Thursday, October 17, 2013

Remembering Gregory Fedin.... and Nina Krasavina

Photo © Peter Angelo Simon

[post 337]
When I learned in early September that Gregory Fedin had recently passed away, I looked online for obituaries and for any bio material. There was next to nothing about Gregory or his wife, Nina Krasavina, who had died of breast cancer in 1996 at the way too young age of 57. Gregory had been away from the circus scene for a long time, and was never a master of self-promotion, but still I found the neglect surprising and unfair. 

Gregory and Nina came to New York from the Soviet Union in 1975 and made a significant contribution to the growth of circus and related arts, both with their involvement with the beginnings of the Big Apple Circus (1977) and then with their Circus Arts Center in Hoboken, NJ, which they operated for six years, and where I tried to be a serious student whenever I wasn't off trying to make money touring. Nina was as sweet as Gregory was irascible, Nina a natural clown, Gregory far from it. They were both totally dedicated and giving of what they knew, and as products of the whole Moscow Circus system and as geniuses in their own right, that was an awful lot.

Jessica Hentoff (see below) recently ran into a Russian circus coach and spoke to her of Nina and Gregory. Knowing that the circus authorities had erased all record of their accomplishments after they fled the Soviet Union, Jessica thought this woman wouldn't know about them. “I know exactly who they are," she replied. “They can erase from books but not from peoples' memories. People talk. I know them.”

We don't have any such excuse for forgetting, and therefore some photos, some remembrances by former students, and some wonderful sketches by Karen E. Gersch (who was also a student)...... (Click on  images to enlarge.)

Karen Gersch (NYC)

Sketch by Karen E. Gersch
We have lost the two littlest but most magnetic and powerful people who certainly changed and shaped all of our lives. The end of an era. Sad that we were all so estranged from the man and it is only now, after his passing, that the memories of what he accomplished and how he affected us in a postiive way, are coming to light. He was a difficult man and teacher, but he really did prepare his students in a profound way and, ultimately, we are all the better for having known him.

Chris Glover (Westchester)
Sketch by Karen E. Gersch
He was a genius and a troubled, wounded person. Making us believe that we could do anything...... simply by telling us “to do.” I never would have accomplished the skills I learned if he hadn’t pushed me to the edge. The physical and mental process was torturous. It was a means to an end. I cried most days on my way to and from the Circus Arts Center. Yet somehow we did it, maybe not the way Gregory fully realized it. Gregory took these young adults from comfortable suburban and urban homes, remolded us, ate us, and spat us out as circus artists. Then we were on our own to learn how to make it in a traditional American circus environment so different from his native Russia. How many of us dreamed as small children that we would be circus performers? Not I!

Portraits of Gregory & Nina by Karen E. Gersch


"Would you like to know our great secret? We do not see acrobat, we see space. There's no difference between space and acrobat because we are absolutely dissolved in the space of the universe. And if you are able to see space, the acrobat has to go through it, go with the curves, like the tracks of a railway. When he does not fit the curves of space he's not a good acrobat. If he follows the lines correctly, he's a good acrobat, he fits in. The curves of space are the rails for the acrobatic tricks." — Gregory Fedin, quoted in Peter Angelo Simon's book, "The Big Apple Circus."


Joan Bentsen (Denmark)
I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I talk about him regularly. Someone will ask me something about my past, or I’ll be talking with a young person about life and the process of learning, and I’ll remember his words. I quoted him two days ago about fear: If you don’t have fear, you die, like the aerialist who has no net, and forgets to be afraid, loses their grip and falls. Without fear, we get sloppy and lose our concentration. So we have to feel fear, but not let it rule us. We have to learn to turn the fear into energy, to help us concentrate and.. survive. Those words, or something like them. When I’ve battled with anxiety or even a panic attack, this has saved me!

And his “just do it!” You don’t try, you DO. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work, but you DO it.

And his saying: The problem with you is, you are not frozen fish. You are human being! That is your problem…." I look back and think yes, sometimes it really is important to be a frozen fish, to know your place and specific function in any given circumstance…..

He and Nina trained me for…. life, really. But he also taught me NEVER to blindly believe in one authority. I will never forget going to Canada the very first summer, after I had been at Circus Arts a very short time…..I was working with Jakob and was still very raw. Nervous system definitely not under control, I threw myself wildly in the air, and Jakob (and whomever else was catching me) had to RUN to get under me and catch me. We did this in a shopping mall, and Nina told me much later that she thought I was going to get badly hurt that day, smashed onto the marble floor, because there was no way they could run so fast and break my fall……thankfully, Jakob is fast! But I didn’t realize the danger, I just knew I had to do whatever he asked of me.

