This is the story of Upsala – a child circus operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia.
“Walking along the street, you sometimes walk by a person that you find interesting. And life blows by you like that. But if you stop and do something for this person, your life can change. We run to catch the train or the bus,and you miss that chance.”
This is how Larisa Afananseva, the Upsala Circus choreographer, describes the meaning behind the group’s latest show,”City in A Suitcase”. Unlike the impersonality of the Russian streets, where smiling to a passerby is bound to create problems, under the Upsala tent, I find a strange sense of community.
Upsala, which basically means “oops-a-daisy”, is what you say in Russian when you lift something up or someone falls down. The circus is not so much about the stage as it is about the lives of its young performers, who range in age from 6 to 18. Through a combination of theatre and rigorous acrobatic training, Upsala provides a kind of art therapy that lifts up children who have fallen down through the cracks of Russian society. Many of them have spent 3-4 years moving between the circus and a troubled home life surrounded by alcohol, violence and abuse, or the unforgiving streets of St. Petersburg where 40,000 runaways fall in with the “false families” of criminal gangs.
Larisa’s goal is to keep the kids off the streets and encourage a healthy relationship with their families, teachers, and peers, and ensuring that they go home at the end of each day. At Upsala, these kids have an alternative to crime, begging, and drugs. “Once these kids created a circus for themselves, their horizon opened up,” notes Larisa. “They don’t see the alcohol and the drugs, they see beyond all this. The circus gives them the opportunity to live in another world.”
I met Larisa in 2004 when I was in St. Petersburg researching my undergrad thesis on Russian publishing houses. We had a common friend at an organization for the homeless. At five feet tall, with a muscular stout body and short hair (and lesbian in a vastly homophobic country), Larisa is the antithesis of the typical Russian woman [read: skeleton walking on 3 inch heels in a mini-skirt, carrying a fake pleather purse].
Larisa and Upsala are rare examples of non-profit social work in a post-Soviet Russia that is dominated by self-serving individualism. After 70 years of force-fed “community service,” people are pretty cynical and the idea volunteering or serving the underserved is met with perplexed looks and laughter. I find their reaction more than understandable. The average monthly wage for Russians in 2007 was $540. But after food, consumer goods, and public utility expenses, you’re left with a mere 20% or $108 to pay the rent and enjoy life. Considering the financial realities of the Russian middle class and the common experience of spending an hour or two every day in traffic, people just don’t have the time, resources or energy to commit their lives to helping others.
At thirty two years old, Larisa is an exception. She still lives in a communal apartment and is unable to afford a lot of things much less the luxury of renting her own flat. While the sacrifices she makes to serve Upsala’s children are significant, she says she cannot bring herself to quit and seek more lucrative work. Her relationship to the children is too important to her. Perhaps this is because she can relate; Larisa grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in East Siberia. Unable to escape the omnipresent criminal culture, she ended up at the police station several times during high school. “But one day a magical fairy called ‘the theater’ swooped down and rescued me,” she confided with a mischievous smile.
Similar inspiration motivated Marina, Upsala’s director who worked as a social worker and psychologist for street children. When she heard about Upsala in 2007, she got involved immediately. But the organization actually began with Astrid Schorn, “a social pedagogue” as she calls herself. Astrid grew up in East Berlin, acting from the age of 12. After completing her theater degree, she worked at “Lazarett”, a social-medical drop point for street children. At Lazarett and in St. Petersburg’s train and metro stations, Astrid spotted mobs of street kids in need of food, friendship, and “physical and spiritual reanimation;” the idea for the circus was born. Driven by her vision, Astrid didn’t complete her degree and graduate like most students, she fund-raised money through a German-Russian exchange program to start a circus.
Upsala took flight in March 2000 with a crew of German and Russian artists. In April, Larisa joined the project and, despite skepticism from the community, “casting” for the kid circus began from the streets of Petersburg.
“Some of these kids have come to us through correctional facilities, but no one would believe us if we told them that,” says Larisa. “When Sergei Polubelov came to us he had zero self-confidence. The center told us ‘Oh, this boy can’t do anything’. Sergei couldn’t even catch a ball because he had begun to believe what people said, to believe that he was worthless.”
Today Sergei is 21, and has undergone physical and mental transformations. He is a big guy, timid and quiet, but he seems to have found his voice. “I was small in spirit when I came here. Now I’m much more confident,” he told me. Today Sergei studies at Gertzen State Pedagogical University and will spend half a year in Germany. He also volunteers at a home for disabled children in Pavlosk on the outskirts of Petersburg. “I came into the circus with expectations, I wanted to learn something new. At first it didn’t work. I was weak. But after time, I saw myself grow up from a small boy to an adult. This circus has played the main role in my life.”
Today, Upsala includes about 50 kids, a tent and a mini-van, and travels abroad twice a year during school holidays, performing to sold-out crowds in competitions that they often win. They have come a long way since 2000 when the group had no space to rehearse in, no costumes or juggling equipment, and little to no money. “Picture three boys, wearing red noses and you’ve pretty much got the idea,” says Larisa, laughing.
Upsala’s success is built off of a combination of the fierce dedication of local staff, temporary volunteers and overseas funding, which has gradually thinned out. So they depend on donations for food, clean drinking water, clothes, shoes, dental care, and schoolbooks. Two German volunteers assist at rehearsals, do the make-up for the productions, and construct the sets, props, and costumes, passing countless hours sewing and paper-macheing. They receive a stipend that covers rent and food.
There isn’t enough money to pay everyone very well, to put a floor down in the circus tent, to buy lights, and other facilities, but that doesn’t mean that the kids can slack off. “We want the kids to have respect for themselves, so if I see them wearing dirty clothes or shoes with holes in them, I’m going to speak with him about that,” says Larisa. “I don’t care if he has a mohawk or dreads, but his shoes and clothes should be clean. They need to show that they care about and respect themselves.”
In the West, when one hears the word “circus,” something along the lines of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey comes to mind – a whole bunch of elephants pooping everywhere and camels and dancing dogs and bears that roll around on wheels and all that boom and splash going on in three huge rings in a stadium size building. Upsala isn’t like this.
Upsala is about offering young people a community and a space to develop. It’s about children misbehaving, crying, making noise, asking question after nagging question, losing faith, or not being able to concentrate. It requires every ounce of the staff’s patience and all of their love. Whenever I visit the small room that Larisa and Marina call their office, I’m mesmerized with how they command the attention and affection of 50 children. As the kids run in and out asking questions, give each other piggy-backs through the hallway and make a racket, Larisa’s temper never flames up. She answers each of their questions with humor and grace, and politely asks them to leave the office when they cross the line.
â€œIt takes anywhere from 1-3 years to build their trust,â€ she says. â€œEveryone told them they are idiots. The most important thing is that they are challenged, and I want to see their talent come out, so I encourage them and they begin to believe in themselves.â€
Upsala’s first trip to Germany after two years of work was a goldmine of experience for the kids. “They were real hooligans. We had to stop them and say ‘Look, you cannot steal here! You are artists, professionals!’ I remember when we went to fast food restaurants, they would fill their pockets with the free packets of butter and chocolate,” Larisa laughs.
“I tell them, now you have a different status. Now you are not just a bunch of kids with problems – you are artists! When they got to Europe,” Larissa says, “they saw how things can be different than they are here.”
Because Upsala lifted them up from the streets they fell into, the circus kids can envision a better life and have a choice to become more than what the St. Petersburg streets have to offer.