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‘What you’re doing is impossible!’ How Dilya Abdulaeva, a plus-size aerial hoop acrobat, smashed stereotypes in Russia’s circus industry and became a star abroad

Source: Meduza
Anna Ivantsova for Meduza

“I’m a toy, a defective toy — there wasn’t enough fabric left when they made me,” 27-year-old Dilya Abdulaeva said to herself. At five feet and three inches (160 cm) tall, she was about to fly into a circus ring on a lyra, or aerial hoop, and hold her own weight of 310 pounds (140 kg) more than 13 feet (4 m) above the ground. Then, she would ride the lyra up to the top of the arena, floating 36 feet (11 m) high. Only a few days earlier, the circus producer had decided that Dilya, whose usual job was to care for the troupe’s trained cats and other performing animals, was going to appear in the ring as “something big” that would “shock” the audience. The crew didn’t even have time to sew a costume for her, so Dilya stepped out of the wings in black sweatpants, a yellow sweater, a mask, and a red wig.

Just before she jumped, Abdulaeva suddenly felt just how afraid she was of heights. She felt her teeth start chattering out of fear. The bald, tall, skinny, 60-year-old clown Anvar Libabov was standing next to her at the time; he noticed her nervousness and whispered into her ear, “Smile and don’t piss yourself.” Abdulaeva, who didn’t catch what he said, responded, “Please, please don’t touch me right now.” The clown waved his arm, wizard-like, toward the raised orchestra pit that was Abdulaeva’s launching pad, and the musicians inside broke out into the Spanish Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The new acrobat quickly crossed herself, closed her eyes, and jumped. When she reached her maximum height of 36 feet above the ground, she glanced briefly around the stands, realized that her grip on the hoop was steady, pulled a fistful of glitter out of her pocket, and tossed it over the circus ring below.

* * *

In the summer of 1977, while circus animal caretakers Galina and Rakhim Abdulaev were on tour in Tashkent, Galina gave birth to a daughter. The couple named her Dilya. Since they didn’t have anyone to leave her with while they traveled with their troupe, Galina and Rakhim took Dilya along with them to work. The baby first entered a circus tent when she was two weeks old: her mother held her up and spun around slowly so that her daughter could have a good look at the ring and the stands.

A few years later, while passing through Vladivostok on another tour, Galina adopted a Siberian kitten and started training it to follow commands. She began adopting other cats soon afterward, and by age 30, she was performing as a circus cat trainer. Her husband, Rakhim, assisted her onstage.

Every month, the state-run circus SoyuzGosTsirk would send its performers to new cities around the Soviet Union (and they had to bring everything with them, “from frying pans to fur coats and leotards”). Because the circus made an effort to shuffle performers around to various settings, each city’s troupe was constantly changing. For Dilya, this meant an opportunity to watch new performances on a regular basis. At age five, she had picked a favorite genre: aerial hoop acrobatics. When she was watching the acrobats suspend themselves from the lyra, Dilya felt as though “wings were sprouting” from her back.

Dilya Abdulaeva in 1978.
Courtesy of Dilya Abdulaeva
Dilya Abdulaeva with her brothers, Rustam and Mikhail, in 1982.
Courtesy of Dilya Abdulaeva

When her parents and their troupes performed, the little girl would usually choose an open seat in the top row of the stands and watch. That’s where six-year-old Dilya was when, during a show in Novosibirsk, the aerial hoop artist’s number was about to start. The overture to the Soviet film version of Jules Verne’s The Children of Captain Grant began to play, and an eagle began rising to the top of the circus tent. The massive bird was standing on a special installation that gradually rotated, allowing every member of the audience to get a look. At a height of 66 feet (20 meters), with no safety equipment, the lyra acrobat flew around the eagle. She was a slender brunette in a white leotard; Dilya later described her as “about the same size as the bird.” From the moment all the lights in the house turned off and the spotlights focused on that acrobat, Dilya was transfixed. She felt as though everyone else in the audience had “dissolved,” she said, and the acrobat was performing for her alone.