Still, his genius will stay with me, and his passion for circus and for so many other aspects of life……

Jacob Bentsen (Denmark)
I would like to tell you a story about my last meeting with Gregory, where he among other things talked about Nina.

New years eve, 2000 was turning to 2001, I was performing at Lincoln Center with Mummenschanz and had invited Gregory, who surprised me by coming and then again by asking me, in an off-hand sort of way, if I would like to — of course only if I didn't have anything better to do — to come to 43rd st. to spend New Year's Eve with him.

Would I ever. Of course! There was nothing I would like better.
Sketch by Karen E. Gersch

I remember December 31st. First taking the elevator to Nirvana, the restaurant above Central Park South, to tell everyone there that I was not staying to join them for dinner. I just hurried down and walked through the snow-covered streets to Gregory's tower... We performed there once, in their courtyard space (was that on top of a lower part of the building?) a long time a go, on a rainy day... and somehow during the show the trapeze became crooked, one side was hanging much lower than the other. Standing under it to spot, I was so scared that Marie Claire and Colette were going to slide off all at once and I wouldn't be able to catch the two of them, they would glide right  through my arms, glittering wet and swift like fish from the sea. They didn't, and I'll never understand how two people can move around one slated wet trapeze without falling off — and having said that, I know that each one of you who trained with Gregory, will have a story to explain exactly why they didn't fall off.
But I had never been up, I had never visited the apartment where Nina and Gregory had lived. Now I went  up.

Do you remember the apartment? — full of pictures, photos, paintings and posters of the two of them, Nina and Gregory, performing. I had brought some food and champagne, but we put it in the refrigerator.  Gregory had already set the table with bread, slices of ham, cheese, mustard, salad, tomatoes and pickles. We drank beer or white wine. Outside the windows the night was showered with fireworks, spraying sparkles through the room and onto our reunion. First Gregory told me about fortunetelling in Central park, going to New Orleans with Meret, about life being much harder than death (I hope you know that! he said, and looked at me piercingly), and he talked about astrology and Confutze — about what happened to Gregory's farther, who came to the Soviet Union as an early supporter, but was imprisoned and stored away in outer Siberia where he died. Gregory had searched and found that gulag-village ruled by wild dogs, and without a grave for his long-gone father, a meeting that changed Gregory and planted a desire in him to leave the Soviet Union.

I don't remember when midnight happened or how the evening ended, only the intensity of life and death here high above the streets, and of Gregory and Nina seen against the roaring and glittering surf of New Year's in New York.

“We wanted our students to be the best. People who are not born into the circus have to push their way in, and the only way they can attract attention to themselves and get somewhere is by presenting something unusual, something unique. There is no other way to enter this business.” — Nina Krasavina, quoted in Ernest Albrecht’s "The New American Circus."

Sonja Sanae (St. Loius)

Although I spent a relatively short time with Nina and Gregory (about 18 months), they had a profound effect on my life. Many lessons learned at the Hoboken Circus Arts School have stood me in good stead throughout my life and have got me through some pretty rough times:

Sketch by Karen E. Gersch.
While standing on Karen’s head whilst she climbed up and down a ladder or whilst performing a trick with Jes on the ladder balanced on Meret’s feet, on while balancing on the handlebars of the bike, Gregory taught me to be still by grounding down through my own feet/hands, into the earth, and not to find balance through the walls or the room around me. In doing this, I learned that I must only rely on the stillness of my own self. 

When trying to learn a new difficult trick, Gregory would say, don’t try, do. And in doing, I realized that it was possible, and that I could do it again, not by trying but by doing. It might not work every time, but eventually it would. I learned that “trying” takes place in the future and is never successful, but “doing” takes place in the now and makes everything, anything possible.

When I was going through rough times after the death of Peter and the subsequent suicide of my partner, Zoe, those lessons were already in me — I lived in the now — I didn’t “try” to understand, or try to move through grief, I just stayed grounded through my own feet — didn’t try to stay clinging to the crazy world around me, and I found that balance just by being there.

