Clowns occupy a strange space in the minds of western audiences. Especially in North America, clowns more oft than not get pigeonholed into the roles of comedically unfunny or disturbingly evil in their roles for modern media (the upcoming feature Joker reminding us a clown is one of the most iconic villains of all time); they’re more likely to be seen as low-tier children’s entertainers than anything else. Sure, the jaded, meta-clown antics of Krusty the Clown and his ilk hold a special place of endearing cynicism in our hearts, but the majority of people do not give clowning a second thought. They don’t see the potential of a clown to be something magical, something transformative, something that a grown adult can derive beauty from. And this is why the legendary clown Slava Polunin and Slava’s Snowshow returning to Broadway is so important to highlight.
Slava Polunin is a Russian clown and surrealist artist, and has been in the wider public eye since the early 80s, notably for a street parade of hundreds of mimes despite then strict artistic restrictions by the Soviet regime. This action, full of freedom and play within oppressive confines, sets the tone for much of Polunin’s work. His troupe of artists and students, known as The Academy of Fools, grew more and more over the years and helped bring many of his wondrous dreams to life- including an all encompassing garden of scenes, characters, attractions, and joy known as the Moulin Jaune. Billed as an “interactive dialogue…between art and nature in Slava’s surreal laboratory and playground”, this ephemeral dreamland was documented by Great Big Story, sharing Slava’s work with a new generation.
As for Slava’s Snowshow, it can easily be considered Polunin’s most recognized work. First produced in Moscow in 1993, Slava’s Snowshow took root within Slava’s company Licedei Theatre and sprung up from their collection of distinct and recognizable characters that depicted the absurd qualities of humanity. Slava describes a desire to both transport audiences back to childhood from out of the confinement of adulthood, as well as a desire to use the tools of clowning in surprising and insightful ways. And, clearly, Slava and his troupe have been accomplishing this goal. Through stagecraft and dressings, a world of many snow-based visual delights emerge, with the audience brought into the play of the play as well. Since its inception, the show has been brought to London, off-Broadway, and Broadway itself on limited engagements.
There is a universality to clowning. It’s something that can transcend barriers of language and context, connecting a group in a moment of humour. It’s not about balloon animals, lurid outfits, or cliched antics- it’s about the silliness, the absurdity, that sits within all human lives in one way or another. This is something that a good clown brings out for us, and allows us to laugh at some things we may otherwise feel the need to be embarrassed by or hide. And if Slava Polunin is any indication, the exploration of these very human aspects through surreal play can be just as informative and compelling as they are entertaining. It’s no wonder Slava’s Snowshow returning to Broadway is a delightful surprise forecast to get in the summer.