When she returned home, Dilya lay down in her bed and wrapped herself up in the blanket. Her father turned off the light, and her parents each wished her a good night. Dilya closed her eyes, but she couldn’t fall asleep. She kept lying there, staring at the wall and imagining herself in the circus tent. Dilya the acrobat was standing in the middle of the ring, bathed in the glow of the spotlights. In her fantasy, Dilya couldn’t see how exactly she looked or how old she was, but the vision made her very happy. After a few more minutes, she was fast asleep.

For many years, that same image rose before Dilya’s eyes as she was going to bed. “But since I was always a fat baby, I understood that reality was going to be different from my dream,” the performer, who is now 43, told Meduza. As a child, she didn’t tell anyone, not even her parents, about her dream career. She was worried that her thoughts would only be met with skepticism. “Plus,” she recalled, “I didn’t believe it could come true myself. Dreams are one thing, but I could look at myself from the outside and realize — how could they ever make an acrobat out of me?”

* * *

As a child, Dilya attended 65 different schools. In some of them, she was a star student. In others, she consistently failed her classes. Like her two younger brothers, Dilya was a chubby kid. This meant that no matter where she was going to school, she always ran into the same insult: “fatty.” Sometimes, she even fought the older students who bullied her.

The young Abdulaeva also had “a sharp sense of justice” from an early age. When she saw anyone harassing her classmates or any of her teachers abusing their power, she always interfered. In seventh grade, when she was attending a school in Ivanovo, Russia, Dilya once criticized a teacher’s behavior during class and was told to leave the room. As she was running down the school stairs, she heard a high school boy calling out from the landing above her: “Where are you running, you fat broad?” he yelled. Dilya didn’t respond. The boy got angry and spit in her face. Dilya ran into the bathroom and washed her face thoroughly with soap. When she was completely certain that it was clean again, she sat down and cried.

Dilya had always been very flexible. Like all the circus kids around her, she was always spending time in the rehearsal ring. Her parents were both animal trainers, so they didn’t teach her acrobatic tricks: “They didn’t stretch me out and help me get all buff like circus parents usually do.” Still, Dilya saw her peers showing off in the ring and “came over and went down into the splits next to them, just to be with everybody else.” She recalled, “I didn’t think about whether that was possible at my weight or not. My primate instincts just kicked in: everybody else went down into the splits, so I did, too.”

Fellow lyra acrobat Yelena Petrakova has been friends with Abdulaeva since the two of them were children. Petrakova said that once, when the girls were 14, they got a very lucky break: their parents had all been sent to perform in Sochi, and the two friends were assigned to the same bedroom. “I remember how she amazed me. In the morning, we got up, didn’t warm up or anything, went to wash off for the day, but then we decided all of a sudden to goof off and do some big stretching moves. I turned around, and there was Dilya, bent all the way back into a doughnut with her toes on her forehead! I told her, ‘Dilya, what you’re doing is impossible!’”

Anna Ivantsova for Meduza
Anna Ivantsova for Meduza
Anna Ivantsova for Meduza
Anna Ivantsova for Meduza

After graduating from high school at age 17, Dilya found work as a circus animal caretaker, like her parents. At the time, her mother had almost 20 trained cats. Every morning, Dilya would go to the circus’s animal kitchen, put a set of four-gallon (15-liter) pans full of fish or meat porridge on the stove, clean the cats’ trays, pour their water and food, groom all of the cats, and give them to her mother in time for rehearsal. After rehearsal, she would groom the cats again, pet them, and give them another meal. Dilya enjoyed her work — she liked the fact that it came with “a lot of cuddles.” Still, she wanted something more.

* * *

In March 2001, a friend of Dilya’s who was performing in a private, touring show called Demiurge offered her a gig in the company — she would be playing the role of an intrusive fly. For a few years, Abdulaeva traveled around Russia performing on the show. In August 2004, when the group arrived in the city of Tula to perform, its administrators abruptly told Dilya that another actress had been hired for her role.

