Dressed in a red and silver sequined jacket, 13-year-old Muhamed Balikhanov holds a long pole as he slowly rides a bicycle along a tightrope suspended several metres off the ground.
In his remote village of Chakhchakh, in the southern Russian region of Dagestan, Muhamed is one of the few to continue a tradition of tightrope walking that dates back hundreds of years.
“In Dagestan, tightrope walking has always been the ‘road of the highlander’ because there were no roads. That’s how tightrope walking was invented,” said Askhabali Gasanov, who heads a circus studio in the city of Makhachkala.
Dagestan’s tightrope walkers later gained fame by performing daring feats in circuses. During the Soviet era, a troupe of artistes from Dagestan performed in Moscow and abroad, and its members were awarded the prestigious title of People’s Artists of the USSR.
One of Russia’s current top tightrope walkers, Rasul Abakarov, is of Dagestani origin, though he grew up in Russian port city St Petersburg. This month he walked along a 100-metre-high wire between skyscrapers in Grozny, Chechnya.
The skill could be long forgotten in the small settlement of Chakhchakh where cows and chickens wander freely, were it not for the efforts of Yamudin Ekhmetkhanov, a 68-year-old former acrobat, who is now passing on his knowledge to a group called Gunar that includes Muhamed, his cousin’s son.
The teenager has been practising tightrope walking for two years and has managed to achieve incredible results, his teacher said.
The teacher said he believes the tradition is still valued in the region. “Our people ... very much respect tightrope walking tradition in Dagestan,” he said.
“I am happy about it because, in this case, it will never disappear.”
Revive this art
Muhamed said he aspired to follow in the footsteps of his grandfathers and great-grandfathers and excel on the tightrope.
“When I’m grown up I want to revive this art so my children, and my grandchildren can also do it,” he said, adding that he dreams of opening a specialised school in his village.
In Makhachkala, children are learning the art at a circus studio called Pekhlevan – meaning hero or fighter. Its 64-year-old founder, Gasanov, has been tightrope walking since he was 18.
In a high-ceilinged room with peeling paint, a group of girls and boys in T-shirts, jeans or tracksuit bottoms take turns to perform on the tightrope to music.
Gasanov manages a troupe of eight children, who perform tightrope stunts all across the region – one of Russia’s poorest – in an attempt to keep this ancient tradition alive, which he admits risks becoming forgotten. “It is a dying talent, a disappearing one, but we try,” he said.
A circus republic
With dwindling state support it has become more difficult to sustain local performance schools and to get children involved in tightrope walking.
The authorities have expressed interest in building a circus in Makhachkala, and supporting schools to teach the traditional skill. But Dagestan, like neighbouring Chechnya, is struggling economically, and dependent on Moscow for funding to balance its budget.
Gasanov wants Makhachkala to have its own permanent circus building like in many other cities in Russia, to show off the regional art form.
“Since 1995, I’ve been knocking on the doors of government institutions and the culture ministry, trying to explain to them that Dagestan is a circus republic, and that there should be a circus here,” he says.
He sees a risk to the tradition from young people moving away to find work due to high unemployment and poverty in the region. “Now only enthusiasts who love tightrope walking work here. The values are different now, people go where you can earn more.”
Many also have ceased to value the skill behind tightrope walking, he said regretfully. “Young people especially say: ‘what’s the point?’”