The Broader Picture: Skating when the ice is right

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WHEN Sergei Rushkoff was 15 years old, he fell in love with anacrobat and ran away to join the circus. Now, 20 years later, he finds himself hanging around in the rain on Clapham Common in London, while the big top is prematurely packed away and tickets to Moscow are booked over the mobile phone. The Russian Circus on Ice is heading home. The 46 performers had woken up to CNN that morning to see tanks on the streets of Moscow and what looked like the start of civil war.

The historic European circus, with its animal acts, clowns and acrobats, flourished in the relative affluence of Russia in the 19th century. Many Italian and French circus families who toured the country ended up staying for good. Thirteen is a magic number in Russia, and is also the diameter in metres of the circus ring. As it became a nationalised industry under communism, the performers did their best to re-create the magic of the ring in massive state sports arenas. But it wasn't until the demands of capitalism came along that they began to alter the content of the show radically. The traditional spectacular on ice, consisting of dance and pageantry, was combined with circus acrobatics, in an attempt to capture two markets at once.

Sergei's act went down well at the Edinburgh Festival this year: he and a fellow skater hold a wooden bar between them, on which a woman performs somersaults. All actions are done with a fixed showbiz smile - which being part-Vegas, part-May Day Parade is popular everywhere. Elsewhere in the show, someone would circle the rink with a 25ft pole resting on their shoulder, atop which another gymnast would perform. 'Everything in the circus is twice as hard to do on ice,' says Sergei modestly.

Unfortunately, their first night in Clapham last month was cancelled in front of a full house due to freak floods which melted the ice. The surface just wouldn't re-gel in time and the expectant families and microcelebs (Naomi Campbell's mum, Chris Quentin, who used to be in Coronation Street, Peter Duncan, who used to be on Blue Peter) went home disappointed. Without the publicity 'roll', bookings dropped. 'We haven't been breaking any records,' says their promoter. Which is public relations-speak for 'They'd better go home now before we all lose our shirts.'

Elena Shapaguina, aged 24, is a leading member of the troupe. She performs ballet on ice while spinning armloads of hula-hoops; as a child she was trained by the famous figure-skating trainer, Helena Chaikovskaya. 'When Chaikovskaya retired, many of us were so sad that we left the sport of ice-dancing altogether. I joined the ice circus.' About half the performers are professional skaters, the rest are circus people. Both she and Sergei seemed surprisingly cool about the recent troubles in Moscow. 'We have been away from home for two months,' she says. 'A lot has happened there, but I don't analyse it.' Sergei grins and mimes holding a rifle and marching when asked what he expects to be doing when he gets back to Moscow. He appears more concerned about the disappointing time he's had in Britain. The performers were based in university accommodation in Manchester and then in Elephant and Castle, a particularly grimy part of south-east London. 'In Russia, when we are a guest, we never say anything against our host,' he says politely. 'But I wish I had seen more of England. I am not worried about going back to Moscow. If I can organise a circus in England for two months, it's not the greatest problem to get home from the airport.'

Photographs by Polly Borland

(Photographs omitted)