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The Globe and Mail
June 16, 2006

Circus makes performers out of troubled youth

Cirque du Soleil's initiative has spread to 19 countries

By Jen Ross
"Everyone who has experienced violence or trouble knows that adrenaline. What we do is modify that adrenaline. The difference is, people applaud you for it here." - Bartolome Silva, director of Chile's Circo del Mundo.
As a result of this intervention, school dropout rates have gone down, marks have improved and many kids have reduced or stop using drugs.
"Getting into the circus helped me get out of my neighbourhood's slump. I'd see fights and drugs all the time. But being here helped me a lot. It's a positive environment with healthy people." - Enoc Silva, 19.

SANTIAGO -- Beneath a sprawling big top in the north end of Chile's capital, a tiny woman in an ornate tutu carefully balances herself with a pink paper umbrella as she walks up a tightrope.

Watching her every step is a wide-eyed Soraya Sepulveda. The 23-year-old circus student is one of 450 young people who were invited to a special private performance this spring of Cirque du Soleil's internationally acclaimed show Saltimbanco.

It's the Quebec-based circus's first performance in Chile. But it's not its first time here.

In 1995, Cirque du Soleil came to plant the seeds of a social circus program to teach techniques to troubled youths.

Chile became home to the first non-profit Circo del Mundo (Circus of the World), followed by a similar non-governmental organization in Brazil. Today, the initiative has expanded to 19 countries.

"We don't want a uniform program around the world, but one in sync with the rhythm of the country and its culture," explains Michel Lafortune, co-ordinator for the Cirque du Soleil's international social circus programs.

The programs' team works with circus-arts instructors to teach troubled youth how to clown around, juggle and do more advanced circus techniques. Kids learn to use their imagination and balance, and to test their own physical limits.

The instructors help them improve self-esteem, develop social skills and gain a sense of humour. They also teach self-control and discipline, and channel risk-taking and adrenaline in a positive way.

"Everyone who has experienced violence or trouble knows that adrenaline," says actor Bartolome Silva, director of Chile's Circo del Mundo. "What we do is modify that adrenaline. The difference is, people applaud you for it here."

Mr. Silva grew up in the north end of Santiago, in an area called Quinta Normal. Rife with drugs and other social ills, this graffiti-covered community is considered one of the most vulnerable in the capital.

On a recent day, Mr. Silva went back to his own elementary school, Lo Franco, armed with some juggling pins and colourful rings and balls.

In the school gym, two dozen 10- to 13-year-olds scrambled to grab one of the new fluorescent toys. Among them was David Escobar. At 13, he admits he is a troublemaker: "Sometimes I fight, or I feel like skipping class with my friends."

After circus classes once or twice a week for nine months, circus instructor Juan Francisco Hormazabal has seen many youths like him turn around: "After a boy like this has completed the process, of ideally two years, he starts changing his behaviour for the better, both at home and at school."

The grand finale to these nine-month workshops is a performance, at which kids get their chance to shine before their parents and peers in their own community.

As a result of this intervention, school dropout rates have gone down, marks have improved and many kids have reduced or stop using drugs.

The instructors have been so successful that last year Chile's National Drug Control Commission (CONACE) began funding Circo del Mundo initiatives and pairing them up with its own social workers in high-risk communities.

Chile's Circo del Mundo is now reaching about 500 young people a year. Many youths who go through the workshops end up wanting to become circus professionals.

It was their drive that gave birth to a professional circus school in Santiago last year, the first with international recognition in all of Latin America.

"I'd say Chile's Circo del Mundo is the flagship for the development of social circus in Latin America," says Cirque du Soleil's Mr. Lafortune. "They've developed their own autonomy and created a mini-troupe and get their kids to be trainers for younger kids. They're working organically with them."

Chile's Escuela de Artes Circenses (Circus Arts School) took in its first 16 students in April, 2005, for a three-year program. It not only teaches music, dance and circus techniques, it also trains students to become teachers doing the same social outreach that drew many of them in.

Enoc Silva started with a social circus workshop six years ago.

"Getting into the circus helped me get out of my neighbourhood's slump," says the hefty, long-haired 19-year-old. "I'd see fights and drugs all the time. But being here helped me a lot. It's a positive environment with healthy people."

Today, he's one of 10 new students accepted to the professional circus school this year.

"They started from scratch, and now they have a national school," says Sonia SauvÚ, international co-operation co-ordinator for Cirque du Soleil's touring shows.

"They've really developed on their own and have adapted their experiences, so we're now taking their model to other sites."