Life’s a circus

Alexander “Sasha” Chervotkin

Alexander “Sasha” Chervotkin plays the grotesque Baron in <i>Balagan.</i>

Alexander “Sasha” Chervotkin plays the grotesque Baron in Balagan.

Photo By David Robert

If Balagan, playing at the Eldorado’s showroom, is Reno’s newest circus, then Alexander “Sasha” Chervotkin is, in a sense, its ringleader. Chervotkin plays the Baron, an old man who encounters his younger self in a fantastic and surreal dreamworld where anything that can be imagined can happen. Acrobats in bizarre and colorful costumes balance on chairs, twirl dozens of hoops around their bodies and perform breathtaking feats of balance and strength.

Chervotkin is the fifth generation of circus performers in his family—a legacy that stretches back to the mid-19th century. His first routine was as a young acrobat, when adult jugglers would lie on their backs and juggle children with their feet. He received his first paycheck at age 6. “Since that, I’ve never stopped,” he says proudly.

“It’s not a role, it’s my original personality,” Chervotkin says of his character. “It’s a persona. It’s a life I’m living every day.” The Baron, who is based on Baron Munchausen, is a grotesque old man, from his curled wig and enormous false nose to his bright purple tights. Chervotkin, who’s also the show’s artistic director, developed the character with executive producer Mikhail Matorin.

Although Balagan requires intense focus and discipline from its performers, it’s also open to some spontaneity, says Chervotkin. “The structure of the show is the same,” he comments. “But every night is a different show: where a piece of paper lands, if a performer steps left instead of stepping right.” But part of the acrobats’ skill, he adds, is concealing any missteps or errors so the audience never realizes anything went amiss.

Circus performers are superstitious folk, says Chervotkin, and there are plenty of superstitions unique to them. “The number 13 is a lucky number,” he explains, “because a circus ring is usually 13 meters in diameter.” Other superstitions of the circus world include: You must never sit with your back to the stage because it’s bad luck. You can never exchange money before a show, even if you’re repaying a debt. And be careful how you wish someone good luck. “We never say ‘break a leg’ because it’s a very usual thing that happens in the circus,” Chervotkin says.

Chervotkin’s performance includes a “wheel act” with unicycles. “The unicycle is my hobby,” he says. “I started practicing at 18. It’s about timing and distance.” The climax of his act involves leaping onto and off of two unicycles circling the stage at the same time. “It’s not hard to ride the wheel, but it’s hard to do tricks,” Chervotkin says. “I have to be very accurate, like a surgeon.”

As one of the main performers in Balagan, Chervotkin doesn’t often get to sit back and enjoy the show. “Believe it or not, I never watch the show from the house,” he chuckles. “So I have no idea what’s going on.” Nevertheless, he’s closely involved in the show, and he considers his fellow performers to be like family.

Although Chervotkin has a 12-year-old daughter, he says he doesn’t want her to continue the family legacy. Instead, he wants her to pursue her dream of journalism. He hopes she will one day write about the world of the circus—both the glamour and excitement of standing ovations and exotic travels, as well as the grinding routine of touring and living in trailers.

Even after a lifetime in the circus, Chervotkin still feels the same wonder that enchants audiences night after night. “Every time I see a performer and see the reaction,” he says, “it doesn’t matter what they were doing—I’m amazed.”