Send in the Clowns
As anyone who has ever looked for love in a Minneapolis bar can tell you, the world is full of clowns; the catch is that only a few of them wear costumes. While the clown's life seems to come naturally to some, for others it is a high calling that requires diligent training. Minnesota's Sean Emery and Vladimir Kharitonsky both attended clown colleges to pursue their lives' comic calling. Though Kharitonsky has shed his face paint to put acrylic on canvas, Emery continues to bring the floppy feet and bulbous nose out to the people. The pair, who have yet to meet, will show their art Sunday night on a bill at the Loring, and might in the process convince audiences that not all clowns in this state aspire to hold high office.
"Somebody can see a bad band and they won't hold it against all bands," says Emery, who performed for a stint with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "But if somebody sees a bad clown, they hold it against all clowns." Emery, who is 40 and lives in St. Paul, has no stage name, preferring to announce in a matter-of-fact tone, "I'm Sean Emery. I'm a clown."
Emery's road to becoming a career clown started atop a unicycle in Culwood, North Carolina, where as a teen he would ride in an annual parade. While studying commercial art at college, Emery took an elective in miming, believing he would have a good chance to meet women and wear tights. Little did he know that the white makeup and the gloves would bring about a more lasting passion. "It opened up a whole new world," he says.
While under the sway of Marcel Marceau's art, Emery came across a program for the Ringling Bros. Circus. Inside was an address for applications to their rigorous clown college. "I found myself staring at the weird faces on the brochure," he says. "I sent for an application, and it took me three months to fill it out." So much for the spontaneity of clowning around. Emery entered the eight-week training program and emerged with a coveted contract to perform with the circus. He stayed with Ringling Bros. for three years.
This assignment put Emery among the clown elite. There are an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 clowns in the world today, many of the birthday-party variety. To separate himself from such rank amateurs, Emery "trademarked" his signature face. When Emery is in makeup, wedges of color radiate out from his eyes and a long paisleylike line swirls below his chin and hooks up around his dimples. After sending a photo and a nominal fee to the Clown and Character Registry, clowns can have their images painted onto goose eggs, which are then kept in clear cases for storage.
Despite having reached the acme of his trade, Emery found the circus life exhausting (though it may not have proved quite as harrowing as Dumbo or Freaks). The life of a circus performer, Emery explains, is one of long train rides and a diet whose staple foods are popcorn and hot dogs. "It's like living in the Target Center," he says. "You get up, get on the bus, go to the building, get in your makeup and costumes, do your acts, finish the show, go out and back to the train." Under the big top, coffee, cigarettes, and booze served as a kind of currency. Among the strangest distractions of the touring life: clown groupies. Some of these, Emery claims, would be disappointed if the clown took off his makeup before an assignation. "I could perform cunnilingus with my makeup on," Emery says. "That's a real clown."
This comment raises the eyebrows of Emery's wife, Meg Elias-Emery, a former Ringling Bros. aerialist. Elias-Emery began her career as an acrobat dancer for a small carnival in San Francisco. She joined Ringling Bros. to learn the Spanish Web, a form of aerial ballet that involves hanging by the wrist from a spinning cable.
Today Sean Emery makes most of his money performing on cruises and at fairs and corporate functions. At the Loring he'll present a personal reflection on the life of a clown--call it meta-clowning, perhaps. Meg Elias-Emery, meanwhile, teaches at Circus of the Star, a St. Paul-based circus for children. The circus was founded in 1994 with 50 students and a space at the Hillcrest Recreation Center. This year Circus of the Star received a $100,000 Bush Grant to expand its staff and build new facilities to accommodate a waiting list of over 300 kids. Since the circus began, it has performed with the Shrine Circus and the St. Paul Winter Carnival.
"Circus of the Star is finally recognized as an art form," Elias-Emery says of the new infusion of money. "It's a great nonmainstream outlet," her husband adds. "It's an art and it's a life."
Having grown up in Russia, Vladimir Kharitonsky may never have had to contend with one of the more pernicious risks of contemporary American clowning--comparisons to John Wayne Gacy. Yet his journey, Emery's, was often as long and difficult as an interstate haul in a Volkswagen Beetle with a few dozen clowns in the backseat. Though Kharitonsky occasionally still performs under the stage name "Red Square," he now primarily devotes himself to painting. "The visual arts became my language of self-expression because for so long I could not fully communicate in English," he says.