Dilya left for Moscow and reached out to Alexander Kalmykov, the artistic director of the Russian State Circus Company (SoyuzGosTsirk’s successor). She was hoping to find work somewhere in the circus’s operations. During Abdulaeva’s meeting with Kalmykov, another man was also in the artistic director’s office — Oleg Chesnokov, the producer of a show called Krakatuk that billed itself as a modernized version of The Nutcracker. Chesnokov looked carefully at Abdulaeva and offered her a place in his company on the spot. The producer promised Abdulaeva that she wouldn’t have to do much: just fly onto the stage in an aerial hoop and surprise the audience because “something big has suddenly appeared” in the circus ring.

Krakatuk was actively touring Russia and even Europe at the time. As Chesnokov told Meduza, the show combined circus arts, ballet, and theater in its rendition of Tchaikovsky’s classic dance music. For two hours, the company’s artists played out the story of Masha (known as Clara in the West) and the Nutcracker in a circus arena with the well-known orchestral accompaniment in the background. None of the numbers were announced in advance, as they might be in a traditional circus — instead, the action continued nonstop, as in a ballet. A pyrotechnics show near the stage added to the excitement.

After three days of rehearsal, Dilya’s hands were raw.

At first, Chesnokov had asked Abdulaeva to fly from the edge of the arena to the center in the lyra. On the day of her first performance, she said, she was suddenly asked to fly in from a height of four meters (13 feet) before rising up to the very top of the arena. Abdulaeva hadn’t practiced either element of this routine, but she agreed to do it anyway.

Chesnokov recalled that when his crew discovered that Dilya was afraid of heights, “we fastened her to the ring with a harness” so that she could be sure she wouldn’t fall. The producer told Dilya, “Sit on that ring and don’t move, and at the end, land on your feet.” He said she was also allowed to wave her arms at the crowd in greeting.

Dilya’s debut was just before the start of the school year in Russia. There were a lot of kids scattered throughout the circus tent. It was a full house, and the air inside the tent was very stuffy; the kids ate popcorn and waved glowstick bracelets around in the dark with glee. Dilya was set to perform right after intermission. As she stood in the orchestra pit, only one thought was running through her mind: “God, please, let this all end well as quickly as possible.” The clown, Anvar Libabov, made his failed attempt to reassure her, and then, Dilya took off.

As she flew in on the lyra, Abdulaeva froze for the first few seconds. “Everything was moving around me, and it was so scary to look down.” Then, she realized: “I’m flying.”

“At first, I held on hard to the hoop and couldn’t do anything at all. In two swings, they lifted me up to 11 meters [36 feet], and then the lifting stopped. It was like I woke up — ‘Oh, it’s actually okay up here.’ They tied the line at that height,” Dilya remembered. “The numbness went away a little bit, and I started feeling that I wasn’t at risk. And I exhaled. I started living in that situation. I looked around, reached one arm down, took the glitter out of my pocket, and tossed it to one side, then the other.”

During her first performance, Dilya thought only about what movement she should make next and “how not to screw up.” The crowd whistled and applauded in delight. Meanwhile, she was so nervous that after the troupe took its bows, she walked off and “had a very thorough dinner.”

* * *

Dilya showed me a photo of herself shortly before she started working at Krakatuk. “In this one, I weigh 140 – 150 kg [310 – 330 pounds]. I used to be so huge that my hands could barely touch when I rested them on my stomach. And look, in this photo, even the chair is too small for me. I’ve squeezed into it, but it’s too narrow for me.”

Dilya never got obsessed with any diets, but when she started touring with the show in 2004, she still wanted to lose some weight. At first, she followed a low-carb diet and lost about 15 pounds in a week. She tried not to eat after 6:00 PM and to eat fewer flour- and sugar-based foods. “But I definitely had breakdowns, like ‘Oh no! I just ate cake as a midnight snack!’ And that piece of cake goes straight to my face, or to my butt,” Abdulaeva recalled. She soon quit dieting.

