Eight hundred thousand people live in the Latvian capital of Riga, and just about all of them dress like rock stars. Besides the stylish leather boots and new-wave haircuts, it’s as if someone poured a bucket of blonde paint over their heads, etched in sharp angles for cheekbones, and used only the tallest canvas for the portrait of a typical Latvian. If the locals look good, the buildings do too. Riga is the capital of Art Nouveau, the 18th century art and architecture movement that aspired to break rules. Although much was damaged during World War II, today the city has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere. I’ve never been a massive building nut, so my expectations were less than stellar when I heard that legendary Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein’s dad built one of the most ambitious Art Nouveau buildings ever. Until I saw it.
What possesses a Victorian-era aristocrat to design a building with such unusual vision, laden with science-fiction motifs amongst archways and sculptures time-warped in from the future? What made him sculpt the large heads of a King and Queen, staring into opposite corners, sitting above the building as if it were merely a chess piece? And who, in their right mind, would pony up the cash for this grand, far-fetched creative endeavour? I’m awed by the modern architectural thought behind Dubai’s developments, but they don’t compete with the sheer wackiness on display in Riga. On Albert Street, admiring the attention to detail caused my neck to ache, staring at the sphinxes, naked muses, or even faces screaming in agony. With the right lighting, Albert Street would be a perfect set for Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Metropolis and Batman – at the same time, without changing any of the facades. As it stands, many of these buildings are mere apartment blocks, with “For Rent” sales displayed outside. Some are crumbling with time; some are magnificently restored (including the Irish, French and Russian Embassies). Building-watching provides a good morning out, only slightly eclipsed by that other passion of mine – people watching.
A great place for that was at one of the world’s oldest running circuses. For well over a century, the Riga Circus has been housed in a somewhat decrepit old building permeated with a century of laughter, acrobatics, and animal tricks. It’s not very politically correct to talk about the circus these days, but I believe there are bad people and there are good people, and there are bad circuses and there are good circuses, the latter treating what few animals they still employ with utmost love and respect in a mutually beneficial relationship. The only way I could find out if Riga Circus fits into this category was to go and see it.
A highlight was meeting Aleksandrs Slaugotnis, a legendary Russian clown who has been wearing face paint for 37 years. He was trained by Oleg Popov, which in Clown World is the equivalent of saying you were trained by Michelangelo. Watching Aleksandrs apply his smile and red makeup to his nose (“I don’t need a clown’s nose, my face is funny enough,” he tells me) was a special, privileged glimpse into the mysterious shadow world of the circus. A man in full Arabian prince regalia walks past, together with a breathtaking blonde woman in a matching pink outfit. The King and Queen of the Carnival are a regal sight to behold.
Soon enough, the ringmaster announces the performance, and a sizeable crowd has gathered, mostly local kids with their parents. Together we laugh and yell and ooh and aah, eat peanut crepes and stare at mammoth hairy camels. Despite the age of the circus, the dogs, llamas, camels and monkeys glow with health and enthusiasm, and the two-hour show is awash in laughs and thrills. Aleksandrs is particularly a hit, as deft with slapstick as he is on a tightrope. High-pitched blonde kids scream in approval. It’s as Aleksandrs says: “People will always need clowns, and people will always need the circus.”