World-famous Russian mime Slava Polunin was just a few months into his appointment as head of Russia's oldest circus when an animal rights scandal laid bare his uneasy challenge: to reform the stodgy venue without an ugly uproar.

Now the bushy white-haired Vyacheslav (Slava) Polunin carefully chooses his words when asked whether the Big Saint Petersburg Circus, also known as the Fontanka Circus, will get rid of its many animal numbers and veer toward the more artful western style.

"I want to keep the best there is in the circus. I don't want to destroy anything," said Polunin, who has spent many years in France, Britain, and Canada, where he worked with the Cirque du Soleil before accepting the ground-breaking invitation to head the Fontanka Circus in January.

The Fontanka -- named for the Saint Petersburg street where it is located -- dates back to 1877. It was the first stationary circus in Russia, housed in a magnificent state-of-the-art building in a prime location of the historic imperial city.

It was founded by Italian Gaetano Ciniselli, and his family ran the venue until the Bolshevik revolution. In 1919 the circus was nationalised and Ciniselli's son fled the country.

Today, the sign "Ciniselli Circus" adorns the ornate building, but inside it has lost much of its lustre. The circular audience stalls date from the Soviet times, and their red fabric seats are faded and worn.

Critics have disparaged the circus for its tired Soviet-era tricks and lack of vision. On its 135th anniversary show last year, guests watched as a man in a tailored suit tamed lions, acrobats soared to the tune of a Russian folk song, and poodles marched on hind paws in a single file - all staples of the Soviet past.

In April Polunin staged a symbolic washing of the circus' facade, which involved drummers, juggling artists, and clowns who frolicked in the soapy water.

But days later, a scandal rocked the circus when footage made by the Vita animal rights group showed trainers beating a monkey and a kangaroo during training.

Though it was not clear when the incidents occurred, many celebrities including rock star Boris Grebenshikov and arthouse film director Alexander Sokurov asked the famous clown in a letter to end the misery of "circus animal prisoners" and make the institution animal-free.

Moscow's renowned Durov circus, which has animal numbers, meanwhile has pleaded with Polunin to keep the decades-old Russian tradition of circus animals, arguing that "separate cases of cruelty don't reflect the entire picture".

The decision would be a tough one: although Polunin's own shows never used animals, many of the circus employees are animal trainers and numbers have included monkeys, sea lions, bears, and even camels, now housed near the main building as well as other locales further from the centre.

Speaking with AFP, Polunin addressed the issue only vaguely, saying that he received the anti-cruelty letter and plans to hold round-table discussions on the issue.

He said the circus needs extensive work, both on the building and on the substance of the shows.

"The circus was at its peak in the 1950s, now it's stagnating," he said. "Our artists are very professional, they are the best. But there is a lack of directing, a lack of new ideas."

Discontent however is also brewing inside the Fontanka Circus.

Last week, circus staff sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to sack Polunin, accusing him of corruption and overspending. The letter, signed by 100 people and published online, said the mime was a man "far removed from circus culture" who wants to throw out the traditions of Russian circus.

The 63-year-old Polunin founded his own clown troupe Litsedei in Saint-Petersburg in the 1980s, which combined slapstick, tragicomedy and pantomime in their sketches. In 1982 he managed to organise a mime parade in the city, with hundreds of participants.

After becoming famous as the red-nosed clown Asisyai whose sketches were televised nationally to widespread acclaim, Polunin left Russia during the perestroika period to work abroad and for many years lived near Paris, France.

His most successful show "Slava's Snowshow" toured the world to rave reviews and was in 2009 nominated for a Tony Award in the United States. On his official website, he calls his work "theatre" rather than circus.

"Of course some artists got worried" after he was appointed to direct the Fontanka Circus, he said. "New things always make people worried."