Photo by Leila Navidi
Vadim Bolotsky is bitter that he had to stop performing on the Las Vegas Strip after only five years, a flying career cut short by injuries. Starting in kindergarten, he had received the most intense training in the world, as a Soviet gymnast, and his favorite exercise was the trampoline. “Anything that got my body floating in the air, I’d go for it.”
Dreams of Olympic competition gave way to new hopes after he discovered the Kiev Institute for the Performing Circus Arts. He saw young students training high in the air on the trapeze.
“I saw these people just floating through the air, flying off a trapeze and I was instantly sold. I discovered that with the trapeze you could stay in the air longer than the dismount off a high bar. Right then I decided that’s the only thing I wanted to do, ever. I didn’t care what it was going to take.”
Seventeen years into his gymnastics career, he took a 22-hour train ride from Kiev to Moscow, armed with his four-year degree from the circus institute in search of work in the nation’s capital. A friend told him that an odd Canadian circus with no animals was holding tryouts for a trapeze act slated to work in Las Vegas. He had never heard of that circus; no one had. But he didn’t care. It was a job working in the air. He showed up to the tryouts, and the rest is history.
He practiced for about a year, and when he was handed his contract with Cirque du Soleil for $60 a show, 10 shows a week, he signed on the dotted line.
“It was very simple,” he says. “You wanted to work, you signed. You didn’t want to go work in Las Vegas, you didn’t sign. End of story.”
At first, America was a dream, filled with months of firsts for kids from the communist bloc who thought they’d been dropped into paradise. “My first Jacuzzi dip. My first car. My first time getting a driver’s license.”
“It was a great act,” he says. “The death drop was my favorite. It’s when I hung upside down from a bar attached to the ceiling by nothing but my ankles. I would let go of my feet and drop head first, speeding down like a bullet for about 80 feet until I hit the net.”
Indeed, the trapeze was his platform to execute complex tricks at speeds up to 60 mph. He and his fellow troupe members were akin to human Blue Angels, enjoying the rush of speed, precision and risk, he says.
But two years after his arrival he and the others found themselves back on the ground. Their trapeze act was removed from the show. Bolotsky became the signature Red Bird character for three more years. Most of the others were reassigned to new roles.
“To the audience perhaps it looks like fun,” he says. “And it was a fascinating challenge, at least in the beginning, to try and be the best bird I could be. But it’s really hard. The bird is always moving, it’s always about the legs; it’s very dynamic acrobatics, and of a 90-minute show, I was moving 40 minutes, without stopping, crouched down. I had to remember everything I did in gymnastics and hand balancing, which I had stepped away from for a good five years at that time. It was very hard on my body. I would ice my knees in these 13-gallon kitchen trash buckets full of ice between the shows, take five ibuprofens — whatever it took for the pain. But as they say, ‘The show must go on.’ ”
But the pain and injuries caught up with him. His contract nonrenewal letter from Cirque du Soleil hangs on a wall, framed. It’s a sign of closure, he says.
He stayed in the entertainment business — behind the curtains, as a rigger. “I got to see people like Billy Joel and the Rolling Stones and Kiss.” Those gigs ended and he shifted to construction work — framing houses, laying tile, painting, roofing.
He lives in Pahrump, Nevada where he takes care of his son, does odd jobs and volunteers at the nearby Amargosa Opera House. “I live a very slow life, like I did when I was growing up. I really miss greens, like trees, but I think the desert is my calling. I like desert. I like heat.”
Bolotsky credits an American friend — “my savior” — for teaching him English. “I started learning faster than the older performers,” he says. “My friend took his time with me by introducing me to his family and teaching me word by word.”
And he is certain about this: “I don’t want to go back to the Ukraine. I think Nevada is my home.”
This is an excerpt from a story I wrote about Russian circus performers that appeared in the Las Vegas Sun.
All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.