Judy Finelli (San Francisco)
Sketch by Karen E. Gersch.
I am so grateful I met Gregory and spent time with him learning about what I had seen firsthand in Moscow – a way of looking at and thinking about circus art. The all-important selection of tricks to accomplish a seamless act, the sincerity with which circus artists work, the undervalue of circus art in the US. Because religious persecution drove them from Soviet Russia but it took living here to understand the artistic challenges facing circus performers. Gregory was an innocent. He told me he one time he had a gun – but it turned out it was only a starter pistol used in sports. For Gregory would never have been able to harm anyone. My memory is of him climbing the pole with Nina doing a handstand on his head, now forever beautified by the perfection of the first Big Apple Circus show. He asked me one time if I thought he looked like John Garfield. I told him yes.


by Karen E. Gersch

The next time you ride the subway or are nearby a flag pole, try placing both your hands on either side of the pole.  Grip with all your might.  Bent-kneed, press the sole of one foot to the pipe and then the other and thus alternating hands and feet, shimmy upwards.  

It's a move natural to simians, not humans.  But this was exactly how Gregory ascended a fifteen-foot anchored pole at the circus.  

Except that - while climbing, he also balanced another ten-foot pole on his forehead - at the top of which, Nina was perfectly poised in a one-armed handstand.
Their combined heights were such that her feet would extend through the open bale ring of the tent into the night air.  And despite the oversized clown shoes she wore, one could tell her toes were very well pointed.  

Sometimes, gazing upwards, the audience would glimpse the moon, like a large white ball caught in her feet.  The astounding physicality of the act, presented effortlessly, was like a Master Class in  Poetics.  The reverence of silence as she rose seemed to unify the tent.  It made for a harmony of suspense.   

Her descent was equally dramatic: gripping the pole upside down, Nina slid lightning-fast, braking mere inches from the floor.   

The Chinese have long been masters of vertical pole maneuvers, but mostly momentum and tumbling moves, from one pole to the other.  Nina and Gregory's extreme balancing act originated in the Moscow Circus and in 1977, debuted in the Big Apple Circus at Battery Park.   Theirs was an act never duplicated, either in their native country, nor anywhere else ever since.

Noel Selegzi (NYC)
I never did learn to point my toes, never lost a fear of flying without a harness tightly wrapped around my midsection, and never imagined myself running away to join the circus. I stopped going to circus classes in Hoboken sometime around 1985 as high school got busier and trekking home from Hoboken to the Bronx more tedious. Still, the lessons Nina and Gregory taught me not just in Hoboken but also in van rides to shows, at Brighton Beach, and in their home, have never left me. 
Noel Selegzi (with the
 pope)  atop John Towsen
(with Dolly Parton)

I just recently moved back to the Bronx, and not long ago found myself looking though the unopened boxes in our basement for my unicycle. I hadn’t ridden it in years, and was worried that the rubber in the tires may have rotted or that approaching middle age may have meant my unicycle-riding days were behind me. Still, finding and riding my unicycle was something I inexplicably felt I needed to do. In the end, I couldn’t find my old unicycle, and despite being on a pretty tight budget decided to buy a new one, which I eagerly put together and filled with air. 

I was pleased to learn that riding a unicycle is just like riding a bike … just with one wheel. I rode for a bit, juggled for a bit, and thought back to Gregory trying to teach me how to jump rope on a unicycle, a skill I never mastered. That memory lead to others, like watching Nina being lifted into the air as she clung to the rope that would ensure I landed safely after Jacob had tossed me into the highest reaches of the Circus Arts Center, a largely big empty space, that shared space with a boxing gym on the second floor of an appliance store in Hoboken; and of playing with Baikal, Nina and Gregory’s hopelessly un-trainable great dane who would tower over me as he stood on his hind legs, his front paws on my shoulder. It was only a few days after riding my new unicycle, finding and thinking of how much fun it would be to teach the child we’re expecting how to juggle and ride a unicycle, that I got an email saying Gregory had died.

I am embarrassed to say I was as much surprised to learn that Gregory had still been alive than that he had just passed on. I’m saddened to admit that I really hadn’t given a lot of thought to what happened to Nina and Gregory in the years since I stopped studying with them, even though they had been much more than circus arts instructors for me. Unlike the others writing here, I never got to know Nina or Gregory as an adult.  Nina and Gregory have remained for me frozen in time as childhood memories, which I think may very well be how they would have wanted it. They both loved working with and teaching children and while the number of circus professionals whose careers Nina and Gregory influenced must be impressive, far greater I’m sure are the numbers of people outside the circus whose lives Nina and Gregory touched in less tangible but nonetheless profoundly positive ways.  

