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Slava brings snow to Miami

Remember Let It Snow? The vintage Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn tune conjures a wintry frozen world outside, a warmly cozy one inside. Slava's Snowshow, which will begin previews at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on July 24, flips that script.

The forecast for scorching, midsummer Miami? Inside the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, there will be a 100 percent chance of snow and merriment, thanks to a Russian clown named Slava Polunin.

Like shows by the Blue Man Group and the many productions in Cirque du Soleil's thriving empire, Slava's Snowshow is what its cheering international audiences make of it. Driven by imagery, artful acting, effects and music, not anchored to language, Slava's Snowshow is by design an open-to-interpretation feast for the senses.

David F. Foster, the show's Australia-born North American producer, says of Slava's Snowshow and its ilk, "It's less intellectual; you react on an emotional and feeling level. It's a sensory experience. It's about that gut-level resonance. That's why people connect to them.''

Polunin, who lives in Paris and performs all over the world, was born in 1950 (as Vyacheslav Ivanovich Polunin) in the tiny Russian town of Novosil between Moscow and the Black Sea. The great influences during his childhood, both reflected in Slava's Snowshow, were the snow-covered world outside his family's home in winter and the classic movie clowns -- Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and so on -- who enthralled him.

"I was watching The Kid with Charlie Chaplin on television, and my mother turned it off, and I cried 'til morning,'' Polunin says in a conference call from Paris, his torrent of husky Russian words interpreted by South Florida-based translator Olga Gendlina.

"The next morning I woke up and created some big shoes out of cardboard and painted on a mustache. I went to a party at school, put on a hat and made everyone laugh. Then I found out it was a profession to make people laugh.''

As for the snow, he says, "it was one of the biggest, strongest images of my childhood. My parents assigned me to shovel snow off the road. But in winter, the snow was three times my height, so I had to dig tunnels instead of [shoveling snow from] walkways. The snow also scared me, because sometimes my mother would leave and couldn't get back home because of a snowstorm. Snow means a lot to me -- both beauty and a nightmare.''

Polunin's journey toward Slava's Snowshow began when he studied mime in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1977, then founded his clown school and company, the Litsedei Theater, in 1979. His influences ranged from those cinematic comic greats to Federico Fellini, from the standard-setting French mimes (Etienne Decroux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Marceau) to commedia dell'arte techniques and avant-garde performers like Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch.

Polunin and his fellow clowns did street theater as well as formal performances in theaters and movie houses. In 1989, he organized a clown "Peace Caravan'' to Paris. He developed a show called Yellow; by 1993, it had morphed into Slava's Snowshow, whose central character (played by Polunin and others in his troupe) is a sad-eyed clown dressed in a distressed yellow outfit.

Polunin created Slava's Snowshow and took it on an endless international road, he says, because "for many years, I had been successful but didn't have enough chance to be onstage myself. I had 15 wonderful clowns and did everything to help them succeed. Everyone was a star. Then I decided it was time for me. I wondered if there was something I could do onstage that no one else was doing. So I decided to create a clown show with metaphysics and surrealism.''

For a couple of years in the mid-1990s, Polunin folded parts of Slava's Snowshow into Cirque du Soleil's Alegria; "I was doing modern clown art, the same as Cirque,'' he says.

But for more than a decade, Slava's Snowshow (which won London's Olivier Award as Best Entertainment in 1998) has been touring the world as an independent production with an ever-changing cast. It isn't that Polunin's actor-clowns come and go. He deliberately likes to shake things up in order to keep his performers and the show fresh. So a performer might play the yellow clown one night (Polunin isn't always in the cast), the green clown the next.

One of the clowns accustomed to Polunin's change-it-up casting is his 21-year-old son Ivan. "Vanya'' Polunin has performed with his father since the beginning of Slava's Snowshow, appearing in Alegria as a child, now playing mostly the green clown (though he has performed every role in the show). His mother, brother, brother's wife and little girl are also part of the show; that way, he says, "nobody has to stay behind.''

The younger Polunin has learned Russian, English, French and is starting to study Japanese during his life in his father's specialized kind of theater. He studies sculpture and furniture design when he's at home in London but says that the times he isn't performing are difficult.

"It is in the blood,'' he says. "Every kid dreams of running away and joining the circus.''

As for the show itself, parents are discouraged from bringing children younger than 8, because the action inside the theater -- paper "snowstorms,'' giant balls that fly into the audience, clowns spritzing observers with water and draping fake spider webs over others -- can get pretty chaotic.

Polunin says kids love his shows, but he feels productions need to be addressed to adults or children, adding, "I picked adults for this one, because they are more deprived and this makes them happy.''

The yellow clown, a character Polunin calls "both poetic and crazy,'' starts out in a rather grim place -- he seems to have a noose around his neck -- but he keeps getting distracted and diverted, much as we all do in life.

If everything works as planned, Polunin says, Slava's Snowshow achieves a degree of synergy between the artists and their audiences that most theater pieces never do.

"Each and every person sees different things,'' Polunin says. "This is the biggest joy the audience gets. They have their own chance to create. In the beginning, the audience watches me. For the last half-hour, I'm watching them.''