Kharitonsky, who is 27 years old, trained in Russia, where formal clown study could take as long as seven years. This reflects the respect afforded the circus in that country, where the genre enjoyed some of the same esteem as opera or ballet. Kharitonsky, who grew up in Moscow, auditioned for and was accepted by the Arlekin Theater at age 17. Unlike the state circuses that were sanctioned and sponsored by the Communist government, Arlekin was the first independent and privately sponsored theater in Russia. "Their existence was 17 or 18 years before Perestroika, and they were prohibited to perform in Moscow," Kharitonsky says. "They would still perform [though], and KGB would come and take away the men and beat the women." Arlekin bases itself in commedia dell'arte, a form of sixteenth-century street theater that features stock characters. "It's comedy of improv and therefore you are able to say what you want to say," Kharitonsky says. "The government didn't like that."
Kharitonsky was with the theater for its first tour of the United States in 1991. Like a clown taking a stage paddle to rump, the tour flopped spectacularly. "We used every penny we had to come to the U.S.," he says. "There were 50 of us. We had a jazz band, actors, light technicians, and we came here in little groups, by tens or so. We were starving, we needed money," he continues. "A lot of people defected. There were really no performances going, so we didn't make any money. The theater threw me and my friend in the middle of San Francisco with our makeup and our noses and said, 'Well, finally it's time to show if you are professional.'" Running away to the circus is one thing; having the circus run away from you, another thing altogether. With the help of two actors from the theater, they performed on the streets and made enough money to send the rest of their troupe back to Russia.
Kharitonsky, however, considered a clown's poverty preferable to compulsory enlistment in an even more ragtag outfit: the Russian Army. "If you read any classic literature, especially Dostoyevsky, they talk about Russian Army being famous for staying one step away from prison," he says. So when the troupe left America, Kharitonsky sought political asylum just months before Perestroika.
Surviving on his own by performing on the streets and doing other odd jobs, Kharitonsky stayed in San Francisco for one year before coming to Minneapolis to join a childhood friend. "I didn't speak English, so he was the only person to help me have my own security," Kharitonsky says. He taught himself English through watching British comedy. "Once you understand humor, you've got it," he says.
Today, Kharitonsky works at a group home: "I'm working with mentally disabled people, and they're innocent and have a lot of qualities with the clowns. I am a clown myself, so I can relate to those guys."
Kharitonsky has come to accept the lowly position of clowns in his adopted country, while suggesting that Russia was naturally better suited to the medium. "I think when the whole country is depressed and someone makes you smile, you respect that person," he says. He has performed here at the Fringe Festival and the Bryant-Lake Bowl, and he toured to Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1997.
After having clowned for his meal money, though, Kharitonsky has gained an appreciation for more private artistry, which seems consistent with the individualist mores of his adopted country. "I don't think I have enough dedication to put all my energy towards theater at this point, because I've got something very private and personal I could do rather than battle for artistic ideas with other people." For now, at least, Kharitonsky would rather not take another seltzer squirt to the eye.
His work, which is colorful and somewhat surreal, suggests a more interior realm than that of the spotlight. Some of these images feature strange creatures that might have crawled out of children's dreams--Maurice Sendak on a bad trip. Kharitonsky's most recent paintings are about his memories from his difficult life in Russia. One painting from this series, "Chechnya," is based on a slaughter in a village situated near the Turkish border. As in the rings of the circus, the action is split into different spheres: There is an image of an old woman weeping in the upper right-hand corner. Fanning out from the center is an image of a stork--the mythical deliverer of babies--with bullet wounds and blood marring its white plumage. In the middle of all the carnage and destruction are a set of bars like those in a prison. Whether this approaches the tragedy of Pagliacci is an open question, but there can be little doubt that Kharitonsky's painting represents more than the tears of a clown.
Vladimir Kharitonsky's art show opens at 7:00 p.m. Sunday, April 11 at the Loring Bar and Cafe; (612) 332-1617. Sean Emery performs for the opening, as does Skye Klad, the Electric Ape, Touchy-Feely Boy, and Flim-Flam Man.
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