an acrobatic risk in russia

upsala circus st petersburg russia“Man, can you do a flic flac yet?” “Uh-huh no, but you dude watch me juggling with those 3 balls!”

Surprisingly enough, this is a conversation between two street children in St Petersburg, Russia. Normally children lacking their parents’ attention and care would spend their time drinking dreadful canned cocktails or beer and smoking with friends, wandering about the subway stations asking for money or skipping school. But these two boys are somewhat different – they are circus artistes in the Upsala-Circus, an autonomous non-commercial organisation in St Petersburg.

Instead of living a usual day of a neglected child, every day after school they come to the training grounds to learn juggling, acrobatics, choreography and some basic acting skills. Circus allows these kids to fulfil their sense of adventure and appetite for risk in a very social way.

Upsala-Circus was founded in 2000, when a German student, Astrid Schorn, came to St Petersburg to undertake a social pedagogy internship. The idea of using circus art as a method of social adaptation for children from groups of social risk is quite common in Germany. In Russia it was a unique initiative. Astrid started the Circus by herself, using the circus skills she got from street artistes while travelling in Paris – she rode the monocycle and juggled at the subway stations, and street children were predictably fascinated with the show. A month later, a theatre director Larisa Afanasieva joined the project, then two professional circus trainers showed up, then a social worker, a fundraiser and so on.

According to the expert data, there are around 15,000 to 30,000 neglected children and youth in St Petersburg – they might have homes and parents, but the living conditions are awful, families are often single-parent, relatives are frequently alcohol or drug addicted or have physical and psychological impairments. Most of the children coming to Circus lack communication skills, basic hygiene skills, and have problems at school. Social work with children and their families accompanies regular circus trainings and performances.

The effectiveness of the methods proves itself: the youth that have been training and performing in Upsala-Circus for 7-9 years are quite socially rehabilitated. Some of them continue to participate in staging the circus plays, and all of them are working or studying – in vocational schools or universities in St Petersburg. A few youth dream to become actors or circus artistes. The opportunity to dream and to achieve the goals that children now have is one of the greatest results of Upsala-Circus work.

Everyday trainings result in staging a new circus show every year. Upsala-Circus’s style differs from classical Soviet circus tradition and tends to be more like ‘cirque nouveau’ in Europe. The shows have won many prizes at international circus and theatre festivals in Europe and Russia: in 2005 in Munich, in 2006 in Berlin, in 2006 and 2008 in St Petersburg. Almost every year Upsala-Circus goes on a tour to Germany, performing in different cities and taking part in European festivals. As for the audience in St Petersburg, Upsala-Circus now has its own circus tent open year round, and an annual festival ‘Flying Children’ has been organised three times already and brought together different social theatre and circus projects and professional artistes. Click here to see Upsala-Circus in action on YouTube and more info can be found at Upsala-Circus (click on the flags at the top to change the language).

This year many of our Intrepid groups will have the opportunity to see Upsala-Circus perform in St Petersburg or to participate in a workshop to learn from the children simple juggling and acrobatics. If you are travelling to St Petersburg we urge you to do the same to show your support!

The Intrepid Foundation – travellers making a difference
Help support many great grass roots organisations via the Intrepid Foundation, plus find out how your donation can be matched* by Intrepid Travel!

* Donations will be matched by Intrepid Travel up to AU$5000 (or equivalent) per donor and a total of AU$400,000 each financial year.

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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