I will always recall them with all the wonder of a child, will always remember them as larger than life: heroes of the Moscow State Circus who came to the United States as Gregory put it “to be free in the world of circus”; founders of the Big Apple Circus and the Circus Arts Center in Hoboken, where classes for children were $5 each, or 10 for $45; or if that was still too much, whatever your family could afford. During those $5 classes Nina and Gregory, each in their own way, provided invaluable life lessons that have stayed with me just as surely as my ability to ride a unicycle. Now that both Nina and Gregory have left the center of the ring they cared so deeply about, do I wonder what more I might have learnt from them had I gotten to know them as an adult?  I never did think of Nina and Gregory as “circus instructors” but as teachers and friends who inspired me not just to hunt down a lost unicycle. I can now only regret not having stayed in touch and will do my best to help preserve their memory.  Even if I never do learn to point my toes, there will always be a unicycle in my house and a part of Nina and Gregory in my heart.

Jessica Hentoff (St. Louis)
Gregory Fedin and Jessica Hentoff (NYC, March 2013)

I always think of Gregory Fedin when I am driving on a highway in the right-hand lane and I move over as someone is entering from an on-ramp. He taught me to drive and was adamant about that gracious lane change. Gregory was adamant about everything. Gregory was adamant. Period.

In the 40 years I’ve been doing circus, many people have inspired and influenced me. There are three who I owe my career to: Warren Bacon, Rev. Dr. L. David Harris and Gregory. Well, actually I should say Nina-and-Gregory because they were an absolute unit. They were yin and yang. They were "good cop/ bad cop."  They were the heart and the brains.

I started to learn circus arts at SUNY Purchase under Warren Bacon.  That is where I fell in love with circus. My freshman year I wrote to 50 circuses looking for a summer job.  Only one answered me. It was a Methodist youth circus run by Rev Dave, The Circus Kingdom. This is where I saw the power of circus to transform lives. Rev Dave was doing social circus before there was such an appellation.

Sketch by Karen E. Gersch.
Along with Warren and Nina-and-Gregory, I was a founding member of Big Apple Circus. In addition to being a company member, I did a comedy juggling and acrobatic act with Karen Gersch and I did an aerial perch act with Warren Bacon. After Big Apple Circus’ second year, Warren and I took our aerial act on the road. After a fall and the subsequent breakup of the act, I returned to New York City. Nina and Gregory had just opened the Circus Arts Center in Hoboken, NJ.  

Even after my fall, I knew I wanted to continue in circus. I also knew I wanted to do something unique. That is why I went to Gregory. He often said “if something has already been done, why do it again?”  He always looked to create something new and original.  The students at the Circus Arts Center were like clay and he molded us.

Training with Gregory was grueling.  “I will squeeze you like a lemon until there is nothing left.” He would say. “You will have no blood. You will just be white, bare bones.” “You must borrow hours from your grave, if you want to be in the circus.” The training was physically difficult — at one point Gregory mandated that I do fifty heel ups (hang from a trapeze by my heels and do pull ups with my legs) before I came in to school and then fifty more up high when I got to school. This was followed by running my demanding two-person aerial act five times in a row without a break.  THEN, we could start training for the day. Hard as the training was, when we took the act on the road, we were able to perform strongly and safely no matter how rough the tour.

Gregory was verbally abusive ("go home and cry I the shower" he would say if it upset you). He was paranoid (from growing up in the Soviet Union where his father died in a Siberian labor camp). He was difficult in every way. But he was a genius. And, most of the time, he could read people incredibly well. He was uncanny in his assessment of people’s abilities. In fact, if you wanted to study with him, he would ask you to do one tumbling pass. He could tell just from that if people were vegetarians or if they did any kind of drugs. I never saw him guess wrong. He would work with neither.
Jessica Hentoff (top)
and Kathie Hoyer
double trapeze act.

Gregory created some amazing circus acts.  He got people to do some incredible tricks. I was one of them. Hentoff & Hoyer Double Trapeze was an act Gregory created for me and my partner, Kathie Hoyer. The signature heel-to-heel trick we did has never — to my knowledge — been duplicated.  But Gregory did more than create unique circus tricks, acts, and props.

I run a circus school, myself, now. I am the artistic/executive director of Circus Harmony a social circus school in St. Louis, Missouri. I have worked with thousands of children. Some of my students went and worked on The Circus Kingdom, as I had, with Rev. Dave. My old teacher and partner, Warren Bacon, served as lead coach for many years at Circus Harmony, so he had a direct impact on many of them. Gregory never saw the school. He never met any of the students other than my biological children. Yet his influence touched all of them.

