Circus in Uncommon Places


Circus Za’atri, at a refugee camp in Syria

Part of what distinguishes circus from conventional sports is its flexibility. The “rules” of circus include respect, courtesy, safety — leaving much room for interpretation. Some modern circus groups are applying these rules in wholly new ways.

Viaceslavas Mickevicius of Lithuania is leading the way, bringing circus to Lukiskes Jail, his country’s highest-security prison. Lukiskes has been criticized for its overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions. Mickevicius’ program offers 700 men incarcerated for serious crimes the opportunity to redirect some of their energy into circus. This past year, the program had its very first show, complete with stilt-walking, unicycling, and an audience of 20 relatives.

The Lithuanian program is not the only one taking circus to unexpected places. The Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan is home to Circus Za’atari, which is supported by the Finn Church Aid’s non-formal education program and run by Sirkus Magenta, a Finnish nonprofit. The school was founded in 2013 and has grown since to put on performances and tour local UNICEF schools.

Bringing circus to schools is rising in popularity. Public elementary schools in Japan have introduced unicycles as a recess option. The circus community can attest to the valuable lessons taught via circus — focus, patience, balance, self-awareness, empathy — to name a few. Now, students in Japan have the opportunity to learn these skills right at school. Unicycling is quite safe, as one school nurse explained. She has seen only two unicycle-related injuries in her three years of working at Kyuden Elementary School in Tokyo. The implementation of circus equipment in schools appears promising, perhaps the practice will gain popularity elsewhere.

Unicycling certainly seems to be gathering momentum as a trend. Specifically, mountain unicycling, or muni riding, has attracted attention in recent years. Muni riding began in the 1990s on the West Coast of the US, but has become a global phenomenon. Muni riders are more athletes than performers, since they hold competitions as opposed to showcases. The North American Unicycle Championships and Convention was held in July of 2016 in South Dakota, with England and Australia also hosting similar events.

There is yet another program that is reinventing modern circus: Cirkus Cirkör of Sweden. Cirkör itself is a contemporary circus and it has started a novel project as part of its outreach program. Cirkör created Circus Older de Luxe, which brings circus to assisted living facilities. A typical program includes a short show, a meet-and-greet, and a workshop in seated circus. Some of the homes and facilities the group has visited have created the position of Circus Manager, who plans weekly seated circus activities.

Circus is full of potential and can change lives in many forms. All of these programs take facets of traditional and contemporary circus and apply them to another cause. Modern circus is never finished being defined — something new can always be done.

– Emily
Check out these websites for more information about the circus organizations and programs above!

Circus in Lukiskes Jail:

One comment

  1. This is such a great piece, Emily, thanks so much. And helpfully timed for me as I write a kids’ How To Make a Circus book in which I’ll be including circus around the world. I didn’t know about some of this circus activity and I’m grateful to learn about it from you. Blog posts like this help people know that this kind of thing is going on, that circus is more than they think it is, and that circus is important in people’s lives for reasons beyond entertainment or spectacle. So thanks again! ~ Jackie

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