February 25, 1991 12:00 PM

Here on the ground, among the sea of empty seats during a rehearsal at Radio City Music Hall, they look like a couple of guys who just want to—clap!—pump you up. Vilen “Willie” Golovko has the barrel chest and well-muscled legs of a shot-putter: compact Pyotr Serdukov, with his Popeye-the-Sailor arms, could pass for a wrestler. But Golovko, 33, and Serdukov, 28, are more than just jocks. Passionate performers who belong to one of the world’s most innovative circus troupes, they have dedicated themselves to mastering the most difficult feat in the 131-year history of trapeze. As part of the Flying Cranes, Golovko and Serdukov turn in performances that are equal parts power and bravado: After hurtling through the air at vertiginous speed in a quadruple somersault, Serdukov explodes out of his final flip at the last second in order to meet Golovko’s iron-man grasp.

While that dazzling move—which has been performed consistently by just one other team, Miguel Vazquez and his brother, Juan, for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus—would be considered the ultimate feat by most aerialists, it may soon be only a nourish for Golovko, Serdukov and the eight other members of the Flying Cranes. Now on a 40-city U.S. tour as stars of the Moscow Circus, the troupe is working toward the Five, as they call it: five backward somersaults performed in midair, 30 feet above the ground. Ironically, Golovko and Serdukov decided that the feat was possible only after Pyotr slammed into Willie two years ago during an attempted quadruple somersault, leaving Willie with a concussion. Analyzing the collision, they concluded that the trick had gone wrong because Pyotr, moving too fast, had done four and a half turns—which meant they were just a half somersault away from the record books. “We want to be the best and to do the impossible,” Golovko has said. “The quintuple stretches the possibilities of what a human can do.”

For all of the Cranes’ technical prowess, their act emphasizes dramatic storytelling rather than acrobatics. In 1981 Golovko’s father, Vilen, a former trapeze artist, suggested that Willie produce an aerial extravaganza, and Golovko Jr. put together his group of fliers. With the help of artistic director Pyotr Maistrenko, Willie, a Soviet Army veteran, devised a routine that took its inspiration from a Russian ballad about war heroes whose souls rise from the battlefield as flying cranes. Soaring through the air in their white costumes, lighted by strobes and seen through a scrim of green smoke, the fliers evoke the drama of battle, each one eventually dropping into the net in an elegant, balletic fall. Through a translator, Golovko explains, “The piece is not just about soldiers dying on the battlefield. It’s about world unity. The feeling is that either mankind will fly as a flock or crash as a flock.”

“They are really astonishingly great artists,” said choreographer Jerome Robbins, who came to see the Cranes so many times during their first U.S. tour in 1988 that he was finally given a backstage pass. “Their work is incredible from a choreographic point of view. It truly gives the feeling of flying.” Katharine Hepburn was another repeat fan: She saw the Cranes five times during their last tour. “They’re great,” she says.

Along with Golovko and Serdukov (a factory worker’s son from Kazakhstan who started acrobatics at 12), the troupe includes Golovko’s wife, Lena, who is the mother of their 4-year-old son, Vilen III. Pyotr’s wife. Natasha, a costume designer, works with the circus as well; both she and their 3-year-old daughter, Natasha, travel as part of the Cranes’ 25-member collective.

These days, Willie and Pyotr admit they are feeling some pressure to perform the quintuple. For the moment, they are trying it only in rehearsals. Until Pyotr’s flying is on the mark, they say, it’s too risky to put the trick together for an audience. “Some people ask if we are going to make an announcement when we finally try it,” says Golovko, who, as an artist, chafes at the thought. “That would be like Baryshnikov dancing on stage and stopping to tell the audience he was now going to do a triple pirouette. In our act, we have so much, apart from tricks.”

—Michelle Green, Toby Kahn in New York City

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