Photo by Suco Co-Su group.
Perched high above the city in the working class enclave of Trinitat Nova, the circus is helping to transform young people’s lives. Former asphalt factory Ateneu Popular 9 Barris may not look much from the outside but inside, a range of gravity-defying pursuits allows children to overcome the constraints of life on an underpriveleged housing estate and enter the magic world of the circus.
“Circus provides a good tool to connect with the community,” explained Xavi Urbano, the school’s communications manager. “Here, we are working with the social values of circus, such as self-empowerment and team building. Talent is secondary. We want to make people, not artists.”
The Ateneu’s funky, graffitied exterior walls seem to mark the transition point between everyday life and an environment where creativity and self-expression take centre stage. Many of the 100-plus youngsters who benefit from its after-school activities, which range from trapeze and acrobatics to stilts, juggling and monocycles, come from the local neighbourhood. Each year, a couple of them will go on to the nearby Escola del Circ Rogelio Rivel to take their learning to the next level and become a professional circus artist. This is the only professional circus arts school in Catalunya.
“Every student has a different need,” continued Urbano. “For some children it will help them concentrate on an activity while for others, it teaches them discipline and the value of an objective.”
Back in the heart of the Born, in a bohemian hangout called RAI (Recursos d’Animació Intercultural), adults can take classes in trapeze, acrobatics and clowning as well as other non-circus-related subjects. Trapeze instructor Beatriz Contreras describes herself as an ‘artist’ but concurs about the social benefits of circus.
“Trapeze keeps you in shape and it’s a challenge,” said Argentinean-born Contreras. “I train people to perfect their technique but it is not just about that. Students learn to depend on each other. They share their knowledge and form a little community. It is not individualistic; it’s group-orientated.”
Meanwhile, over in the Eixample, an exciting project called Germanetes offers something of an oasis away from the grid’s pounding traffic and lack of greenery. Established on the site of an old convent near the Urgell metro station, on land earmarked for development but left vacant for a number of years, the locals took matters into their own hands and created a public space where people could come to tend the fruit and veg garden, relax, take a stroll and practise their circus technique.
Joan Sala at Germanetes
A year ago, Joan Sala started a circus workshop at Germanetes. He says he is not its leader; he simply came up with the idea for circus enthusiasts of all levels to share their knowledge and have a go, free of charge.
Under the skeletal big-top structure, built by neighbours (and mountaineering buffs) in Ikea-like fashion in one afternoon, a dreadlock-topped Joan hangs from a rope with such aplomb that it is hard to believe he has only been taking the art seriously for about a year. He first started trapeze when he was living in Norway and then attended classes back in Barcelona.
“It is the combination of sport, body consciousness and art—it’s a mix of many things,” he said, explaining the appeal of the demanding discipline.
There is no flying trapeze at Germanetes, but ropes, silks and gym mats for acrobatics give participants plenty to keep themselves occupied in this laid-back and nurturing place. Other workshops are also available behind its high walls and colourful gate with the inscription Aquest espai es teu! (‘this is your space!’)
Photo by Mano Martínez.
Katerina Gkana at Onair Barcelona.
Trapeze teacher Katerina Gkana fell in love with trapeze back in her home town of Athens. “I was at the circus watching a trapeze performance and thought ‘I want to do that for the rest of my life!’” she told me, when we met at the Associació Gente Colgada, a cultural association in Navas. She started training here as a student back in 2007 but “one thing led to another” and she is now the manager.
“I see myself as part psychologist in my role,” she explained. “You have to find a way to ‘enter’ each student. The weak ones can surprise you. Sometimes a person comes here and they find it hard to make a decision at first, and I’ve seen them transform from ‘I’m not sure’ to ‘I’m terrified but I’ll do it.’ I think we are contributing to the social aspect of life. We can help people.”
Photo by Luis Montero.
Ateneu Popular 9 Barris.
