From the trapeze to tae kwon do

Vladimir Mialovski teaches a martial arts class inside his studio in Las Vegas November 18, 2010. Source: Leila Navidi

Vladimir Mialovski teaches a martial arts class inside his studio in Las Vegas November 18, 2010. Source: Leila Navidi

When circus performers retire, they find creative ways to use their skills.

Vladimir Mialovski spent most of his childhood in the ring with his parents. He loves talking about his circus family, growing up on trains, in dressing rooms and in schools where he was “the circus kid” who spent his entire education changing schools every two months, the amount of time his parents, both jugglers, spent performing in one city. By the time he was 4, he was standing in front of huge audiences. He had been thoroughly trained, like most circus children, for a star-studded life that he knew would one day be his.

“Circus in Russia was real high class. We were stars,” he said. By the time he got to the red ring in downtown Moscow in 1992, signed up for Cirque du Soleil, Mialovski calculates with a laugh that he had performed enough years in the circus to retire. He chose not to go into his parents’ profession — he preferred the trapeze over juggling.

“It was a way of life,” Mialovski says. “We weren’t rich, we lived in basic hotels next door to the circuses, but we had a lot of fun, and we got to see the entire country.”

They were jokers and jesters, travelers and entertainers. Like the A-list of Hollywood, they were elevated to a rare status: The nation held the director of the Moscow Circus, Yury Nikulin, in as high esteem as then-President Boris Yeltsin. When Nikulin died, it was Yeltsin — and not a television reporter — who broke the news to the Russian Federation that their beloved national clown had died. For a week the nation mourned. For two full days, thousands lined up outside the downtown circus in the Russian capital with flowers in their hands, waiting to say goodbye, while the nation’s army stood by, soldiers camped out in trucks, ready to maintain crowd control if necessary.

On the Las Vegas Strip, Russian performers can’t seem to explain enough that in the Motherland they wore few masks and showed off their faces, had names and reputations, developed tricks the public came especially to watch; the best even got posters with their pictures, akin to Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin, two legends from the entertainment world the Russians in Las Vegas frequently refer to.

“Russian circus is a good circus,” Mialovski said. “There was always the feeling of excitement, sweat, we were trying out new tricks the whole time. There was adrenaline going all the time.”

So why leave for Las Vegas?

“Cirque du Soleil offered us more money than we could make back home. No one thought about whether or not to go to Las Vegas, we didn’t know the word negotiate, and we wouldn’t have tried even if we did. This was our chance to go to America. We were the lucky ones. The rest of the nation was falling apart.

“I am not really complaining. I am here now. Still, I thought we should have gotten more compensation, because we worked in the air; it was extremely dangerous, especially since we had to work the entire show before we worked our trapeze act. Imagine, we were already tired by the time we went up in the air and then worked with flying performers for another 15 minutes. That would never happen in Russia.”

Mialovski’s contract with “Mystere” was not renewed in 1996, so he set his sights on becoming a coach. Returning to Russia was not an attractive option. “I don’t know many people who want to return to Russia. It is hard to get a job with a good salary, and I don’t know the place anymore.”

Even though he misses stage life, he said leaving his circus job was not hard “because I grew up with sports and coaching. Circus is very physical work and teaching others is part of our circus culture.”

More impressive than his former upside-down nightly escapades on the Strip is his passion for the martial arts, and teaching American children the lessons he learned as a child. Standing in his studio, the International Academy of Martial Arts, he has a wall with his accomplishments that comes from a lifetime of circus philosophy: Do everything step by step, have concentration and focus. His own efforts have paid off: He was a 2004 inductee into the U.S.A. Martial Arts Hall of Fame, and is a three-time world champion in tae kwon do.

He worries, he says, about kids of today. He sees they struggle with focus issues.

“I worry that kids these days are getting their black belts too young,” he said. “The martial arts are not strict enough. I teach them discipline, what I learned as a kid. They have to learn to focus.”

This is an excerpt from a story I wrote about Russian circus performers that appeared in the Las Vegas Sun.

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