Clowning Around With Slava

Written by
Jennifer Greenberg

The fantastical "Slava’s Snowshow" makes its grand Tel Aviv re-appearance to unleash everyone’s inner child

Once in a blue moon, in a world where far too many adults suffer from a bad case of ultra-seriousness, comes a truly special individual - one who can stretch the imaginations of those suffering from such perils beyond the ordinary and transport them into an extraordinary world of whimsy. Slava Polunin is that individual. In his fantastical theater performance, titled “Slava’s Snowshow,” Slava the clown and his wily cast of ‘fools’ bring audiences from Japan to Spain to Tel Aviv on a journey through time and space to a magical place free of social responsibilities or political restrictions. Time Out got to know the man behind the bright red nose.

Slava, were you always the ‘class clown’?

It all started with an interest in creativity and art, and in making things. I made my own toys from a very young age and even invented games for my friends. Before getting into clowning personally, I carried out an analysis on the great Russian clowns and clowning as well as the history of silent comedy. And I realized that the kind of comedy that was the closest to me was poetic comedy, because indeed, like poetry, it speaks of topics that are high and tender and poignant. It doesn’t speak of the everyday.

How much of an impact did Charlie Chaplin have on your professional and personal path?

I had seen Charlie Chaplin films on TV and in movie theaters before, but it was “The Kid” that truly inspired me - the combination of tragedy and comedy, plasticity and the plastic arts, and of expression without words was brilliant.

Would you say your show appeals to children or adults?

Since the very beginning, I have been creating shows for adults primarily because I think that children are already okay. They are already happy and they know how to be happy. It’s the adults that are lost and need help with that.

I soon found out that while children love and enjoy my show, performing for children is very different from performing for adults. There needed to be a choice, and I chose the latter. This is how we ended up with our formula: while the characters and images [of Slava’s Snowshow] project a family show, it is primarily geared towards adults, where adults can also help their children understand it.

Is that what inspired you to move clowning from the circus to the stage?

It didn’t happen consciously, it actually happened quite subconsciously. I just preferred theater because you have more opportunities to create a character and a plot, and to make the whole experience more profound.

What is the importance of movement in clowning?

In our first experiences and experiments with clowning, we realized that there was way too much virtuoso, way too much skill and dynamic involved in circus clowning. This caused the poetry to fade, getting lost behind those dynamics. So, we started slowing down the movements and presenting each movement as an event. And we started to hide the mastery, to hide the skillfulness. Although in the first 10 years, we worked like “Tom and Jerry.

Slava Snowshow Snowball Veronique Vial

How so?

It never mattered which of us was which. There were many different plots and stories and sketches, but they all had these very intricate dynamics and they were all set to the same rhythm. This period was called “expressive idiotism.” It’s this really great energy and there are a number of characters who don’t necessarily even see each other, but they are all in this one pool of energy, and they are all unified by energy and rhythm, like the Marx Brothers. 

From where did you find inspiration for Slava’s Snowshow in particular?

My Snowshow was born when I struck an interest in certain symbolists and surrealists. For instance, icons like Robert Wilson and certain concepts having to do with the metaphysical appear here. It is a very visual show because it has been influenced by a lot of surrealist albums.

You’ve mentioned before that a red nose is “the smallest mask in the world” that “when you wear it you become a different person.” That being said, are there elements of Slava the clown that are shared with Slava Polunin?

In order to create my character, I spent many years studying various folklore characters and heroes – like the Little Prince or Don Quixote. From every one of them, I would pick out traits that would resonate with me and that I felt were close to me, like sincerity or the unlimited nature and fullness of experience, the naiveté.

Is clowning a universal language or do you need to adapt your tour to cater to each audience?

I studied in Japan and in Italy and in the Czech Republic and in England and in Russia. Meaning that I have really embraced and integrated the world tradition of clowning. Nevertheless, every country is different in that some countries are with you after a week and some countries really require years and years of tweaking and adapting and finding that approach and changing the show in order to get people to understand what it is that moves you. For instance, without passion, you shouldn’t bother going to Spain; if you spend more than three seconds without a gag in the United States, everyone starts to get bored. So, it often occurs that you need to change the show when arriving to a new country.

Slava Snowshow Moon Clown in Ball by Pascal Ito

Yet, you’ve performed in Israel before, right?

About 10 times already.

And how have you adapted your performance to suit Israeli audiences?

Israel, I would say, is one of the top ten countries where you feel as if you are at home, more so because there are so many Russians there, as well. And this kind of pull towards the drama and this empathy and compassion to the hero - to the character - is something that is very close to the Russian culture.

In a broader light, who or what makes you laugh?

My family, they make me laugh more than anything else. They are greater clowns than I am.

Does a good clown really make “a washerwoman wash, a drunkard drink, and a painter paint” (CNN)?

Yes, because creativity is one of the most direct paths to happiness.

Slava performs at The Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on March 5, 6, and 8. For more information, visit:

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