Still, in her six months or so at Krakatuk, Abdulaeva lost 66 pounds (30 kg). She thinks the shift in weight happened because she “felt so happy” during that time: “I had such a constant itch to perform, to do tricks, to grow, to train, that those 30 kilos just went away by themselves. I didn’t torment myself in any way.” When her weight was around 260 pounds (115 – 120 kg), her producer asked her not to lose any more so as, in his words, “not to lose the effect.”

Once, when she was on tour in Tula, Dilya saw a little boy in a grocery store tug on his mother’s skirt and say, “Look, what a fat lady.” The mother scolded him, saying, “she’s not fat.” Dilya couldn’t help responding: “Why are you teaching your child to lie? And don’t you understand that you’re teaching him that being fat is something shameful? I’m fat, and I know it, but you can’t use that to insult me. Being fat doesn’t mean you’re scary, and it doesn’t mean you’re bad or defective. It’s my appearance, not who I am.”

Dilya said she didn’t think much about whether she liked her own appearance or not: “I was striving to be like all the other gymnasts, but only in terms of my mastery of the craft. I didn’t think to try to be like them visually. I don’t know why — it just didn’t seem important to me. Just generally, appearance has never been that important to me. Even as a kid, I never wanted to look like anybody else. And later on, I understood that I should be trying to match [other acrobats] by doing what they were doing, not by looking like them. By doing the same tricks, becoming a full-fledged lyra acrobat in my own right. Though even I kept thinking that probably wasn’t possible.”

Before long, it became clear to Abdulaeva that if she wanted to perform as well as other acrobats, she had to start working out her arms and her core while developing heightened coordination. She started rehearsing, in the producer Chesnokov’s words, “day and night, even though there were lots of factors working against her — it was painful, it was uncomfortable, and it was kind of scary.”

Anna Ivantsova for Meduza
Anna Ivantsova for Meduza
Anna Ivantsova for Meduza
Anna Ivantsova for Meduza

Abdulaeva remembers that the show’s other cast members were skeptical about her efforts to rehearse new tricks: “They reacted as though I’d just told them I was going to levitate right before their eyes.” Some people simply mocked Abdulaeva when she told them about her work. “Now I understand better why they reacted that way, but back then, I didn’t understand. Even a lot of the circus people said, “Oh, come on, how can you be a lyra acrobat?” Dilya recalled. Still, her colleagues’ views on the matter didn’t stop her. She quoted a common Russian saying: “The dogs may bark, but the caravan keeps moving.”

Abdulaeva’s parents accepted her decision to become an aerial artist. “When you’re reaching for your goals, it’s really important for people just not to bother you,” Dilya said. When she started performing, her parents told her, “Good job,” but they didn’t say much more. Dilya thinks they were genuinely happy for her. Still, her mom has never seen her perform — probably, in Abdulaeva’s view, because she’s still scared to see her daughter doing such a dangerous sport.

The following year, in 2005, the clown Anvar Libabov was walking by the arena where she was practicing when he froze in wonder. He had been certain that, in his words, “the obese girl” had been selected to be his performance partner “only because she was so thick — just to shock the audience.” When he saw Abdulaeva doing the splits in the air, hanging from the hoop by one hand, holding on upside down, resting the tops of her feet on the hoop while the rest of her body dangling underneath, and hanging upside down from her knees with no hand hold, Libabov couldn’t bring himself to keep walking. He leaned back against a wall and started watching Dilya. Gradually, she started performing the same tricks for audiences around Russia.

Dilya only realized that her childhood dream had come true a year after she started working at Krakatuk. By that point, she was already doing advanced routines. “I was lying in bed, just daydreaming, and all of a sudden, I realized: I’ve been an aerial hoop acrobat for an entire year. And in that moment, I also suddenly realized, oh my God, that’s exactly what I dreamed about doing when I was a kid!”