Safety is also of paramount importance and Gkana is nicknamed ‘the Russian’ by her students because she is so strict. In her early days of training at the now-closed squat Makabra, she fell from a height of about eight metres. Fortunately, she was more shocked than injured and it taught her to take more care in future. “This is a serious job,” she told me. “You are responsible for students hanging from a height of six metres. They can fall and injure themselves. You are not playing.” Thick mattresses are always placed under each trapeze. Gkana added, “I assess each student and teach the protocol. It is better for each student to take small steps and not do it all immediately. Safety is my first concern.”
Back at the Ateneu, Urbano stated that one of their latest circus workshops with elderly people is proving successful as it is creating connections and breaking down barriers between people from different generations. “When you see an elderly woman juggling with a young child it’s nice—they have a common element,” he said.
Despite the zeitgeist feel of the Ateneu, it is interesting to discover that it has actually been going since the late Seventies. Other similar social circus projects may have sprung up in Barcelona in recent years but as Urbano put it: “We try to make a climate around circus. The Ateneu is a special place.”
Another special place for circus followers is La Central del Circ. Just mention this creative space to your average circus fan and a look of awe will probably appear on their face. You see, this extensive space, which benefits from a beautiful location overlooking the sea near the Forum building, is considered by many to be the Ritz of circus spaces.
It is only for circus professionals and covers over 3,000 square metres, making it one of the largest in Spain. Here, pros can train on a regular basis or hire a room, if they are preparing a show. Many experienced circus companies use its amenities.
Loose-limbed individuals with ramrod straight backs, dressed in singlets and sweatpants, drift around the industrial chic building which has been in its present site since 2011. Just watching a few minutes of their aerial exploits is rather like a Cirque du Soleil rehearsal.
“There was a demand from the circus community, mostly for safety reasons,’ explained manager Ione Hermosa, when asked why La Central came into being. ‘Before, people were training in abandoned factories and safety conditions were not always good. There was a call for something else.”
So what is the future for the circus in Catalunya? From speaking to the people involved, it seems you don’t have to run away with the circus to have a try—with so many trained artists in the city, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved at all levels, whether you’re interested in fitness or artistic expression...even I had a go (see below)! It’s an art form that has been entertaining the city for more than 200 years and although circus companies are very much feeling the after-effects of the recession, Hermosa thinks there will always be an audience for it: “It is the lifestyle, the romance and its connection with childhood."
FEAR OF FLYING
A nervous disposition and fear of heights mean that I am not the ideal candidate for a trapeze class. But in the interests of research for this article I felt that I had to try Beatriz’s class at RAI and believe me, doing it yourself is a very different proposition to watching the thrills and spills from a ringside seat.
After an energetic warm-up routine to some bluesy music, I am partnered with Mar, and Beatriz supervises our circulation around a set of four swinging trapezes, all at different heights.
It all starts off fairly gently with the two of us taking it in turns to stand on the horizontal trapeze bar. I realise pretty quickly that a lot of upper body strength is needed to haul oneself up (which, I am told, comes in time) and that the rope is hard on your hands. Sore palms are something of an occupational hazard but coating one’s hands with the supplied chalk, or sticky rosin, helps give you more grip.
With her helmet of shiny black hair, eyeliner and piercings, Beatriz looks like quite a tough cookie. You feel you don’t want to let her down. So it is with some trepidation that I approach bar number three and realise that I am going to have to hang myself upside down, and then let go. I am alarmed. Is there a way to do a swerve on this one?
No. Beatriz insists that I attempt the exercise and with major assistance from her—accompanied by yelps of panic from me—I achieve the pose with the grace of a hippo. Seeing the world from this perspective is not something I am used to. To my relief, Beatriz soon helps me down again and my dread of being stuck mid-air does not happen.
As I recover, I appreciate that trapeze is so intense that it makes all your daily worries disappear. You are utterly focused and in the moment. And yes, there is a sense of achievement. My baby steps of a stunt even earns me a high five from Beatriz.