If my students ever think I am demanding or unreasonable, if they think their training is too hard or what I ask of them is near impossible, and then later find that what they are doing is beyond what they thought they were capable of, they can thank Gregory Fedin. I now have students touring around the world, performing on Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, catching the triple on the flying trapeze, walking wire with the Flying Wallendas, even starting their own circus companies.  This new generation of circus stars would not be where they are today if I had not studied with Gregory Fedin.  

A few years ago, my office manager gave me a message to call “a man with a Russian accent who sounded very upset and said it was urgent.” It was Gregory. He was calling because he had seen photos of some of my students in our newsletter and there were two photos where the placement of students’ hands was technically incorrect. He felt it was crucial to tell me this. For this small direct correction and for that larger-than-life legacy of intensity, diligence and creativity in circus arts, Gregory’s work lives on in my students.

At the recent Gregory Fedin Memorial held in Karen Gersch’s NYC loft, we told a lot of stories. We talked a lot about Nina, who died almost twenty years ago. It was moving to hear how many people who had studied with Gregory left him with more than incredible acts. From studying with Gregory Fedin, they had all learned to harness an inner strength that served them throughout their lives.  Everything Gregory taught became deeply ingrained. Even the little lessons — like mine on highway manners — never left people.  Although the Circus Arts Center closed over twenty five years ago, Gregory and his teachings live on both in and beyond the circus ring.


John Towsen (NYC)
As for me, I was probably spared some of Gregory's more domineering teaching tactics only because I was older and already had somewhat of a career. But learn I did. It was Gregory who taught me to walk a slack wire (1/8" airplane cable). First he had to ban me from the tightwire, insisting that they were two different beasts and that any time spent on the other side of the room would be counter-productive. "You do not balance, you stay!" It was almost — excuse the expression — a zen approach to slack wire, a reductive process. You learned not to react to the swaying of the wire, not to adjust, not to raise the arms, but to just go with it. The fact that not only did I never see Gregory himself do it, but that I had no idea if he could or ever had — well, that might have given me pause. Except I actually got the knack of it, blindfolded even, so I guess there's no arguing with success.
Yes, I used to have hair.
Photo:  Patricia Agre

My favorite quote from Gregory, which I used to be able to do with a pretty good Russian accent, came from one evening when I had just completed a satisfying practice session. He asked me how it had gone, and I happily told him that I'd only fallen off the wire four or five times. "That is good," he replied. "Now you know you only have to fall off the wire 10,000 more times, minus four or five." Delivered with a twinkle in his eye that belied his otherwise brusque demeanor.

I never got anywhere near good enough to do a circus slack wire act, but more than 30 years later, fully functional rigging still hangs in my living room and, despite hip-replacement surgery three years ago and being old enough to qualify for Medicare, I can manage to hold my own up there. Thank you, Gregory!

And this I just learned a few days ago: since last year I've been doing some physical comedy work with two NYC actor-clowns, Mr. & Mrs. Clown, using a rehearsal space in their Manhattan Plaza building (artist housing). Little did I know that Gregory Fedin, my circus teacher of 30+ years ago, was living upstairs the whole time. My advice to you youngsters: stay in touch!


The plan is to start an entry on Nina and Gregory for Wikipedia and Circopedia, but in the meantime here are a few other sources. 

• A New Yorker circus article with a section on Nina & Gregory.
• "A One-Ring Circus Can Be a Lot of Fun Too," a NY Times article from June 10, 1977.
• A 1981 NY Times article on the Hoboken circus school.
• There are nice sections on Nina and Gregory in Ernest Albrecht's The New American Circus and in Peter Angelo Simon's The Big Apple Circus, the latter of which also contains a lot more photos.

And if anyone has more remembrances to share, it's never too late. Just send them my way!

Photo © Peter Angelo Simon


Chris B said...

Thank you for writing this. I wasn't at the Hoboken school for long, just a few months, but Nina and Gregory had a huge effect on me. I was hopeless at most things because it was really the first time I had ever done anything physical in my life but I had gotten a job on a circus and they agreed to help me get ready to do a web routine. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had stayed instead and let Gregory " make you wonderful cloud swing act like nobody has seen before". I remember you off over there working so hard on that slack wire and I love that you still have a set-up.

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