* * *

When Abdulaeva started performing in Krakatuk, her friend Yelena Petrikova was working as a lyra acrobat in the Moscow State Circus. They’d lost touch while each of them was touring around the country, though Petrikova had heard rumors: “What’s that Adulaeva lady doing? What kind of acrobat is she?”

Still, seeing Dilya perform live was a surprise for Petrikova. “When I realized what Dilya was able to do under the big top, my jaw literally dropped because it was really, really cool,” Petrikova said. “I cheered and yelled — I was just bursting with emotion in that moment. She had this inner dream, everybody ostracized her, everybody was against it, and she could have just spat in their faces, told them to go to hell, left the circus, and started working the register in a grocery store. But she showed all of them! Dilya’s a very good-natured person. She wouldn’t say anything rude to anybody, but just by flying through that ring the way she did, she was telling everybody, ‘Piss off! I did it!’ I was so happy!”

Libabov, the clown, said all the performers on Krakatuk’s cast shed a lot of “sweat and tears,” especially because they had to run everything on their own: they were the ones who put up the stage and took it down, and they had to entertain the kids in the foyer before running straight back into the tent to perform. Libabov said a lot of people broke down on a regular basis, but he never even saw Dilya looking sad.

“When she surprised everybody and flew out and even did tricks, it inspired real delight in the audience. When Dilya went out to take her bows without a mask on and went into the splits in front of the stands, the audience would break out in applause like they would for a celebrity act,” Libabov said. In some cities, people would recognize her and even approach her while she was shopping to express how enraptured they were with her work.

Between 2004 and 2011, Abdulaeva performed in a rather garish costume called “the painted doll.” It consisted of a plush blue leotard with red faux-fur trim and two orange circles sewn to its chest. There was a white tail on the back of the costume, and it came with a mask that had eyeholes, huge stuck-on lips and eyelashes, and a bright red wig. At first, Dilya deeply disliked her costume, but then she started finding it “funny.” Ultimately, she said, she got accustomed to it. “When I was wearing it, I could do the thing I loved more than anything else.”

The mask she wore during her performances covered up all of her peripheral vision. On a technical level, it was highly uncomfortable to work in, and the producer Chesnokov even thought it could be dangerous. Dilya remembers that during her performances, her mask would constantly slide around, and at first, she didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to perform without it. “Now,” she said, “I understand that at the time, I still wasn’t ready. The mask actually gave me a way to hide and then reveal myself. I had to go through that so that I could mature and reveal my entire face without being shy about it.”

In 2008, one of Dilya’s friends offered her a chance to perform on the TV program Minuta slavy, or “A Minute of Glory.” Abdulaeva went on the show as Marilyn Monroe: she wore a white dress and a blonde wig and danced to the American actress’s voice. The acrobat now thinks that number was crude. She called it “a minute of shame, not a minute of glory.” One of the show’s judges, the popular singer Philipp Kirkorov, was enamored with Abdulaeva: “Dilya, they [the other judges] are used to working in the creepy, cynical world of show business. They’ve been desensitized. They can’t see anything pure, beautiful, tasty. I just want to eat you up; I just want to touch you. Okay, you’re not thin. So what? You’ve used that to prove that any thicker woman has the right [to do anything], even fly in a hoop!”

Dilya Abdulaeva’s performance on Minuta slavy
Irina Selivanov

The Marilyn Monroe character that Abdulaeva developed for the show came to her by chance, but it stuck with her for years. In 2009, the circus director Sergey Margai invited Dilya to perform in a Moscow club called Icon. He was organizing what he called a “Monroe party” where guests would dance before sitting down to watch a show. Margai’s crew made a new white dress for Dilya to match Monroe, and she put on a wig and performed in her hoop to the song “I Wanna Be Loved by You.”

