Social circus performing troupes nurture teamwork, cohesiveness

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Members of “The Slow Circus Project”.

The “social circus,” in which people with disabilities and sound-bodied people together learn mime or dance to nurture their teamwork and problem-solving skills, has recently been attracting a lot of attention in the world.

Japan’s first performing social circus company emerged two years ago. Named Slow Circus Project, the company aims to bring about a cohesive society and also holds trial activities for members of the public.

The troupe rehearsed at a sports facility on April 17 in Toyosu, Tokyo, and Kaori Ogawa, 26, a member who has Down’s syndrome, was seen standing on the shoulders of another performer.

After the OK from a supporting member, she took her hand off the vertical pole she was holding and dismounted with a backward jump as several perfectly positioned troupe members brilliantly caught her. It is a technically very difficult routine called “initiation.”

Ogawa used to dislike heights. After joining the company, however, she now practices climbing on playground equipment in parks of her own volition.

“It’s really fun to perform circus acts with everyone,” an excited Ogawa belted out.

Said her mother Hiroko: “I’m glad that my daughter now has a desire to improve herself.”

The social circus idea was created in Europe about 30 years ago. It is aimed at solving various social issues such as poverty and addressing disabilities. It comprehensively nurtures teamwork and communication skills through mime, dance and other physical activities.

A social circus program developed by the world-renowned performing group Cirque de Soleil is widely used to support young people struggling with problems such as poverty and abuse.

Japan’s Slow Circus Project was launched in 2019 by creative producer Yoshie Kris, 43, who has disability in her right leg, and circus performing artist Keisuke Kanai, 48. The troupe currently includes about 40 members, half of whom live with challenges that range from cerebral paralysis to intellectual or physical disabilities.

One of the troupe’s important features is its generous support system, which allows members with disabilities to perform with a sense of security.

A number of supporting members are on hand to assist disabled members on stage, and qualified nurses look after the health of the performers as access coordinators.

“To take on the challenge of performing big-time circus routines, you need a trusting relationship with those who support you. Here, you can gain an understanding of the importance of cooperation with others,” Kanai said.

The Slow Circus Project planned to give its debut performance this past weekend, but the event was canceled because a state of emergency was declared amid rising novel coronavirus infections. The performance was recorded and is set to be streamed on YouTube in June.

The production tells the story of a circus company that wanders into a forest, where the troupe comes across various insects and other creatures, and realizes the importance of a cohesive society. The members, both with and without disabilities, demonstrate major circus tricks and perform comedic dances together.

The troupe also regularly holds trial activities for disabled people, socially withdrawn youths and others. By practicing circus acts, participants can learn to improve their knowledge in many facets, including how to interact with others.

The troupe is also planning to provide schools and companies with suitable social circus programs “Through the social circus, I’d like to help make society an easier place to live in and somewhere that celebrates differences among each other,” Kris said.