Circus company takes a leap with disadvantaged young people

A UK-based performance company is showcasing the talents of young Colombians that have risen from the streets and forged a career in the arts thanks to a unique circus school

Hailed as a groundbreaking social project, Circolombia returned to London’s Roundhouse theatre for a string of performances in April 2011, marking a promising year ahead for the Colombian circus troupe of 17-28 year-olds.

The second run of their show, Urban, was as raw and explosive as its 2010 premiere. Dare-devil stunts and incredible acrobatics were performed against a backdrop of Cali, Western Colombia, home to the company’s humble beginnings.

The idea for the performance came from the personal stories of each artist, says José Henry Caycedo Casierra, who at 28 is the oldest troupe member and an artistic tutor to his peers. “It is a small showcase of the lives that each one of us has lived in the past – such as gang members, the madman of the ghetto or the recycler – which in some way are the spirit of the neighbourhood,” José explains.

Among the bright lights, edgy costumes, and reggaeton music, each scene is fused together by a character who sits in a barrel, ‘the recycler’, a street dweller who lives off what he can find. José highlights this character as a symbol of the ‘invisible’ individuals in society, ignored by those who prefer to deny their existence. “In the show we give him a more significant role,” says José. “He is more the spirit of the ‘barrio’, or ghetto, who knows all that is happening in the block, who can foresee when there is going to be a problem between gangs.”

The two female roles in the production offer a breath of fresh air to these male-dominated rival gangs. Kitted out in black and white, the two girls, from opposing sides, represent the daily reality and constant conflict of life and death, but above all, hope.

The Circolombia story began in 1995, when Colombia’s National Circus School, the not-for-profit Circo Para Todos (‘circus for everyone’), was established to take young people out of the barrios and off the streets of Cali by teaching them circus skills. It gave them the opportunity to carve a career for themselves in the circus arts.

The UK-based Circolombia company was then founded in 2006, born out of the need for a professional circus avenue for graduates from Circo Para Todos. It produces shows and also provides artists for third party productions. Half of its profits go back to the circus school in Colombia.

According to Felicity Simpson, co-founder of Circo Para Todos and director of Circolombia, the company has now grown to a significant point where students are drawing much inspiration from each other. “There’s a truly great team of teachers and budding talent,” she says.

With a few years of experience under his belt, José is quick to acknowledge how circus arts have changed his life. “Through respect and friendship towards my teachers and my classmates I had to work on being consistent and self-disciplined on a daily basis,” José reveals. “Circo Para Todos led me to believe in my potential as a person and as an artist.”

Since 2010, José has travelled to the US, Morocco and China, where he won a bronze medal for Colombia in the Wuhan International Acrobatics Art Festival. Travelling has been a highlight in his career he says, with the bonus of “getting to know cultures different to my own and learning new languages.”

The youngest member of the troupe, Johann Alemberg Gil Zapata, 18, got involved with Circo Para Todos because his father was a clown and says, like José, that circus has taught him to be a better person. Now, for Johann, the performances at the Roundhouse were a dream come true and mark a turning point for the troupe. “[The Roundhouse] is very famous and I never imagined I was going to perform in such a big and hospitable place,” Johann admits.

Ultimately, Johann and José want to give something back to their communities at home; Johann wants to buy his mother a house, while José imagines being back in Colombia “helping new youngsters go forward, as Circo Para Todos once did for me.” Giving something back is a lesson woven into the fire and attitude of Urban, a message Circolombia hopes will go global.

Circolombia perform at Glastonbury Festival in June and at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms in August.