* * *

In 2011, when she was 34, Abdulaeva began to dream of flying solo. She quit Krakatuk and decided to perfect her repertoire at the Center for Circus Arts in Moscow, a subdivision of the State Circus where artists develop and fine-tune their performances. At the Center, contemporary commedia dell’arte director Natalia Goncharova was working with her own troupe when she encountered Dilya. Goncharova told me that she “couldn’t understand at all how Dilya was doing all that at her weight.” The director started paying close attention to Abdulaeva’s rehearsals.

According to Goncharova, none of the other directors at the Center wanted to “take Dilya on,” but she was interested in doing just that. Goncharova decided that a comedic number would be most appropriate, and she started working with Abdulaeva on some new choreography.

The Russian State Circus Company usually gives directors half a year to develop new acts, but the company asked Goncharova to have Dilya’s piece ready three months earlier, evidently “to check that box and be done with it.” After just a quarter of a year, Dilya’s performance wasn’t finished — her costume wasn’t fully prepared, and neither was her choreography. She was given only an hour per day to practice in the air, which Goncharova told me is very little. Once, the upper brake on one of the winches holding Dilya’s rope malfunctioned during a rehearsal, and the acrobat went flying downward. “She didn’t fall [to the floor], but she dropped down very fast. We both had a huge scare that day,” Goncharova said.

The piece Goncharova created for Dilya was called “A Big Fan.” In it, the acrobat would enter the circus tent looking like an ordinary audience member — she carried flowers to give to the performers, as many people do in Russia, and she wore a gray suit with a frilled collar and high-heeled shoes. Goncharova said the aim was for Abdulaeva to look “like the director of some kind of bank or a big department store.” Every time Abdulaeva walked out of the stands and into the circus ring, she would trip, and some people in the audience would laugh. By this point, her lyra would already be lying in the middle of the ring. Abdulaeva would then fall into the aerial hoop as it was rising, giving the impression that it had trapped her. Screaming, she would be lifted upwards as the audience gasped in disbelief: “What’s happening?! The poor woman!” The idea was for viewers to see Dilya as an ordinary person, as some victim of a cruel joke played by the circus, until she was high in the air. Only then would she throw off her gray suit to reveal a pink leotard underneath, and the aerial acrobatics would begin.

When the Russian State Circus decides which performances to send on tour, it requires a report written by a special commission. Sometimes, ordinary viewers are invited into the circus to watch a new act alongside the commission’s members. Goncharova remembers that when Dilya performed her new piece in that setting, the lay audience “reacted very emotionally.” The commission, which was composed of government-recognized performers (mostly men), had a very different take. The clown Mai (a.k.a. Yevgeny Maikhrovsky, an award-winning member of a highly respected circus family) called Dilya’s performance “a freak show,” adding, “let’s go ahead and invite some bearded women, too!” Maikhrovsky’s colleagues agreed with him.

After consulting with one another in private, the commission invited Abdulaeva back in and told her that her piece had been accepted on paper but that the circus would not be employing her to go on tour.

Alexander Kalmykov, the CEO of the Russian State Circus Company at the time, approached Goncharova after Dilya’s performance and said, “Well, the girl is a good performer, but you should have added more ruffles on her pants so that people wouldn’t be able to see her stomach and it wouldn’t be so obvious that she’s fat.”

“When an acrobat is doing the splits in the air, people are used to seeing that she has a flat little belly that lets the leotard lie smooth between her legs. And naturally, Dilya’s stomach stretches the leotard and sticks out,” Goncharova explained. “The commission wanted me to turn Dilya into this plump little happy comedian. They were completely convinced that a fat woman can only be a clown [in the circus] even if she’s doing impossible things, doing all the tricks any other aerial hoop acrobat does. They were expecting a clown from me, and I showed them a strong and moving woman. The whole point of the piece was to reveal this artist in a normal person’s costume. I mean, there’s an absolutely special charm and grace about the fact that this woman is exactly like the people sitting in the stands — she has fat, she has a butt, she has filled-out legs.”

