Acrobat, Trapeze Coach
By Dominique Jando
At the end of the award ceremony at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris in February 2008, Alain Pacherie, the festival’s President, announced that an additional Gold Medal would be presented on the occasion of the Festival’s thirtieth anniversary. To everyone’s surprise and delight, he then called Victor Fomine.
Fomine, a notoriously self-effacing person, was nowhere to be seen: Someone had to rush backstage to get him. After he had seen Emma Henshall, the Australian aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc. whose act he had trained, receive her Gold Medal he had returned behind the curtain and was quietly packing his student’s equipment. Victor entered the stage in his black working clothes, his gloves hastily tucked in the pouch on his belt, to a thunderous ovation. To the Festival’s habitués, Victor Fomine has long been a living legend.
Emma Henshall’s was then the fourth Gold medal (a few more would come later) given at the Paris’s festival to an act trained by Victor Fomine. The first two medals, Gold and Silver, garnered by Victor Fomine’s students were awarded in 1987, twenty-two years earlier, to Elena Panova (Gold), on the swinging trapeze, and Nikolai Chelnokov (Silver), on the vertical rope, who famously that year completely redefined their respective specialties.
From Performing To Teaching
Born Viktor Nikolaievich Fomin on May 27, 1958 in Podolsk, in the Moscow Region, Victor Fomine began training in gymnastics in 1969, at age eleven, at Moscow’s famous Dynamo Club. He then competed in national events before being called for his mandatory military service when he was eighteen. Upon his discharge in 1979, he was hired by SoyuzGosTsirk, the USSR’s central circus organization, to replace another gymnast in the Rostsov Troupe, whose horizontal bars act included Sasha Dubrovsky—a friend from his Dynamo days, who became a Master Teacher at the Académie Fratellini in France.
Fomine performed his bar act for five years, but this was mostly in provincial Soviet circuses. At that time, if a circus artist was not part of the circus elite that performed abroad in the international tours of the "Moscow Circus," his career could remain stagnant. When, in 1984, he saw an opportunity to join the faculty of the prestigious State College for Circus and Variety Arts in Moscow—better known in the West as the "Moscow Circus School"—he seized the occasion!
What happened next has become the stuff of legend: Tereza Durova, a newly arrived act director at the School, had been asked to create a trapeze act for a student, Elena Panova, whose original teacher had left. Heiress to a famous dynasty of clowns and animal trainers (and herself a former elephant trainer), Tereza had ideas, but not the technical knowledge necessary to create such an act and, for technical assistance, she turned to the newcomer Victor Fomine.
Victor himself was a good gymnast but he had no specific knowledge of trapeze technique; undaunted, Tereza told him to go to the school library and read all what he could find on the subject, and for the next two years, Victor Fomine, Tereza Durova, and Elena Panova went on to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. From his gymnastics days, Victor has a keen sense of tempo and a sharp eye to spot mistakes in a move: He can deconstruct and rebuild it to make it work. Yet, Panova’s act was mostly created through a series of trials and errors: Fomine, Durova, and Panova were learning together.
The same method presided over the creation of Nikolai Chelnokov’s rope act. Both acts introduced styles and moves that are now taken for granted but were completely new at the time: constant full swing, pirouettes with ankle catches in the ropes (not to mention heel catches in full swing) for Elena’s trapeze act, intricate knots and spectacular rolls down the coils of the vertical rope for Nikolai. Style and music, which must be credited to Durova, were also fundamentally different.
A New Career: De Paris à Montréal
When both acts were shown in Paris in 1987—Victor’s first trip outside the USSR—circus aficionados were quick to realize that a new circus era had begun. Along with Tereza Durova, Valentin Gneushev, Alexandre Grimailo, and a few others, Victor Fomine had helped define the vocabulary of a new circus. Now comfortable with teaching swinging trapeze, Fomine returned to the Paris festival in 1990 with Marina Golovinskaya, whose balletic swinging trapeze act won another Gold Medal.
Paris had been good to Victor Fomine, and when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, he went to the French capital on a tourist visa and found work at Annie Fratellini’s Ecole Nationale du Cirque. There he built a swinging trapeze act for his wife, Eleona (who later became an aerial teacher in Montreal), and another one for Jean-Christophe Fournier, who toured with it with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in the early 1990s. Both acts won a medal at the Paris festival: Eleona, Silver, and Jean-Christophe, Bronze.
Unfortunately, Annie Fratellini never bothered to secure a working visa for her gifted aerial teacher; in 1993, faced with the prospect of returning to Russia, Victor placed a call to Jan-Rok Achard, then Director of the blossoming École Nationale de Cirque in Montreal. Achard, like everybody else in the circus world by then, was well aware of Fomine’s worth: Victor immediately received an invitation to work there—and a visa!
Viktor Fomin became Victor Fomine and a Canadian citizen. In 2001, in addition to his work at the École Nationale de Cirque, and his training sessions for Cirque du Soleil, he opened his own swinging trapeze studio in Montreal. During all that time, he has devised new training techniques and, of course, he has trained many more students and gathered more medals for each of those who went to compete in the Festival: A Silver Medal for Stephanie Gasparoli, a Gold Medal for Darya Vintilova and Uvve Janson…
Victor Fomine is known the world over as the swinging trapeze "Guru." When Hélène Embling, the French aerial teacher of the National Institute for Circus Arts in Australia, realized she had a remarkably gifted student who wouldn’t learn much more with her—or with anyone else at the Institute for that matter—she sent her to Victor Fomine. The student was Emma Henshall.