SANE CLOWN POSSE: Cirque star brings new act to children’s festival

Clowning has become very serious business – thanks to Cirque du Soleil, which in turn owes a debt of gratitude to people like Dimitri Bogatirev.

This man is a true Clown. Bringing his travelling three-clown circus Aga-Boom to the International Children’s Festival, opening Tuesday at St. Albert Place, the Ukrainian-born performer is a first rate pantomimist and physical comedian, well versed in the silent movie tradition and steeped in the nihilist mood of the Cold War-era Soviet arts scene. As a kid in a poor family, young Dimitri wanted to be an astronaut – the moment Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, “Like every kid,” Bogatirev says, “but then they started drinking vodka and they understand they can’t do this.”

And so – you fall back on clowning.

Bogatirev, apparently a natural from the beginning, was one of the clown stars and co-creators of several notable Cirque du Soleil shows, including the watery “O,” still playing in Las Vegas, which has so many Cirque shows you can barely tell them apart (the titles are no help: hey, honey, was that Zarkana or Zumanity that we saw already, or perhaps it was Saltimbanco?) Used to working in a theatrical environment where the clown is no mere in-between comic relief while they set up the tiger taming act – or amazing acrobats, as the case may be – but the star attraction, Bogatirev eventually had enough of Cirque, of doing the same act 10 times a week, two shows a day, year after year after year.

“We decided to make a new name in clowning,” he says of Aga-Boom, which he performs with his wife Iryna Ivanytska. “I put all my ideas under one name: Clown arts, gags, and created a kind of story.” He adds, “Actually we don’t have a story. Clowns never have any stories. There is no beginning, no end, only clown, no age, no sex, no politics, no religion.”

But philosophy? But of course.

He explains, “You smile when you watch animals, yes? What is the nature of your smile? You love how they look and how they move. So you can create characters that don’t exist in this world, create a world where these characters exist, a funhouse mirror of humanity. People love each other, people hate each other, you make different choices, your life is summed up by two numbers, you are born, you die and in the middle is this little dash. This is called your life. You see what I mean? It’s philosophy.”

Take it from a guy who literally ran away to join the circus – landing his first gig outside of Russia with Cirque du Soleil in Montreal – with nothing but “one suitcase and my wife” – before finally settling in Vegas. They’ve been performing as Aga-Boom from there for the last 10 years.

Of all the rules for clowning (the first of which might be “there are no rules, but there are exceptions”), one of the most important is “Don’t be afraid to look stupid,” Bogatirev says. It helps that when he’s on stage, he’s not himself.

“It’s not me,” he says. “I have two personalities. They both exist: one in life, and one on stage – but the one on stage doesn’t know the first character exists.”

Aga-Boom plays 10 performances through June 2. Visit the International Children’s Festival website for details on this and other shows.