Then-CEO Alexander Kalmykov, who is now 67, claimed that “a fat person can become an animal trainer or a clown, but every other genre [of circus performance] is closed to them.” In Kalmykov’s view, audiences come to the circus to look at what he sees as beautiful bodies. “When a 20-year-old, skinny, erotic acrobat is flying under the tent, the men sitting in the audience marvel at her, she attracts them,” he said. Kalmykov is now a professor in the department of theatrical celebrations at the Moscow State Institute of Culture.

He claimed that Abdulaeva doesn’t have the right figure for most circus work both because he doesn’t find shorter, larger women attractive and because larger individuals have to hold up more weight when they perform aerial acrobatics.

Anna Ivantsova for Meduza

When confronted with Abdulaeva actual work, of course, the professor’s model doesn’t hold up. He called her case “nonsensical” and “a paradox.” “This girl has become so fanatically obsessed with lyra acrobatics that she’s done all these tricks at the same level as other acrobats. If she were just large and eccentric and couldn’t do anything, nobody would hire her, but she’s a very serious acrobat. Her level [of performance] is enchanting.” Though Kalmykov still insists that a lyra acrobat “should be pretty and weigh 45 – 50 kilograms [100 – 110 pounds],” even he admitted that “the Russian State Circus Company rejected Dilya out of narrow-mindedness.”

Natalia Goncharova, the director who worked with Abdulaeva, was a circus lyra performer herself, and she also performed acrobatics on horseback. During her performance career, Goncharova was a little bit taller than Dilya, and she weighed about 100 pounds (45 kg). She said larger acrobats have to accomplish more to keep themselves in the air. “Holding up your own weight of 45 kilograms is already no easy task,” she explained. “And then you’re talking about holding up 140 kilograms with those same two arms?” The director believes that in almost all cases, someone of Dilya’s size could never perform on the aerial hoop. “When she hangs by the back of her feet — just imagine — she’s holding up 140 kilograms [almost 310 pounds] on a few bones, essentially! And she does it with no safety gear. That’s a huge load on the shoulders, the knees, the ankles.”

Even though the Russian State Circus Company didn’t accept her act, Dilya didn’t go back to Krakatuk. According to Goncharova, the director of that show, Oleg Chesnokov, was very angry at Abdulaeva for staying away even when he invited her back. Goncharova said that Chesnokov had been paying Abdulaeva a pittance and that sometimes, he didn’t even pay her at all. “[Chesnokov] got mad at her for working independently, for becoming a solo performer, when he wanted her to be perpetually enslaved in that awful mask.” When Goncharova saw a video of Abdulaeva performing in Chesnokov’s show, she said she immediately realized what her trainee was there for — “to shock people.” (In an interview with Meduza, Chesnokov denied Goncharova’s claims, saying, “I treated Dilya as a full-fledged member of our collective, and she made as much as [money] the rest of the performers.”

Goncharova thinks Dilya was ultimately able to overcome the obstacles she encountered in Russia and become a recognized aerial hoop acrobat in Europe because she is “incredibly driven.” The director concluded, “I don’t think anybody but her could have done it. But it seems as though she isn’t fully conscious of that herself and doesn’t quite appreciate what it is she’s done.”

* * *

In 2007, Abdulaeva began sending headshots and videos of her performances to theaters and circuses around the world. In 2011, a few months before Dilya’s job application at the Russian State Theater Company was turned down, she was offered a lyra acrobatics position at a variety show called The Hole in Spain. On September 11, 2011, Dilya left Russia for Madrid and started working at the Calderón theater building.

Every day, Dilya took the metro from the Tribunal station to Tirso de Molina a few stops away. One November, she started down her usual commute, walking down to the metro platform and waiting for her train, when she suddenly noticed an enormous banner ad for The Hole on the wall across from her. The ad was a picture of her hanging on her hoop and dressed in her Marilyn Monroe costume. Dilya was pleasantly surprised. She looked around to see whether anyone had recognized her, but the ad showed Abdulaeva in a wig, looking quite different from the way she looked in ordinary life. Nobody would have been able to notice that the woman standing on the platform was the same as the one in the poster.