I am starting to get into my first trapeze class.
MEET THE STUDENTS
What sort of person attends a trapeze class? Most of the students I met share something in common—they have a strong sporting background, be it basketball or swimming, fitness or dance.
However, teachers Beatriz and Katerina assure me that their students are of all ages and backgrounds. Architects, doctors, solicitors and office workers are among the people who are trained by Beatriz, a teacher for the last 18 years. Women between 25 and 40 years are her main demographic but she has one student in her mid-50s and she says trapeze is even possible for pensioners, although there might be limits to what they can do. “A friend of mine started trapeze when she was 42,” Katerina said. “She’s now 64 and still doing it. It’s about the way you see life, your attitude.”
Ania Bech (25) is an architecture student and basketball player. She discovered circus after a chance meeting with an architect/acrobat at a yoga class. Then, during a stay in Chile, she became involved in the flying trapeze. "I loved it, it was really impressive," she said. Now Ania mainly practises partner acrobatics and handstands. "It is addictive, it’s the risk factor. The danger can be exciting."
Emilia (21) from Poland is an Erasmus student, studying journalism. As she suspends herself gracefully from a long strip of silk fabric at Germanetes, she explained that she always wanted to do this but there were no facilities in her city.
"It’s the special atmosphere of the circus," she said. "The illusion, the magic, the crazy people and freaks. It is not conventional."
Emilia at Germanetes
Devorah Al-Irimi, who runs Barcelona-based pilates/yoga studio SimplyBePilates, has taken trapeze classes at RAI for the last couple of years. "I liked the idea and thought it looked beautiful. I wanted a physical challenge—it definitely gave me that."
Mar (42), a jewellery designer, also at RAI, said: "The first two weeks were bad but then on the third week I noticed a major difference. I kept coming back because it was so exciting and special. I felt like an artist."
Silvia H Perez (26), a freelance translator, started trapeze two years ago. "I feel circus combines artistry and sport," she told me. "I identify with the circus because it is more risky and I like the adrenaline. It is a bit hardcore." Silvia has recently started training at the Escola del Circ Rogelio Rivel with the aim of pursuing a professional career in circus.
Johanna Kergroach (30) is a musician and dancer. Trapeze didn’t faze her because, she said, "Since I was young I have enjoyed climbing trees so I wasn’t scared."
Ania Bech (lying down) at Germanetes
THE CIRCUS IN CATALUNYA
The father of modern circus is a title given to the Englishman Philip Astley (1742-1814) who originally invented this form of entertainment as a spectacle involving turning exercises and acrobatics carried out on the back of a horse. It was only later that trapeze and other performances were added in. One of the earliest recorded shows of this original equestrian form of circus in Catalunya was by the French horse-rider Jean Gadis Colman in Reus, Tarragona in 1789. In Barcelona specifically, it was trapeze artists Francesco Frescara and Giacomo Chiarini who brought the magic of the circus to Catalunya’s capital in 1800. At the time, Catalunya was in the process of industrial revolution. Up until then, the popular form of entertainment had been comedy sketches and puppet shows. The industrial revolution brought about a new wave of excitement and when the circus arrived it rapidly gained popularity. While the industrial revolution demonstrated man’s innovation and mental strength, the circus celebrated the beauty found in the strength of the human body.
Ateneu Popular 9 Barris - Its popular annual winter show Garbuix for the general public will run from December to January 2016.
La Central del Circ opens its doors to the public during shows throughout the year. The next one is on November 21st and November 22nd.
RAI puts on regular shows. The next circus show is Saturday, November 14th at 9pm.
Associació Gente Colgada Holds regular classes and cabaret.
Other circus spaces in Barcelona and its surroundings include Piccolo Cirkus, Can Batlló and Cronopis Espai de Circ. Many of the city’s Centres Civics also run circus courses.