By Dominique Jando
She did see the circus on television, however, and at age fourteen, she joined the local Amateur Circus—the Soviet equivalent of European or American youth circuses, though at a much higher level, in terms of the training they provided. Amateur circuses flourished in the Soviet Union, where circus arts were held in high esteem.
During these years, Elena trained in basic acrobatics, but her tastes drew her to aerial apparatuses; while still at the Youth Circus, she and a fellow student developed a "bambou(French - Russian: Bambuk) Aerial apparatus, generally a hanging perch, from where the performers hang with the help of hand or ankle loops. See also: Aerial perch." (aerial perchA hanging perch, from where the performers hang with the help of hand or ankle loops. (French: Bambou - Russian: Bambuk)) act. Her performance debut came in April 1978; she executed a static trapeze act in an Easter show the Amateur Circus staged in Murom’s Grand Theatre.
Since she was bent on becoming a circus artist—and had the ability to succeed—Elena's coach suggested she apply to audition for Moscow’s State College for Circus and Variety Arts. She submitted the proper forms and documents and, to her surprise, was invited to audition in Moscow. She was seventeen and had never left Murom.
Following a strenuous exam, Elena was accepted to the College. Over the next four years, she trained in acting, ballet, and all circus disciplines, eventually specializing in swinging trapeze. Even so, the creation of her act—an act that would redefine the swinging trapeze—resulted from a series of coincidences.
Although Elena wanted to do a trapeze act, the five-year plan then in effect did not call for new trapeze acts. In the Soviet Union, five-year plans were centralized methods of promoting economic growth through the use of quotas. The early five-year plans (1928-37) called for the rapid collectivization of agriculture, a policy that was not revised even though it led to millions of deaths from starvation. There was little hope, then, that Elena would get her new trapeze act as long as it deviated from the five-year plan.
Even so, she insisted on learning the swinging trapeze. Eventually, her teachers acquiesced, assigning her a trapeze coach. The coach then took advantage of an opportunity to live for a time in Paris. The coach asked a friend, Tereza Durova—an act director who had recently joined the College staff—to create a swinging-trapeze act for Elena.
Tereza Durova came from a famous dynasty of clowns and animal trainers and had never worked on an aerial act before. She asked another newcomer to the staff, Viktor Fomin—a former competition gymnast who had performed in a horizontal bar act—to take on the technical aspects of the act. To Fomin, who complained that he had never worked on an aerial act before, Durova is reported to have said, "A trapeze is a bar hanging from two ropes. Go to the school library and read every book you can find on the subject!"
Durova, Fomin, and Panova spent three years developing the act. They struggled to realize Durova’s often far-stretched ideas. They came up with new tricks and experimented with various techniques to achieve them; some were found by sheer luck, others by trial-and-error.
When it was done, Elena Panova’s act was like nothing else that had been seen before. Performed entirely in full swing, it included pirouettes between the ropes, caught by the ankles, and half-pirouettes caught by the heels, all done without interrupting the swing or having it re-energized by an assistant. Furthermore, Elena's act was not conceived around the notion of danger, but around the aestheticism of movement. It was a seductive ballet, danced in space (eventually, in 1987, to the accents of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—this at a time when classical music was still a rarity in the circus).
The act was first performed in 1985, in a show presented by the Moscow Circus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was also Elena's professional debut. Two years later, the act emerged as the great revelation of the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris; in that landmark edition of the festival, the sea change underway in the contemporary circus was apparent for the first time.
Elena won the Gold Medal and ignited the imagination of André Simard, who saw her performance. Simard was then teaching acrobatics at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal. After returning to Canada, he decided to develop trapeze acts in the new style suggested by Elena's act. Adding his own ideas, he would in time develop a "Canadian school" of swinging trapeze. (After the fall of the Soviet regime, Viktor Fomin would eventually settle in Montreal, where he opened his own very successful trapeze school.)
In 1988, Elena won the All-Union Circus Competition of the USSR, which was, at the time, arguably the world’s most difficult circus competition. From 1985-90, she performed in the Soviet Union and toured with various units of the Moscow Circus in Mongolia, Cambodia, Vietnam, France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and Israel, before becoming an independent contractor in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Elena's first independent engagement came in 1991, with the Big Apple Circus in the United States. She subsequently appeared in some of the world’s leading circuses on four continents, including Circus Knie in Switzerland and the Cirque d’Hiver-Bouglione in Paris. She has performed her act under the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and at the Victorian Arts Festival in Melbourne, Australia, where she has also been featured in a musical, Amore.
Elena married the clown Serguei Panov in 1983. They divorced in 1990. Although she settled in the United States in 1993, Elena continued to perform around the world, mostly in Europe. Her career lasted nineteen years. She retired from performing in 2003, after a last tour in the People's Republic of China. She has since become an aerial teacher at Circus Center, in San Francisco, California.