The Hole attracted full houses in every city where it toured. When Dilya flew up right under the ceiling and hung upside down from her hoop using only the back of her feet to suspend her, audiences squealed with delight. Whenever it came time to move to a new city, that city would suddenly be bombarded with images of Abdulaeva as Monroe — in subway systems, cafes, and even on the sides of public buses, Dilya saw massive images of herself in character. Sometimes, she asked passersby to take pictures of her with the ads in the background, but even then, they still didn’t recognize her.

An advertisement featuring Dilya Abdulaeva on a city bus. Madrid, 2011
Courtesy of Dilya Abdulaeva
Dilya Abdulaeva and fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier pose for a photo in the foyer of the Casino De Paris concert hall. Paris, 2017
Courtesy of Dilya Abdulaeva
Dilya Abdulaeva performs on the lyra. 2017
Courtesy of Dilya Abdulaeva

In our interview, Dilya mused, “It’s interesting that the Spanish did the opposite [of what was done in Russia] and emphasized in all those ads that I was heavy, like that was my main attraction. A heavy person flying in the hoop.”

Over the course of the next seven years, Abdulaeva toured nearly every city in Spain, Italy, and France multiple times and performed in Mexico and Argentina as well. She spent her days off with her colleagues, who were well-known actors and circus artists from all over Europe.

In the summer of 2015, Yelena Petrikova traveled to Madrid on vacation. As she was walking around the city, she saw a huge banner at a bus stop that featured her childhood friend in a lyra. Petrikova thought, “Well, well, how do you like that, you bastards? They kept cutting her down at home, but she’s made it so that her face is all over Europe, advertising her show.” Abdulaeva’s fellow acrobat explained, “In Russia, people didn’t accept Dilya because the most important thing was for everything to fit a certain standard. For them, Dilya had a non-standard appearance. They just weren’t able to recognize someone unique. After all, standards can be changed when somebody does something well.”

Petrikova is slightly taller than Abdulaeva and weighs 123 pounds (56 kg). She said that even if she gains a single kilogram, or slightly more than two pounds, she immediately finds it harder to do her work. “I don’t know how Dilya does it, honestly. She’s just an extraordinary lady! That’s all I can say. I produce the largest [circus arts] festival in the world, Idol. I know almost every artist in the world, from Australia to Greenland. None of them can touch Dilya! I don’t know a single other aerial acrobat like her.”

Petrikova said that the moves Abdulaeva performed in Krakatuk were “at an intermediate difficulty level,” but what she was doing was still “practically impossible.” In Petrikova’s view, “This is a story about overcoming obstacles. It’s also important to note that Dilya is always growing and improving, and now she’s hanging by her feet, which is something that a lot of thin acrobats can’t do.”

After one of Dilya’s performances in The Hole at the Casino de Paris concert hall in France, she was approached by the famed fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. He said, “When I look at you, I see Marilyn Monroe.” She didn’t feel very confident about her English, so she simply responded, “Thank you,” and asked to pose for a picture.

Anna Ivantsova for Meduza

* * *

In 2018, Dilya finished her final tour with The Hole. She returned to Russia with no new job offers on her plate. Before long, she decided to spend half a year with friends in China, and she trained extensively there. Then, Dilya once again returned home. In the winter of 2019, another of her dreams came true: the Zapashny brothers, descendants of a major circus dynasty, invited her to perform in the Moscow State Circus. She played an evil stepmother character in the Zapashnys’ troupe for a full season.

Dilya Abdulaeva ultimately purchased an apartment near Moscow. Most recently, she’s been working in a local circus arts studio, teaching children how to perform on the aerial hoop. When international borders reopen, she plans to tour Europe once again.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Irina Kravtsova

Editing by Tatiana Ershova

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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