’s how my Moulin Jaune was born.
— The Moulin Jaune is a fundamentally multicultural project. Your Snow Show is known and loved all over the world. What is it that makes your ideas so universal?
Back in the Soviet days I had this idea that I wanted to make art that had no boundaries. It should be free and accessible to everyone from babies to grandmothers, from North to South. And it was back then that I made for myself what I call my “feet in the water” rule. Every two or three years I stop whatever I’m doing, sit and dangle my feet in the water and ask myself: “Am I heading in the right direction? Is this what I want to be doing?” That is, you just sail about in the clouds and pick up whatever new things happen to catch your fancy. And you understand some of your old things better, too. That is how I came to see that I needed to find an art form that would not be tied to language. An art form anyone could understand. So I started looking for places that had people of every age and every nationality. I performed in nurseries, in prisons, in mental institutions, even in a maternity hospital. A friend of mine, a doctor, called me one day and said, “Look, I’ve got a whole bunch of ladies here and something seems to be stopping them all from giving birth. Get over here and help me out!”
— You recently got back from Japan. What were your audiences like there?
It’s a completely different culture. They have completely different ideas about everything. There isn’t a clown in the world who hasn’t fallen flat on his face in Japan. But they keep inviting us — because they want to learn how to laugh. They feel that they have the ability to laugh, it’s just they haven’t developed it. When I was working on my Snow Show, I built ten different levels into it and now it shows different facets to different audiences. In other words, if there’s an audience that I fail to connect with through humor, there’s another door there that will open for them.
— There are always tons of children at your shows. What do you remember about your own childhood?
I think I was much more productive back then than I am now. I had scores of games at home that I made with my own hands, for example. I just kept experimenting all the time. I knew every path and every foxhole in the woods. My cat had the worst of it as it had to take part in everything.
— So you lived next to a forest?
Well… about a kilometer away. Everything was right there — the woods, the river… In the winter we could get five meters of snow and I would always go making things out of it and digging tunnels. That’s what why I eventually came up with the Snow Show — because snow was one of my favorite toys when I was a child.
— Well, let’s come back to Spain for the last question. What do you find most appealing about the country?
I am always on the lookout for their carnivals and fiestas. Right now I am going to the Fallas festival in Valencia. Spain is not a holiday destination for me or my actors, it’s a place to live. We bite it, caress it, embrace it.
A clown-performer of world renown, Slava Polunin prefers to be known as an envoy of the Embassy of the Dolphins, President of the Academy of Fools and the king of the St. Petersburg Carnival. Born in 1950 in the small town of Novosil in the woods and steppes of Western Russia, he came to Leningrad to study. he could have become an economist or an engineer, but he opted to devote himself to the arts. the arts have been the benefi ciary ever since, given the endless list of major projects and prestigious theater awards he had to his name. In his native Russia, he is still best remembered for his Asisyai revue. Its eponymous character, a touching red-headed clown in huge slippers, made Polunin a household name throughout the Soviet union in the 1980s. In the following decade, everybody’s favorite clown took the decision to leave the country and join the Cirque du Soleil in Canada. Later, he moved to England, making frequent appearances in Liverpool, Dublin, Barcelona and other European cities. having since settled in France, this Santa-Claus lookalike is best known to the worldwide audience for Slava’s Snow Show, a production that has been going strong for over twenty years, packing theaters in every corner of the planet.