Posted on August 11, 2011 / Comments Off / Show post tags
Magic of circus art a trampoline for transforming young lives
Nineteen years ago circus performer and stunt man Brent van Rensburg and his trapeze-artist French wife, Laurence Estève, came to Cape Town with little more than a dream to help kids from all backgrounds develop the skills needed to become young leaders, good citizens and ambassadors for South Africa through the medium of circus art. Today, their Zip-Zap Circus School has more than 26 international shows under its belt, attracts sponsors from across the globe and has more than 150 students enrolled.
The Big Issue caught up with Capetonian van Rensburg, who recently won the Mayor’s Medal for Youth Affairs for his “great contribution towards developing youth affairs in South Africa”, to find out how he uses the magic of circus to transform the lives of local youth.
“Zip-Zap Circus School is a platform to bridge gaps between children — to bring children from townships and middle-class communities together where they wouldn’t normally get a chance to meet and learn, to teach them to trust each other and depend on each other, and to work together and be part of the new South Africa.
The school was started in 1992, so it was long before the first democratic elections. I thought if everybody put their two cents in we could make things work, and the children have surprised everybody by working together as a team.
We started small and did everything and anything to get the school going. I was a stunt man and my wife was a trapeze artist in Sun City. We washed warehouses, made railway furniture and did whatever we could to get the school up and running. Then we turned the school into a non-profit organisation because we didn’t really want to own it. Then it just grew from strength to strength.
Zip-Zap School is a public benefit organisation. While one-third of our funds are generated by performances, we also get grants for projects, donations and sponsors. But I think there is not enough funding for art in the country, in general.
Art is a great way to reach out to youth and I don’t think you can ever fund it enough. We can do so much more with art to bring about long-term change. The problem is that circus is not a known entity like dance, so it’s harder to get the powers-that-be to realise there is so much social benefit to circus. Other countries are using circus art so much better than we are and reaching out to more children because they have government interaction and intervention.
Circus is a fantastic tool for social change. It teaches students to make it work as a team. And there’s a place in the circus for everybody — it’s not a niche sport like gymnastics where you have to be of a certain size, but children must be above the age of seven to be a part of the Zip-Zap team.
I would like to see young children become responsible adults with discipline and passion, wanting to do something with their lives. In the bigger picture, this is part of our nation building. We also help create employable youth.
Being disciplined is one of the important values a kid learns at our school. We do not force children to learn any of the skills. We teach all of this free of cost and if the kid doesn’t want to learn, they have the freedom to leave. But once they’re in the core group, they have to make an effort to find a place for themselves.
Students who graduate from our school can become professional performers. Some work as teachers at Zip-Zap and run outreach programmes in townships, some have also found jobs in the movie industry. But it’s not necessarily about being in the circus — it’s about what they take out of the circus school, it’s about equipping a kid with the skills to take on life.
We are constantly working at increasing our teaching base. You can only have as many kids as your teachers can teach, and the teachers have to understand circus to teach it. At the moment we have 150 children in all the courses. Children in the age group of seven to 12 years start the six-month beginners class, where they are not tested but accepted based on their interest in learning. Then, they move on to join the core group, which is the main performing group where there is no age limit. A lot of teachers are also part of the core group and have been with us for the past 12 to 15 years. The young adult training programme creates teaching staff. They have to perform, teach, conduct first-aid courses, get their driver’s licence, learn rigging and teach woodwork workshops for the other kids.
The school has a house in Observatory for kids with difficulties. At the moment we have about 10 kids in the house. School and medical fees are all paid for, but they have to be with Zip-Zap for a year and be disciplined and committed to the project.
We started the Cirque du Monde Ibhongolwethu Project about seven years ago. It consists of a series of circus art workshops sponsored by Cirque du Monde and run by Zip-Zap Circus School in conjunction with Médecins Sans Frontières. Instructors from Zip-Zap Circus School travel to Khayelitsha twice each week to teach ground-based circus acts to 25 to 30 HIV-positive children receiving antiretroviral treatment. We also help them with their exercise, medicines, and help them think positive.
This year we will debut a show called The Caretaker, which will run from August 5 to 9. The story, which is based in an apartment, is a humorous one and is probably the most technically challenging show we’ve ever done because we have to light each room
differently. We came up with the script about a year ago and the kids from the adult training programme wrote the beginning of the show, I just tweaked it.
We also have plans to set up a little satellite school in the winelands area and dream of some day owning a permanent home for the school in Cape Town.”