Most people know Vladimir Hrynchenko as a circus artist. He was trained at Kiev Circus Academy as a hand balancer and went on to have a career studded with success as an independent artist. He has traveled to so many countries that he finds it easier to say which ones he hasn’t seen. Over the course of his career, he’s had the priveledge to teach at prestigious circus schools like ESAC and perform with contemporary circus companies.
But Vladimir is also a philosopher, perhaps propelled to be such a deep thinker due to circumstances in his life— because sometimes history intervened with his plans—as a youth he had to give up gymnastics training because the USSR dissolved. Or when he lost his brother, the person responsible for getting him involved with circus in the first place.
But no one would say that Vladimir has been the victim of history. Due to his relentlessly positive approach to life, after each major transition, he comes away with a good plan. Also, he gets so much done on an average day that I’m not sure if he actually sleeps. During one of our recent Skype chats, he revealed that during that week he had looked in to getting pilot training (a long time dream), met an interesting potential colleague for lunch, negotiated a few contracts with artists and just passed the National Acadamia Sports Medicine exam which certified him as a performance enhancement specialist coach just in case he wanted to do some high level teaching in Canada. He also runs a start-up circus supply company called Red Circle Shop.
All of this as Vladimir ends a seven-year long chapter of his life as a touring member of the Cirque du Soleil show OVO. He opened with the show on day one, performing his signature hand balancing act on a spiral shaped device—an apparatus that he designed in an epiphany moment back in circus college. But now he says he is ready to open a new chapter.
In spite of his drive to get things accomplished, Vladimir has a humble streak. He didn’t see the point in having an article written about his work for quite awhile, and when he reflects on how many of his dreams have come true he maintains a modest, yet pragmatic approach. “For me, I can’t say life was very difficult. Some people get much more difficult lives and would just dream about this like I dream about flying a plane. But the goals I had when I started I have accomplished. We emigrated to Canada. I have a house and a family. Now I want to work more with art. I want to do something besides travel in the same show.” When Vladimir accomplishes one goal, he’s always got a few more lined up. And he seems to like nothing more than taking on a challenge, especially one he sets for himself. Which may be why he became a hand balancer in the first place.
“My coach Nikolai Ponurko was a hand balancer, and I asked him, ‘What is the most difficult discipline?’ and he answered hand balancing, so that’s why I started my training there. Of course, now I know that juggling and all of the other disciplines are not easier— they are different and just as difficult in other ways.”
Although Vladimir has a list of mentors he credits for helping him to understand his journey (such as the wise juggling coach who wasn’t ever officially his teacher–Yury Pozdnyakov) there is a recurring theme of self-reliance in his life and so he considers life itself to have been one of his mentors. When I asked him why, to my astonishment, this is what he told me,
“For me, life was a mentor because I grew up with very beautiful people like my grandfather and grandmother and my mother and brother. Then at some point everything finishes and I found myself alone with no one else around. Nothing is given to you for free. So, whatever you choose in this world, choose wisely. Life is a big market place and you enter the market and there is everything from a clay whistle to a very expensive horse. You need to choose what you’ll buy and pay only once. But you pay with your life and your time. You can spend your life playing with your clay whistle or you can spend your life for something different, for something higher. Everything you do has a big impact. How you deal with people. Who you deal with. What you think about other people. It all has a big impact on you first of all. If you find yourself angry inside or thinking badly about someone –that’s not about the person, it’s about you. I learned that form experience.” That core philosophy governs his personal interactions, as well as his life choices. It comes across in his work in fascinating ways, like in his commitment to protect the little guy, in his analysis of the importance of arts and in the determined way in which he goes forth in the circus world, spending his life for something different.
When Vladimir was four years old he began taking gymnastics classes, but in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed he wasn’t able to attend anymore since the gymastic school closed down. He says he wasn’t a very good gymnast anyway, at least compared to today’s athlete. So he grew up and went to dental technician school. After he obtained his degree in dentistry, his older brother Misha asked him to tag along to his audition at Kiev circus school. Vladimir was not prepared, but always happy to leave his comfort zone, he went and they both got in. In essence, he was standing in the checkout line with his clay whistle when his brother dangled a more appealing option before him. It’s probably better that it happened that way, Vladimir explains. Although he can imagine himself being a happy dentist in a parallel universe, many of his classmates didn’t make it through the program due to hidden costs and lack of well paid work. He graduated from circus school in 2002 as an old man at the age of 22 (like the Moscow circus school, the program is geared towards the peak learning and performing window of the adolescent years and starts professional training early.)
His first experience teaching circus came right away in 2003 when he went to ESAC in Belgium (under the direction of director Philip Haenen) as an exchange student/teacher of hand balancing. He had graduated with his signature spiral act and two years later won special prize of jury La Piste aux Espoire at the international circus festival with said act.
