Russia's 'circus for delinquents' comes of age

Saint Petersburg (AFP) –


The big tent in a Saint Petersburg park is not just a circus but a space for disabled and disadvantaged children, often shunned by Russian society, to express themselves.

The Upsala Circus "for delinquents" has also just won a top theatre prize, despite hostility from some state authorities.

"All children and especially children at risk need something interesting, something 'cool' to give them energy and a desire to change their life," said Larisa Afanasyeva, the founder and artistic director of Upsala.

She started the circus almost two decades ago to offer vulnerable young people a chance to develop their talents, in a country with only basic provision for orphans or the disabled.

Around 70 children who are from poor families, orphans or disabled currently come to the circus company's tent in north Saint Petersburg to prepare shows of mostly acrobatics, some 45 each year.

A performance by children with Down Syndrome last month won a prize at the 'Golden Mask' awards which usually acknowledge the glitzy high-end of Moscow theatre.

The company has come a long way since Afanasyeva set it up in 2000 along with a German student, Astrid Shorn.

Back then the two young women had nothing but their drive to help some of the most vulnerable in Russian society.

Upsala Circus had no proper rehearsal space so the troupe got together in the parks and squares of Russia's second city.

Finally having a big top was a "dream come true", making a huge difference for the young performers, said Afanasyeva.

Upsala had managed to buy the tent, which incorporates a main arena and a rehearsal space, five years ago thanks to private sponsors. The circus receives no state funds.

The walls are decorated with humorous graffiti, with one slogan reading: "If you don't behave yourself, we'll send you to join the circus".

- 'Freedom is scary' -

"I met Larisa and Astrid when they were monocycling around the embankment" in Saint Petersburg, recalled Nikolai Grudino, now aged 25, of his first encounter with the circus founders as a 10-year-old.

"It was a very hard time for my family and I preferred to spend my time out of the house.

"But after I met Larisa, I realised it was more interesting to be in the circus than to hang about in the street," he said, adding that the circus had turned him from a "delinquent" into an artist.

But despite its success, Afanasyeva has the impression the project is "not moving forward", largely because of hostility from some who run state services such as orphanages.

"It was easier when we were starting out in the early 2000s. Back then everything was more open. Now there are too many rules, too many things you can't do," she told AFP.

Orphanages are keen for their charges to take part in more wholesome or "patriotic" activities, she said.

"We teach the children to be free and that's a scary prospect.

"(The authorities) just want the children to stay out of trouble, but we are talking about freedom and art."