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"From three balls emerges an acceptance of self." How the Upsala Circus brings art to life


Larisa Afanasyeva from St. Petersburg is building a permanent branch of Upsala Circus in Zeitz, Germany. 50 children and teenagers from Ukraine are already engaged there, and Syrian and Afghan refugees take part in the performances. In August, the circus is going to stage plays based on texts by Remarque and Kostyuchenko.

Anna Rosch, an author of Trendz, talked to Larisa about work with Ukrainians, relations with Russian authorities, the therapeutic role of art, and plans for the future of the project in Europe.

- Tell us, what is Upsala Circus?

- For some people, the word "circus" immediately brings to mind unfunny clowns, child traumas and trained animals. I want to tell you that our circus philosophy is completely different. Upsala Circus is a social, educational and cultural project.

In 2000 we started working with children who were on the streets. Such projects were requested at the time, and our use of social pedagogy worked perfectly to alleviate these problems. However, to develop this project in Russia was a challenge in itself: at first we thought that our nice state needed such a project but for ten years we could not believe our eyes and ears that it was not so. When we did, things got easier. We found sponsors in business, we got our own space and repertoire. We are a landmark cultural project for Russia. In St. Petersburg we now have about 140 children involved. All the programs are free for them. We have a very cool team of professionals. They are young people who don't look like sad school teachers, but rather, they are tattooed, charismatic, cool guys.

When we say "social project," many people raise their eyebrows and feel sorry for us. They think, "Oh, yeah, we should help the poor kids.”

We decided to abandon this stereotype as well. We're making a cool, modern product so that when our teens go on stage, they feel a sense of success. This is exactly what they are missing in life.

We position ourselves as a "circus open to life”. Our job is to not turn a blind eye to what is going on around us, but instead to respond to events.

We are not supported by the state, not because they don't give us anything, but because we don't take.

We finally made that decision in 2014, when the events in Crimea took place. When we make the decision to take someone as a sponsor, we are like a bride and groom, we must both be in agreement. We have to share values. However, our state has long been a producer of some other values. That is why we are an independent project and free of other ideologies.

We are a territory of freedom and safety, where teenagers talk about their problems.

We also talk to the audience about important problems, and this conversation often takes place in language that is not comfortable for the authorities.

- At the moment, part of your team is in Germany. Why here?

- We first came here in 2017. A friend and I happened to see the town of Zeitz. It's a kind of German Detroit in the former GDR. At one point almost 50% of the population left. The best people left, apparently, and those who were having a hard time coping remained. There are a lot of abandoned buildings here, but it is a city with history, with its own kind of amazing energy. In 2017, there were already a lot of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan here.

Our teenagers at the time were saying how cool it was that Russia was such a military power and that we were going to kick everyone's ass. That was a very disturbing call to me.

These kids come to us with a street agenda, with what they say on TV and in regular families. It's up to us to do something about these stereotypes. They're in me, and they're in you - but I can, for example, pick up a book and read. I have that tool. They don't. So we provide these tools for them.

We then decided to come to Zeitz and do a residency, which we called "Rebels for Peace," to talk to teenagers about war and peace.

We had a premonition of today's events because they were already in the air somewhere - this theme of militarism was already loaded.

We had two groups of teenagers: ours and refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. And there was an amazing dialogue. The first day we asked the question, "Who thinks the country needs an army? Take a step forward." All the Russian kids took a step, and all those who had seen the war were left standing still. From this we began to build some kind of history.

People often ask me why I talk to children about these topics at all. I'm sure they touch them. Children need to know that the state can take them hostage, that they can become cannon fodder. They need to be aware of what they can do.

 - Now you're doing a project with children from Ukraine. Was it difficult to make this decision?

- At first it was very scary. We didn't understand how we were going to approach people from Ukraine. How we would open our mouths.

That being said, the only thing we can do now is to build dialogues, to reach out to each other. There's a chance that someone won't take your hand, but that's okay.

We shouldn't act like we're in a sandbox, where someone is resentful of someone. We are adults - and we have children behind us.

We have 50 kids and teenagers from Ukraine coming to us now. We have classes five times a week. The sixth time we just go somewhere in the park and play soccer. Children from 4 to 16 years old and their mothers come.  We breathe and keep supporting each other. One Ukrainian mom said:

"I want my child not to feel hate. That's why he's here."

Hate is hard to live with. We have a right to it, but we can process it.

In August we'll be doing another project, with professional artists. We want to take Remarque's lyrics "On the Western Front without Change" and Elena Kostyuchenko's lyrics for Novaya Gazeta.

Nothing has changed. If you don't say that this is Remarque and this is Kostyuchenko, you won't understand. Again these boys are being killed. Again these boys are being taken away from their future.

This will affect a whole generation and will be with us for a long time to come. I understand that this is just an attempt... But at least it's an attempt.

- You run a Russian project in Europe. How do you feel about the talk about "abolishing Russian culture"?

 - It seems to me that it's not worth pondering for a long time that here we Russians have a guilt complex. I forgot the name of a great scientist who was in a concentration camp, but they said that there is no collective responsibility. It's too general a concept.

When the bombs and shells stop flying, we can talk about collective responsibility, but right now I don't understand what I personally have to do with this notion - except go to a psychiatric hospital.

There's your individual responsibility and what you do with it.

The story about Russian culture being abolished... That's impossible. Some uncle or aunt says something, but then what? It seems to me that we need to stop wasting time on these conversations and do something concrete.

- Are you afraid of the consequences for the project in Russia, because you went to Europe and worked with Ukrainian refugees?

