Suppose venturing into the mind of a clown. Ideas of chaos, the incomprehensible absurd, and a grating silliness, seem to float in the mind’s eye. But how far from this misconception does the Russian performer, Slava Polunin, take his reader with Alchemy of Snowness: a poetic account of the truths, technicalities and theatre of clowning that dissects the beauty of his internationally renowned circus, ‘Snowshow’, which comes to Edinburgh this week.
Alchemy of Snowness loosely follows the show’s development; first founded in an abandoned lot on the outskirts of Paris in 1992, to ultimately navigating international fame in the restricted space of the Broadway stage. From behind-the-scenes exploration of lighting and staging to costume and music, the reader is enlightened to the inner workings of Slava’s show and the creative geniuses that work in tandem with performers to create his spectacle. Far from ruining the hidden magic of the show, this sneak-peek of a text fosters appreciation of how Slava orchestrates such a minimalistic production riddled with subtleties and symbolism that contrast the typical exaggerations of clowning.
As perhaps Polunin’s most important message, the idea of living for the child within us opens his enchanting narrative and introduces the main ambition of the ‘Snowshow’; reigniting an eternal youthfulness that transforms the audience. Polunin’s storyteller narrative style accompanies this embrace of childish innocence as he combines descriptions of theatre management, individual homages to his Snowshow colleagues, and the inspirations behind his critically acclaimed productions.
The dynamic of performer and audience is mimicked on page by the conversational address that accelerate the narrative to wrap up the reader in the clown’s imagination, just as his shows prove to do around the globe. Short chapters loosely attempt to order Slava’s ideas into categorised sections whilst allowing random outbursts of thought to freely overflow onto the page. His idea, for example, for ‘The Village of Fools’; a plan to create a living village of performance, is suddenly detailed with methodical, step-by-step intricacy, allowing the reader a real insight into the specifics of how he pulls off his performances and with what passions they seize him.
As a clown, albeit an emotionally complex one, Polunin’s innate positivity can’t help but colour the narrative. He constantly promotes the idea of possibility; the text itself being evidence of the tangibility and realisation of dreams that he encourages of his reader. Unbelievable coincidences frequent his story, whilst dialogues between himself and his colleagues add immediacy to the reality of dreams and are deliberately simplified so as to demonstrate the ease in which great things can occur. To the cynical reader, this onslaught of success interspersed with philosophy threatens to become tiresome but anecdotes of living out of a backpack and depictions of the varying, national comic tastes come as a welcome break.
The book reads much like an expression of life philosophy as Slava argues how the rules of the circus are invariably applicable to our own way of living and psychology. He states that it is the freedom of play that all animals delight in that gives us the most happiness and thus, his passion for entertaining and acting is explained. The conversational style allows the text not only to communicate the inner workings of the circus show, but also gives Slava the power to personally deliver life lessons on how best to live: like a clown!
Just as Slava’s Snowshow is an immersion into the world of his imagination, so is Alchemy of Snowness an insight into the philosophies that have driven his career. To borrow one of his own quotes; he may be a clown but he has the soul of a poet!
Runs from 1-5 November
Photo Credit: A. Lopez