A New Spin on the Circus

For some Vietnamese youth, the challenge to escape poverty can be insurmountable. Simon Stanley meets one organisation offering them a future to be proud of. Photo by Vinh Dao.

In February of this year, the Asian Social Circus Association (ASCA) announced a five-year plan to improve the lives of 1.5 million underprivileged children across Asia, specifically in ASEAN countries. Founded in 2013 with support from Cirque du Soleil, this multinational network of performance art projects advocates the use of social circus as an alternative pedagogical tool for working with vulnerable or socially isolated children and young adults. Combining traditional circus skills with modern visual arts, the movement aims to be universally accessible regardless of education or physical ability, encouraging social empowerment, social awareness and self-belief.

“If you fall, everybody else falls,” says co-founder David Mason by Skype from his office in Afghanistan, where he has been running a children’s circus since 2002. Using the analogy of a human pyramid he’s explaining the key principles behind his organisation. “Once you make that pyramid, you may fall down many times but you learn. You learn about your own body but also of the people around you. All of this together gives you an insight into solidarity, to being part of society.”

Yet social circus isn’t limited to clowns and acrobats.

ASCA’s man-on-the-ground in Southeast Asia is Jerry Snell. The Canadian musician, dancer, choreographer and director is a powerhouse of creativity. His nonprofit program, Street Art for Street Kids (SAFSK), utilises the collaborative and creative spirit of hip-hop and street dance to guide vulnerable children away from violence and crime.

“When people have nothing to do, there’s going to be something bad coming out,” says Snell. “Because kids have energy and if there’s nothing to do that energy still has to come out.”

First invited to Vietnam as a big-budget show and event coordinator by the Vietnam Circus Federation, Snell discovered a network of talent stretching across the country.

“Street dance, that was by far the top [dance trend in Vietnam] and it still is,” Snell says. He eventually found SINE and X-Clown, two of Vietnam’s most celebrated street dance crews, both of which regularly appear on television shows and at international competitions. Based in Hanoi and HCMC respectively, each group shared a dream to teach street kids to dance. Kickstarted with help from Cirque du Soleil and UNESCO, SAFSK was formed. Through the Ho Chi Minh Child Welfare Association, a dance program was offered to Saigon’s nonprofit organisations. The Cau Han project, a centre in District 7 helping some of the area’s poorest families and those living with HIV, came calling.

In Hanoi, SINE collaborated with the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, an Australian grassroots charity which delivers aid and support to thousands of Vietnam’s poorest children and victims of human trafficking.

Now in its third year, with both centres boasting their own performing and competing dance crews, the reception of SAFSK has been extremely positive. In a recent press release, Blue Dragon’s founder Michael Brosowski praised the dedication and patience SAFSK and its instructors have shown to the children.

“Participants display a confidence that has surprised all of us…the Street Arts group has achieved far more than we believed it could,” writes Brosowski.

“You bring in SINE and X-Clown’s teachers,” says Snell, “They’re maybe four or five years older than the kids and they’re like a brother. You have an honesty, a relationship that grows. Many of the teachers, they’re also coming from poor backgrounds so they understand the kids.”

For Snell, it’s all about the long run. “We’re teaching kids but it has to be useful: how can they make money?”

Snell’s priority has always been to use local teachers, eventually sourcing them from SAFSK’s current flock of students.

“It’s working on all levels,” he says. “The kids get teachers and the teachers get jobs.”

But hip-hop doesn’t stop at dancing. Music production, event management and fashion are all becoming part of SAFSK’s programs. Snell recalls the story of one Blue Dragon boy which perfectly demonstrates the movement’s potential.

In 2011, English teacher and British expat Luke Poulson needed a more rewarding way to spend his free time and volunteered his services at Blue Dragon’s drop-in centre. At the time, the charity was seeking alternatives to regular classroom lessons.

“I said I could teach some English,” says Poulson over the phone. “’Great,’ they replied, ‘But what can you do?’ The kids had dropped out of school. That was the problem.”

When the centre heard about his DJing skills, they pounced.

Blue Dragon’s first-ever DJ school, day one, and Poulson arrives to find a room full of eager faces.

“It was rammed,” he says. “There was no way I could teach every single kid.”

One of those faces was Bao, an exceptionally shy 13-year-old boy who was out of school and frequently without a home. It could have been the end of the road for the youngster but when a small group of high-priority children was selected to stay, Bao was among them.

The years went by.

“We’d do weekly classes, sometimes twice a week,” says Poulson. “I’d bring in my equipment each time and he just worked at it.” Forced to return temporarily to England, Poulson donated his spare record decks to the centre. “When I came back, he’d been on them every single day and he was amazing.”

The highlight of Bao’s journey came in 2014, when Poulson arranged for him to attend a gig in Saigon headlined by Bao’s hero and Dutch house megastar Hardwell, even bagging him a backstage pass to meet the man himself.

“Those moments will live with Bao for a very long time,” writes Blue Dragon’s Brosowski on the charity’s website. “He has a new confidence. He has looked his idol in the eye…nothing’s impossible now.”

Now 17 and DJing at one of Hanoi’s biggest clubs, is Bao still the timid boy he once was? “Not at all!” says Poulson.

It’s a story that SAFSK is determined to replicate across Southeast Asia. “The plan is to expand,” says Snell. “The first step has been getting the sponsorship [from Los Angeles- and Saigon-based record label Lang Van] then, if people have a centre and they have kids and they say: ‘We want a project like that,’ then we’ll find a way to get teachers working in those centres.”

Published April 2015 – AsiaLIFE Magazine Vietnam

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