Vladimir performing his award winning act at the Festival La Piste Aux Espoirs 2004
After his brother died, he tried a regular job. He sees his brother’s death as a breaking point that caused him to question whether the circus was for him. But he slowly went back to training, drawn in by the ritual and discipline it required. His girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife, was instrumental in helping him regain the confidence to continue. In 2005, he began to work in Finland as a hand balancer at Dance Theater Hurjaruuth with Aria Petterson and soon became the acrobatics and hand balancing teacher with Circus Helsinki and director Martina Linda. He fondly recollects being part of the contemporary show Fur! with Circo Aero (with Maksim Komaro and Sanna Silvennoinen).
When he came to Cirque du Soleil, it was quietly through the special events department. He was fortunate to get to work with Michel Laprise (who went on to develop Kurios as the creative director), a man he admired for his creative energy and charisma. It wasn’t until 2009 that Vladimir was invited to bring his hand balancing and a modified version of his spiral device (which he helped them redesign) in to play for the OVO production. With the theme of the insect world, Vladimir, together with his coach Alexander Pikhienko and a creative team, developed an act to fit the show and he hit the road for seven years, during which time his son was born and grew in to a little boy.
Vladimir says when he was still a young man in circus school, the spiral came to him as an epiphany after reading the book Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. “I thought that is was a good idea to have a spiral as an apparatus for hand balancing, and no one had used it before. I saved and borrowed some money to make the structure. I found a factory that would make it for me. The spiral is significant because unlike a straight line for going someplace, there is no forward or backward. Where do you move with a spiral?
Do you move closer to the center or further away? It’s a metaphysical thing. It’s like life too. There are circles of life and some opportunities to repeat things if you don’t get the lesson the first time. When I would walk up the spiral, I would imagine myself walking towards the moon like Pontius Pilate does in the novel. I would look up.”
Looking Forward & Up
For the future, Vladimir hopes to transition his years of performing and teaching to some creative endeavors and to keep actively connected to his artistic side. “I would like to remain an artist, and more than this, an actor, a clown – to build a comic act, because I think the highest level of art is to make people laugh. I was pleased to train as a back up clown with the talented clowns of OVO (Michelle Matlock, Francois Guillaume and Gonzalo Munoz Ferreras). I really enjoy clowning and using my physical abilities with acting. ”
While he is honing his physical theater skills, he is also doing work with Cirque Eloize, and continuing his ongoing role at Circus Promoters, a casting company where Vladimir acts as the chief operating officer and casting director in Canada. To this end, he often travels on business, especially to Asia, searching the globe for talented acts. He studied Chinese when he was there on tour and continues to develop his language skills in this area as he is fascinated by Chinese and Japanese cultures.
Vladimir prides himself on being a strong advocate for artists, something he feels young circus artists everywhere need. Many performers, fresh out of school, or from economically developing countries, are naïve and will take the first offer that comes along, not really examining the contract or educating themselves on industry standards. “First, I’m an artist. And when I hear that people are cheated out of 40 or 50% of the contract because the agent found the work for them, then I see it as a very unfair thing. I prioritize our artists. I believe doing honest business is possible because the word spreads when you don’t charge 40%.”
He also considers it part of his job to help artists learn how to be independent and to negotiate for themselves. He does this because he has had experiences where it was crucial to his survival as an artist. He almost walked away from circus school in his second year to sign a contract for a tour, until Alexy Bitkine (a dance instructor in his school) gave him a tough talk about artistic integrity, representing oneself and being ready for that stage of his life.
Vladimir’s hand balancing mentor Vitold Kuvshinov once told him “When it comes to your profession, you shouldn’t be the plate. You should be the deep glass.” And he took that advice to heart in all aspects of his life. Now he wants to share some of his hard-won wisdom. “Young artists should of course focus on the training but at the same time they should focus on the creative part of themselves. They should be creators. That way when they are hired as an artist, they won’t just be the material for an idea.”
Like his teacher, he wants to inspire people to have faith in their ability to create and to exercise that ability as independent artists,“There are circus schools in some countries that have interchangeable artists. If you have an injury, they’ll bring another guy in tomorrow and you wouldn’t notice a difference because they have the same exact training. There is a big difference between the individualistic creator and the person who is used as material even though they might look great on stage and have amazing physical abilities. Circus is a very special art, it is very sensitive and very fragile. Circus cannot be a factory. To be a circus artist you have to create something. Create yourself first then something else will come. You need to do more than only tricks. Don’t be clay. Bring something and never give up!”
Vladimir is a deep glass, never half empty or half full but overflowing— with ideas, opinions, plans, and dreams—yet solid at his base. His broad interests, his work ethic, his love for the arts and artists and his curiosity will keep him perpetually a student and a teacher and provide him with the material for his next circus endeavor and whatever it is, you can be sure he will bring it.
Performing in Fur! with Circo Aero