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If I show fear or turn my back on them for even one second, they will kill me. It is in their genes

Circus workers sat around tiny kitchen tables, he said, slugging vodka and speaking darkly of the imperiled Soviet circus.

If I show fear or turn my back on them for even one second, they will kill me. It is in their genes


Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Leader of the Pride Revives What Some Call Circus Art

ALMATY, Kazakhstan

THE collapse of the Soviet Union was hard on Communists and clowns.

And acrobats, like Murad Aselbayev, not to speak of trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, lion tamers and other veterans of the famed Soviet circuses. They had been a fixture of Soviet life since the 1920s, when Lenin established the renowned Moscow Circus School and city planners built auditoriums to accommodate the traveling troupes that endlessly zigzagged through nine time zones to entertain the Soviet masses.

But with the end of Communism, the circus was endangered.

“It was 1991, and it was clear that the circus tradition was going to be badly affected,” said Mr. Aselbayev, who at the time was working with one of the leading Moscow circuses. Circus workers sat around tiny kitchen tables, he said, slugging vodka and speaking darkly of the imperiled Soviet circus.

Convinced that his days in the big tent were over, Mr. Aselbayev moved back to his native Kazakhstan, where he scratched out a living in athletic shows and local carnivals.

Convinced that his days in the big tent were over, Mr. Aselbayev moved back to his native Kazakhstan, where he scratched out a living in athletic shows and local carnivals.

But four years ago, he found new hope. Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, announced that his government intended to revive the withering Soviet circus arts, returning the circus, at least in this windswept Central Asian corner of the old empire, to primacy as family entertainment.

A new circus building was erected in Astana, the country’s fast-developing capital in the north, while the tattered auditorium in Almaty was totally renovated. Money was appropriated for a new circus, gathering as much Kazakh talent as possible but also drawing on underemployed performers from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Aselbayev’s hopes surged anew a couple of years ago when he was approached by Valentin Pietrovitz Bulavsky, a veteran Russian producer who was putting together the new Kazakhstan circus. There was a catch, however. Mr. Bulavsky said he had plenty of acrobats and other circus performers. What he needed was a lion tamer.

“The new circus director, from Moscow, said I have fearlessness in my face, and asked if I wanted to become Kazakhstan’s first lion trainer,” said Mr. Aselbayev, who is in his 40s, and whose wide, sculpted cheekbones and raised eyebrows give him something of a feline look. “I said yes immediately, of course.”

Thirteen lions, including three cubs, were acquired from a zoo in China, Mr. Aselbayev said, along with experienced Chinese teachers. They lived together, the teachers, Mr. Aselbayev and the lions, for a year in Astana.

“It may not be humble of me to say this, but I was not nervous even in the beginning,” he said. “My teachers were 10 years younger than me, so I had to be fearless to impress them, as well as to impress the lions. I have an iron character.”

TAKING a page from the martial arts, or at least the television version, the teachers insisted that Mr. Aselbayev earn his place in the lion family the hard way. He had to work his way up the lion leadership chart, they told him, first limiting his interaction with the animals to sweeping their cages, then getting them to let him stroke them.

His teachers stressed the need to forge an emotional connection with the cats. Lions are hierarchical, they told Mr. Aselbayev, and will constantly vie for leadership of the pride. Mr. Aselbayev said he grew close to the lions by spending his every waking hour with them, learning their personalities and gaining their trust.

Eventually, he says, he took his position at the head of the pride. In time, he gained enough confidence to put his head into the animals’ mouths to dazzle his children, until the circus director got wind of it and ordered him to stop.

“As Kazakhstan’s only lion trainer,” Mr. Aselbayev said, “I have responsibility to show my people the beauty of these animals, but also their power. If I show fear or turn my back on them for even one second, they will kill me. It is in their genes.”

While the trend in circuses is away from animal acts, which are heavily criticized by animal welfare advocates, circuses in the former Soviet Union are largely unreconstructed enterprises. The lions leave their cramped metal cages only for training sessions and, occasionally, to exercise when outdoor space is available and weather permits.

Every morning, Mr. Aselbayev feeds and grooms his lions, grabbing their manes and patting their sides. The animals paw excitedly at the bars when people enter their room, which at the Almaty circus is set back in the bowels of the complex because their roars frighten the other performers.

The younger ones live in connected cages; the sexually mature lions are split by sex into pairs.

“The cages are weak, and they can break them and get into fights,” Mr. Aselbayev said. “The girls and boys are close and can smell each other, so it gets dangerous when the girls are in heat.” He said he gave the female cats a drug to damp their glands, but “I can’t give them it too often, or it will hurt their livers.”

Indeed, one of Mr. Aselbayev’s lions is sick with a liver ailment and may have to stop performing.

He said he expected his lions to work about 25 years, after which they would retire to zoos.

The Kazakhstan circus opened in April with Mr. Aselbayev center stage. Still densely muscled like an acrobat, he cracked his whip in the air but seemed to command the cats more with his eyes and the meat treats he flipped into their mouths. The lions jumped through fire hoops and roared on request. Mostly, though, they seemed lethargic, eager to skip a trick if Mr. Aselbayev’s attention flagged.

The lion act was followed by a politically incorrect act called “The Kenya Boys,” heavily promoted on Almaty television, which consisted of six African tumblers outfitted in leopard-skin loincloths. “The Kenya Boys say they look at the lions like they’re hunters,” Mr. Aselbayev said. “They’re afraid, but they only associate the lions with fear. I refuse to make this association.”

UNFORTUNATELY, opening night ended in disaster when the pyrotechnics in an acrobatic act set off the fire system. Without warning, a huge volume of white chemical powder descended on the audience, which streamed from the building in disbelief. After the plume had settled inside the building, several people returned to scream at the performers left standing near the ring.

“I think I’m going to have a heart attack,” said the producer, Mr. Bulavsky, immediately after the incident.

Mr. Aselbayev’s wife and sons — it is a family business — had already returned the lions to their cages. “The lions are the same as my family,” Mr. Aselbayev said. “My two boys love them like brothers and sisters.”

“I know which one is the smart one and which one is lazy,” he said. “But if this disaster had occurred during my act, they would have killed me for sure.”

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