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Puerto Viejo Deep Dive: Costa Rica ‘Social circus’ Helps Kids

May 24, 2020

PUERTO VIEJO, Limón — Max Barnaby’s “Circo Caribe” is a social intervention.

Four years ago, The National Program for the Development of the Performing Arts (PROARTE) expressed interest in what one Parque La Libertad student was planning.

Located in San José, Parque La Libertad advertises itself as a project of human security and social inclusion that seeks to improve the quality of life of surrounding communities through economic, social and environmental development. While Barnaby was training there, his idea of starting a social circus caught the interest of PROARTE. About a year later, The Ministry of Culture and Youth provided two 40-hour training sessions with Cirque du Soleil pedagogy.

According to Barnaby, at its core, his social circus helps kids to build self-esteem and self-reliance.

“If you focus the mind and body on training, you can change your socioeconomic status,” said Barnaby, who started training for the circus at 26 in San Francisco and moved to Costa Rica in 2004. “I know someone who travels the world doing a show with garbage. He uses trash to juggle, and literally by playing with garbage, you can focus and create something out of it.”

“The government expressed interest in what I was doing. There can be a problem of integration with the Afro-Caribbean and Mezcla population, and in Puerto Viejo, where displacement continues to happen, where the people of Talamanca feel like they’ve been left out of the growth of the country, it was mentioned to me that since I am neither Afro-Caribbean nor Mezcla, I have this gateway into both cultures to get them playing and working together.”

While the government doesn’t provide the social circus with any money, it has funded the education of about 20 instructors in Costa Rica since the program began, Barnaby said.

When Barnaby moved to the Caribbean, he said he needed to learn Spanish. There was an aerial program call Vol’Air in Puerto Viejo, led by Hazel Brenes Plá, so he introduced himself to her and asked to help by spotting the kids. He would teach the children what he knew in circus if they helped him with Spanish.

Originally from Cartago, Brenes Plá studied industrial design and was on a career path to become a graphic designer, but when she finished her studies, all she wanted to do was dance.

“I quit my job as a graphic designer and moved to the Caribbean,” Brenes Plá said.

She says she has always had a greater inclination toward the fabric, but the harness in aerial dance is an opportunity to experience gravity and movement in a vertical plane, allowing her to discover a world of possibilities in the air with a safe and efficient system. Brenes Plá founded Vol’Air Aerial Dance in Puerto Viejo six years ago. She works six days a week and initially began with adults, but found that she could have more of an impact training kids.

“For me, it was like a new world,” Brenes Plá said. “A lot of kids from the Puerto Viejo community started to come to the classes, and dance gives them a new hope in life. It keeps the kids busy and it’s a challenge for them too.”

Sara Orlandelli Di Gregorio, a Vol’Air student, said she likes everything about the classes.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Gregorio said. “Every time I go to a place where there are [aerial ropes], everyone wants me to go up!”

Hazel Brenes Plá said she finds it meaningful to work with children. (Courtesy Hazel Brenes Plá.)

Casa de la Escucha Wolava, a daycare center in Puerto Viejo specializing in the prevention of situations of high psychological risk in youth, “went into primary schools to do interventions with students who are most likely to go toward narco trafficking or suicide,” Barnaby said.

“They identified them as young as six years old and called me to ask if I could work with the kids.”

Barnaby teaches about 40 different students a week in gymnastics, trapeze, juggling, acrobatics and clown. He sees students at the biggest fear of their life — when they’re falling backward off of trapeze, for example. The vulnerability in new situations like this allows the students to overcome fears, and when Brenes Plá and Barnaby remove themselves, it shows the kids they are doing it all by themselves.

“They walk taller, present themselves with more confidence in their home and school lives, and it’s very exciting for me to see,” Barnaby said.

At the beginning of January, eight teachers with extensive circus training, including some from Cirque de Soleil, led a week-long social circus day camp which ran six hours a day for a week. It was the fourth year the day camp was offered, and some of the kids who came the first year have returned for their fourth year, Barnaby said. The day camp is offered for free.

“The teenagers got really excited to have their original teachers return,” Barnaby said. “There is a continuing progression, and we can do more specific diagnostics around their movement and dance.”

(Duncan Anderson / The Tico Times)

One challenge Barnaby has encountered while working with young kids is that they start telling lies and making up stories, and he can’t help but believe them. Barnaby gave a benign example of a story one of his students told him: The child spoke of catching a fish using a rock trap and their bare hands.

“They are testing the limits of my believability,” Barnaby said. “The trust that my alumni students have with me translates really rapidly to the new kids, however. I can ask a child to hold a ladder for me and truth is, I don’t need anyone holding my ladder, but by asking the child to do this, I put my trust in my life in them, so they trust me.”

Barnaby arrives to class 30 minutes early and rarely cancels. Lately, he has been seeking out teachers who worked with students at the project’s inception to see if they want to come back to help out. For a professional to express interest in working with the kids, returning to check on their progress after a year, “it’s healing for them,” Barnaby said.

“I show up like clockwork. I’ll carry my broken bicycle to the studio if I need to. I’ll bike in the rain. The children like the consistency of having the same routine.”

The social circus has grown over the past four years and has gotten to a point where students formulate their own training track, Barnaby says. At first, the program focused on general training, providing students a glimpse into what circus really is and what the art forms are.

“Four years later, now the children have taken to their own, are finding their own voice and finding what they like to do,” Barnaby said. “In the years past, I’ve been focused on providing the foundation of circus and now it’s more the act of creating stories using circus skills.”

This story was updated at 6:00 p.m. to include the name of Barnaby’s circus, Circo Caribe. 

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