The Panteleenko Brothers
By Dominique Jando
Valery (1946-2006) and Yury (1946-1989) Panteleenko were born in Russia on May 15, 1946. Identical twins, they began their performing careers as part of the magic act of Simon Rubanov (1908-1976), a famous Russian illusionist who worked exclusively in the circus ring and—like his predecessor, the legendary Emil Kio—used several pairs of twins in his "attraction(Russian) A circus act that can occupy up to the entire second half of a circus performance.."
In 1969, during an engagement at the Circus of Rostov-on-Don, Vladivien Levshin, who was the Rubanov Company’s acrobatic coach, noticed the brothers’ athleticism and began to train them as acrobats. He created an original aerial-strap actAerial act performed hanging from a pair of fabric or leather straps. See Aerial Straps. for them, an act that is now recognized as a milestone in the history of this specialty.
Before the Panteleenko Brothers, aerial strapsPair of fabric or leather straps used as an apparatus for an aerial strap act. was a Chinese specialty in which various highly athletic tricks were performed in a static mode and in a vertical plan: gymnasts went up and down a pair of straps, performing planges, roll-ups, and other tricks. Levshin created for the Panteleenko Brothers an ascending apparatus. He also introduced swinging, circular moves, and—of course—two-person tricks. The brothers’ elegance and their amazing resemblance added to the act's balletic beauty.
The Panteleenko Brothers debuted as aerialists in 1972. The act was an immediate success. The following year, they won the All-Union Circus Competition of the USSR—at the time, arguably the most difficult circus competition in the world. In 1980, they were featured in the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics Games, which were held in Moscow.
Subsequently, Valery and Yury Panteleenko were featured in international tours of the Moscow Circus. They performed in Paris in 1980, and although the star acts of the show were meant to be Irina Bugrimova’s lions, presented by Boris Biriukov, and the clown Maï (Evguenny Maïkhrovsky), critics and the public alike agreed that the Panteleenko Brothers were the true revelation.
The Panteleenko Brothers participated in the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo in 1983, where, amazingly, the Jury ignored them: they received only the City of Monaco prize. It was perhaps too early for a performing style that would only be completely accepted a decade later. Today, virtually all aerial-straps acts bear the stamp of the Panteleenko Brothers.
In 1987, Valery Panteleenko became Director of the circus collective Allez Hop!, but the brothers continued to perform their aerial duet. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Valery and Yury Panteleenko were among the first Russian performers to seek individual foreign engagements. In 1989, they were featured with the famous Circus Knie in Switzerland.
Tragedy And Revival
On July 7, 1989, while the brothers were touring with Circus Knie, Yury died suddenly of cardiac arrest after a performance. Although he was deeply affected by the death of his twin brother, Valery was a consummate professional and decided to fulfill his contract with Circus Knie. He found another aerial gymnast, Igor Gruzen, to replace Yury, and completed his engagement.
Valery’s next contract was already signed with the Big Apple Circus, and the Panteleenko Brothers (now Valery Panteleenko and Igor Gruzen) went to the United States, where they were featured in the 1990-91 Big Apple Circus production of Ballerinas, Horses and Clowns... The Golden Age. The next season, they found another engagement in the United States with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
The Panteleenko Brothers performed their aerial-strap actAerial act performed hanging from a pair of fabric or leather straps. See Aerial Straps. for the last time in the 122nd edition of The Greatest Show On Earth, in 1992-93. In 1994, Valery, Igor, and Valery’s son, Maxime Panteleenko, appeared in the Ringling show with a new aerial act that combined trapeze and straps. Valery retired from performing at the end of the 1994-95 tour, but remained for a while with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as a rigger. He was Head Rigger with the Feld production of Barnum’s Kaleidoscape (1999), a remarkable—albeit unsuccessful—attempt at a high-end one-ring tented circus.
Valery then retired to Florida. A gifted artist, he indulged in his favorite pastime: painting. He died of cancer on January 7, 2006. Valery Panteleenko had been made Artist Emeritus of the Republic of Russia in 1980. His son, Maxime, who is now a U.S. citizen, has continued in his father’s footsteps, performing as an aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc. in Tokyo Disneyland, in Orlando’s SeaWorld, and in the equestrian show Cavalia, among other venues.
- Video: The Panteleenko Brothers (Valery Panteleenko & Igor Gruzen), aerial strap actAerial act performed hanging from a pair of fabric or leather straps. See Aerial Straps., in the Big Apple Circus production of Ballerinas, Clowns and Horses... (1990)