- We are afraid, but we can't sit paralyzed by fear and do nothing. We have one hope... At the word "circus" all these bureaucrats have such a stupid smile on their faces. They think: Fools. What can you take from fools? Remember, they tried for a long time to impose this attitude on Zelensky - that he is a clown, as if to devalue him. With regards to responsibility to society or that we are talking about "serious" topics, you can not explain this to officials.

Of course, we have to think about the team that stayed in St. Petersburg. We are trying not to set our colleagues up with our statements. There was an alarming call yesterday: some aunt in the State Duma paid attention to Nochlezhka and said that we need to do something about these leaders who are leaving the country and are our enemies... (Grigory Sverdlin, who headed the charity organization Nochlezhka for ten years, left Russia after February 24 - editor's note).

It's scary. But how many years have we been living with this sense of wonder? I'm very worried about it, but I don't want to obsess either.

For me now, of course, it's easier. As soon as I crossed the border into Estonia, my shoulders relaxed. There is our organization, and then there is my personal life. This is the first time I can talk about it in an interview. My friend and I came with my adopted son, who had just turned one. In Russia he has the risk of ending up back in an orphanage, and when you understand that this won't happen to you here, it's an important feeling.

- What are the plans for the project in Germany?

- We want to create a permanent branch of Upsala Circus in Zeitz. I'm in an amazing state right now. We've been building Upsala Circus for 22 years, but now it's back to square one. We again have no premises, no props, no money, no visas, no status - no nothing. But I understand very well why we are here. Once you understand this, everything else becomes unimportant. We have the experience and we have a bunch of great friends who continue to support us.

The most important thing for us now is to get a work visa. If we can do that, that will be the starting point. We will do a social, educational and cultural project. We will create a point where festivals, round tables, and classes with children will be held. We will also travel to other difficult regions of Germany.

Of course, it will take time, partners, and money, but give us three to five years, and the unknown city of Zeitz will be talked about!

It is very important for me and my team to give something to this country, to these people. To give something to this world.

The geography is expanding, including in our heads - and it's inspiring. We don't have the feeling that we're outcasts. The important thing is to have the right wind blowing in our sails.

- Tell us about the therapeutic role of the circus. How does it help children in difficult situations?

- There are very clear tools. For example, juggling or acrobatics. You don't come to a child or a teenager in a difficult situation as a serious aunt or uncle with a serious face about how we're going to solve problems. But with this "bridge"... The child says, "Oh, cool! Can you teach me how to juggle?" And while you're learning to juggle, you're living the story of coming to success together. The basic thing for Upsala Circus is respect.

"I accept you for who you are, with your experience. Let's build a ship together, let's go on a journey where we can tell this world something. I want to hear from you. It's cool if you can learn to listen to me, too."

Gradually, an acceptance of self emerges from the three balloons. It's a tricky thing, really. If we're talking about socially at-risk kids, they've probably been told by the world that "you little man, you're nothing”. The world has not given them self-confidence and self-love. As a consequence, this little person asks themselves: why would I trust and love the world if this world doesn't trust me and love me?

Upsala Circus has an inclusive project, children with Down syndrome and autism are welcome there too. So when we talk about acceptance of self and others, it's a very concrete thing.

For example, we go to our teenagers and say that we have kids with Down's syndrome or kids from remedial schools with difficult behavior. They answer: "Oh no, we're not going to sit at the same table with those 'Down' kids." It's such a great reason to talk!

You wouldn't believe it, a year later these kids are performing in the same play, traveling together, laughing together, spending time at picnics.

Creativity is an area where we meet. We do something together. We put on a play, go on tour, do a color carnival with Slava Polunin, go to a village in Georgia for a month, or go to Zeitz to work with Syrian refugees. It's always a cool project that inspires. We had an inclusive play on Hoku Basa, and it won a Golden Mask. The kids were discovering the wonderful world of poetry through hoku, or a performance based on Pirosmani paintings. This way they learn a lot about the world, their boundaries are expanded.

- Is working with refugees different from working with children from the street or from disadvantaged families?

- I see a parallel between our teenagers and the kids we work with now. Their desire, focus and active attitude are very similar.

In 2000, the kids were also surviving in a kind of hell in which they were held hostage by the adult world.

It's different, but there's something in common.

Imagine, here's a child. His life turns out in such a way that he has to run away to the streets and live in the basement in order to save himself. We aren’t talking about for a day or two, but for years. A person that has experience in that, with all the trauma, actually enriches them as well. I don't want to romanticize it, nor do I want to romanticize the experience of children who have now experienced all the horror of war. However, it is more likely that they have developed an awareness of the value of life. An understanding that it can be interrupted at any second, and that's why the here and now is a buzzkill.

It seems to me that right now the planet is giving us all some reward for coming to our senses: all these savings, these apartments, do we need them? It's not clear. But freedom, life, and the ball of earth in general - it's worth something.

- What will the play you're making with Ukrainian children be about?

- We are making up a fairy tale about the future country. Now we need to construct the future. This play is not yet completely formed. While we are looking for the threads to tie this story together. Threads that connect us to each other. Patterns we can weave.

Will a fairy tale help us process something, face our fears, our hope, our seems to me a fairy tale always has this function. On June 26, we will show a small result and invite everyone to visit. The children will talk about themselves, about what they feel and experience.

Every day I look at photos from Bucha, from Mariupol... And somewhere I saw a very funny thing. An artist started to paint the explosions from shells in different colors. Now I really want to add a little color to these shells, which we all hit in the head and to talk to the children about the fact that the countries we're going to build must have some other basis.

If we shut down, cut all the threads, those shell holes will show up again. However, for as long as we talk to each other, everything will be fine.

Upsala Circus exists thanks to donations. You can donate here

Interview by: Anna Rosch

Photos: Upsala Circus

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