By Dominique Jando
Natalya Jigalova (also spelled Zhigalova, 1970-2022) was part of what has been called "The Prima Donnas of the Swinging Trapeze"—one of the first aerialists, along with Elena Panova and Marina Golovinskaya, who developed under Victor Fomine the new style of swinging trapeze originated by Fomine and Panova in 1987.
She was born Natalya Borisovna Vul (Наталья Борисовна Вуль – pronounced "Vool") on July 21, 1970, in Chișinău, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, a country landlocked between Ukraine and Romania, which was then part of the Soviet Union. She was raised and went to school in Chișinău, where she also attended the local "Amateur Circus" (Youth Circus). In 1985, she applied for and was accepted in Moscow’s State College for Circus and Variety Arts. Under the guidance of Victor Fomine, she created her swinging trapeze act, with which she graduated in 1989.
Yet, her professional debut was postponed. She had met at the circus college her husband, the clown Andrey Jigalov, who graduated one year later, in 1990, with his partner Edward Alekseenko, (1966-1996). Natalya and Andrey got married, and she was expecting a son, who would be named Andrey, like his father. She also became Natalya Jigalova in the process. Then, she chose to give priority to raising her newborn son.
When she finally decided to resume her circus career, she performed an act in which her trapeze could be lowered to the ring, so that she could begin from the ground and go up with her apparatus (instead of being hauled up to her trapeze)—a system also used, albeit in a different manner, by another swinging trapeze artist, Elena Popova. This soaring image, along with her long black hair and her natural grace, gave a great elegance to her act. In 1996, she participated in the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain at Paris’s Cirque d’Hiver, where she won a Silver Medal.
This led her to a brilliant career, notably in Western Europe, where she worked with such prestigious circuses and variety theaters as Circus Knie in Switzerland, Circus Roncalli in Germany, Louis Knie’s Österreichischer National Circus in Austria, Cirque Pinder and the Royal Palace of Kirrwiller in France. In 2003, she also participated in the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, along with her husband, Andrey Jigalov, who was awarded a Silver Clown. (Natalya was awarded several special prizes.)
Natalya and Andrey eventually separated, and having to raise her son as a single mother, Natalya decided to ensure that she would have a safety net when her career was over; thus, she resumed her studies to obtain a physiotherapist diploma—not an unusual conversion among circus artists, who develop over the years a keen understanding of the human body. However, she never had much time to develop this new occupation.
Knowing that she had decided to retire from performing, Maksim Nikulin contacted Natalya and offered her the position of "manège inspector" at Circus Nikulin, the legendary "circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard" in Moscow. This job, which is called maître de manège or régisseur(French) The stage (or ring) manager—and sometimes Ringmaster—in a French circus. (See also: Monsieur Loyal) de piste in France, Equestrian Director in Britain, and Performance Director in America, put her in charge of the ring crew and of the technical aspect of the performance—a function not generally given to a woman in Russia!
The ring crew at Circus Nikulin has a particularity: It is composed exclusively of retired circus performers, and it is consequently a very knowledgeable and competent body. It was a challenge to which Natalya responded with unmitigated success, winning without any problem the trust of her crew and of the performers for her competence, her cool and decisive manner when facing problems, and her much appreciated kindness. She was even asked to occupy the same function, at the Festival du Cirque du Val d’Oise in France from 2006 to 2008.
Sadly, in 2021, Natalya was diagnosed with a colon cancer that had been detected much too late. She passed away in Moscow on June 13, 2022, to the consternation of her many friends and admirers: She was only fifty-two years of age. On June 16 at 11:00 am, she was given what was described as a "queen’s funeral:" She was laid in state in a white coffin in the practice ring of Circus Nikulin, where a large crowd of colleagues, performers and friends came to pay their respects, filling the area with flowers; she was then driven in a white hearse to the Khovansky cemetery in Moscow, where she is buried.