Chile’s Street Kids Circus
International bigtop phenomenon Cirque du Soleil of Montreal teaches the art of the circus – and of life – to street kids in Chile.
At one time or another, most children think about running away from home. One classic destination for these wayward dreams is the circus. The more adventurous may even fantasize about finding fame and glory under the bigtop. Camilo Echevarria Reinoso did leave home and join the circus, but he discovered a different reward amongst the clowns and trapeze artists.
Today, Echevarria, a community worker with the non-profit Canadian development agency CUSO, is technical director of the Circo del Mundo’s School of Social Circus in Santiago, Chile.
An initiative of Canada’s internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil, Circo del Mundo (Circus of the World) is an example of the Quebec-based outfit’s creative touch. Circo del Mundo allows Soleil’s performers to “share the challenge and magic of circus arts with young people in difficult circumstances, especially those who live in the street.”
A social circus, says Manon Bernier, a project leader with Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, is a marriage of arts and social action. In a social circus, “the final objective is not to develop circus performers,” but rather to give youth confidence and raise their image in the eyes of elders.
Bernier admits that not all artists work well with at risk youth. That’s why Echevarria’s school offers a four-year program of social circus instruction. No longer a member of a traditional performance circus, Echevarria spends long hours passing along his expertise and experience to a group of ten Chileans who are developing Latin America’s first social circus school.
A circus of some kind has been Echevarria’s home for a long time. Growing up in post-revolutionary Cuba, he began at age seven to practice gymnastics at a sports school in Havana. With Olympic dreams spurring him on, Echevarria practiced hard throughout his primary and secondary school career. When it came time for a post-secondary education, Echevarria chose the circus. He attended his country’s national school of circus arts and was soon showing off his acrobatic skills to the world.
Echevarria toured Italy, France, Hungary, Poland and Russia. He also travelled to Chile, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and, in 1994, to Colombia where he decided he would stay and not return to his homeland.
“If for you, this is escaping, then yes, I escaped,” says Echevarria. After 16 years of acrobatics, he knew he could find work in South America, especially in Chile. For three years he toured that long narrow nation that snakes its way to the southern tip of South America, working with Chile’s largest circuses.
Then Echevarria attended a performance put on by Circo del Mundo. What he saw captured his imagination. After the show he talked to the kids and their director. He described his background and expressed an interest in getting involved. He volunteered for two years before the opportunity with CUSO opened up and he was selected to set up the school where circus performers learn to become social circus instructors.
The Circo del Mundo approach teams Cirque du Soleil circus arts instructors with social workers. Together they interact with troubled youth, many of whom are difficult to reach through conventional means. Circo del Mundo’s program is based on the belief that “circus arts give youth at risk a chance to blossom, to express themselves and to use their fringe status as a basis for forging new links into a society which has often rejected them.”
Manon Bernier explains that when these youths perform for their community it might be the first time grown-ups have seen them in a positive light. Achieving any level of success as a circus artist, she explains, “changes the image of these youth in the community.” And in themselves.
For instance, while one youth talked of how Circo del Mundo taught him to juggle, he was more interested in crediting his circus experience with the decision to avoid using drugs.
One of Circo del Mundo’s earliest programs began in Chile in 1995. After 17 years of rule under dictator General Augusto Pinochet, ending in 1990, this nation of 15-million has emerged as Latin America’s economic powerhouse. Chile boasts soaring glass skyscrapers and the other trappings that many equate with success: upscale restaurants, big-screen television sets and personal-use automobiles.
The literacy rate for those aged 15 and older is 96 percent, and in 2002 unemployment was less than 10 percent. The gross domestic product grew by over 4 percent annually during most of the 1990s, making Chile the fourth fastest growing economy in the world during that time. On January 1, 2004, Chile entered into a free trade agreement with the United States.
Despite these successes, some 20 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Family violence is a concern and, like their counterparts throughout the world, disadvantaged youths struggle with drugs and alcohol, and the tendency to drop out of school.
Heading up Circo del Mundo in Chile is Bartolomé Silva Llanos, Echevarria’s boss. An actor by training, Silva is an enthusiastic leader who gets excited when he sees how Circo del Mundo helps troubled youth realize their dreams.
Under his guidance, Circo del Mundo assists some 500 youths each year. Most of them come from Santiago, the nation’s sprawling capital that is home to a third of all Chileans. Circo del Mundo, says Silva, uses circus arts as a tool to help frustrated teenagers improve their self-esteem, develop social skills and gain a sense of humour.
Community workshops are at the heart of the program in Chile. Teaming up with a variety of municipal and state social agencies including Chile’s drug prevention agency, pairs of instructors work with youths once or twice a week for eight to ten months. The teaching duo consists of a circus arts performer and a social worker. During the three hour-long sessions, youth ranging in age from early teens to early twenties are taught to juggle and do acrobatics. Some also learn the art of being a clown.
Instructors get the chance to strut their stuff too. A troupe of circus artists, especially clowns, performs for hospitalized children and families that live in neighbourhoods with social problems. The troupe’s primary objective is to make youthful audiences laugh.
Many international agencies, including CUSO and Oxfam, support the circus with money or people. Though Echevarria is not the first of what CUSO calls ‘cooperants’ to work with Circo del Mundo Chile, he is different in that he is not a Canadian.
Forty-four years old and without family in Chile, Echevarria has visited Cuba just a few times since he left home ten years ago. Maybe it’s because Fidel Castro’s government has banned him from returning home permanently that Echevarria has thrown so much of his heart and soul into getting the circus school up and running. Echevarria rationalizes his leaving Cuba by saying that in Chile he has an opportunity to pass along his skills to those who will benefit from them.
Twenty-three-year-old Rodrigo Oyaczún Rivera is a member of Echevarria’s team. Oyaczún spends every weekday learning the ropes, so to speak. From 10 am until 7:30 pm he takes classes in the trapeze and acrobatics as well as receiving lessons in social issues. Oyaczún would like to become a professional circus artist.
Another student, 20-year-old Daniela Oyanedel Alarcón, cherishes the opportunity to pass along her knowledge of “the magical world of circus,” while 15-year-old Marcelo Ibacache Guebba says his goal is to “travel so he can learn more than he already knows.”
The opportunity to visit other lands is a benefit that Executive Director Silva believes is especially valuable. Last year, five of the youths involved in his program spent two months in Australia. Upon their return, Silva noticed, “they were very different, stronger and more professional.”
Possibly they were more like the Cirque du Soleil’s founders. In the early 1980s, a few young street performers in Montreal believed in themselves as well. Today, Cirque du Soleil and its unique form of circus spectacle employs 2,500 people, over 500 of whom are artists. The company has nine shows on the go with permanent theatres in Florida and Las Vegas. Since 1984, Cirque du Soleil has staged more than 240 performances in 90 cities before 40 million spectators.
And the magicians behind the Montreal phenomenon could easily expand its Circo del Mundo initiative too. “There is so much demand that if we wanted we could develop Cirque du Monde programs all over the world,” enthuses Manon Bernier. As it is, staff involved with Cirque du Soleil’s social programs have difficulty keeping up with their workload. But Bernier promises that Circo del Mundo will coach other motivated groups interested in setting up their own version of the program.
And then more kids will be able to join the circus after running away from home and onto the streets.