Tomáš Kubínek was just three years old on the August night in 1968 when 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops invaded his Czechoslovakian homeland to crush Alexander Dubček’s liberalization movement, known as the Prague Spring.
“My father was quite outspoken against communism for a long time. So when the occupation happened, he right off the bat said we had to get out of there, otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a life, growing up,” Kubínek recalled.
“We left within a few days of the occupation and went across the border to Austria, then spent three months in a refugee camp there until Canada accepted us.”
More than 50 years later, a faint hint of Central Europe remains in Kubínek’s voice as he describes his impressions on a return trip to Prague at the age of 22, when his homeland was still under Soviet rule.
“It was depressing; it was grey. When I arrived, it was the May Day celebration, so they had all these red banners up everywhere, with golden writing about how great the Soviet Union was, and how communism was the tonic for the people. It was horrible.”
Despite those grey, depressing roots, Kubínek has devoted his life to bringing joy and laughter to audiences around the world as a solo performer whose promo tagline describes him as “a certified lunatic and master of the impossible.”
“I love laughing and I love humour. I remember, when I was a kid, going to the library. I would get books of cartoons from Punch magazine or Chas Addams or New Yorker cartoons,” he said.
“I saw them as these wonderful riddles that had a little bit of humour at the centre, and tried to figure out what the joke was. I remember neighbours would have stacks of Reader’s Digest, and I’d always read ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ and ‘Humour in Uniform.’”
Kubínek was exposed early to a variety of art forms that would become the basis of his career.
“My Dad would take us to puppet shows and magic shows. As a kid in St. Catharines (Ontario), he took me to the circus. I think I was in kindergarten when we went the first time.
“I just loved all of that stuff. Anytime I’d go to the library, I’d pick up books about performing and clowns and circuses and magic. I don’t even know what drew me to it. Maybe we have tendencies of where our path is predestined or something.”
At the age of nine, Kubínek gave his first performance before a group of experienced magicians. Four years later, he had an agent. He would soon make his circus debut with a duo of Brazilian clowns. One of his circus highlights was performing with members of the famous European troupe of aerialists, The Flying Wallendas.
“I was a pirate king character, and I would climb one of the masts, where the rigging was attached, and taunt Tino Wallenda to come up and fight me.
“I was on a rappelling harness and we’d kind of struggle around up there. Then he’d throw me over the edge and I’d look like I was falling on the audience, but I would actually swing on the end of a rope and not hit the ground.”
Despite the potential danger, Kubínek trusted his seasoned performing partner.
“We had this private little moment on the high wire. The band would be playing this dramatic music and he would be standing opposite me and he’d always say, ‘are you clipped in?’ And I’d say, ‘yup.’ And he’d say, ‘OK, here I come.’
“I always loved that little private moment. ‘Are you clipped in?’”
As a solo artist who is equal parts clown, mime, acrobat, contortionist and vaudevillian, Kubínek has learned to fly without a net, “always shooting a little bit higher” than where he finds himself at any given time.
“By getting more proficient at performing and improvising and humour, and also the poetic element of it, I surprise my own self in my shows, and it makes me reach even higher and tune into it more.”
Although not a trained musician, Kubínek does incorporate a ukulele (and sometimes a musical saw) into his performances. He has also made several appearances with symphony orchestras.
“When I started to do it seven or eight years ago, it was pretty scary for my first few shows because you have 70 musicians who have spent their whole lives learning their instruments,” he admitted.
“Nowadays, it’s just a lot of fun because I’m the anarchy element, the crazy guest. I love doing it because I make the musicians laugh behind me and I make the audience laugh. I just pull it all together and make everybody fall in love with each other.”
Kubínek describes himself as a “travelling, itinerant, dog-and-pony puppeteer and flimflam man,” who aims to provide “a kind of theatrical atmosphere that’s alive in every moment and playing off the audience.”
So, what role does the audience play?
“They’re the lover of the evening. They’re who I’m doing it for, who I’m sharing the evening with. They’re my date for the night.”
But does the date ever go badly?
“I’m pretty good at it,” Kubínek laughed. “I’m a seasoned gigolo.”
His new show, Tomáš Kubínek – Miracle Man, will be on the Yukon Arts Centre mainstage on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. It is recommended for adult audiences only. Other shows are slated for Dawson City and other Yukon communities.