Helsinki: Think of it as group therapy with clowns. Finns are using the circus as a tool to help disaffected youth and even exporting the concept to Syrian refugee camps. Social services in the country have picked up on a project established two years ago to help young people at risk of social exclusion.
Circus enthusiast Silja Kyytinen set up Sirkus Magenta in 2011 to bring what is being described as “circotherapy” to Helsinki.
“Circus is great for team-building and improving confidence. People think: ‘I could never do that,’ but within five minutes, they’re wrapped around someone they’ve just met, doing acrobatic moves,” said Sarah Hudson, project manager for Sirkus Magenta.
“You have no choice but to be quite close to people around you, and this physical contact can be very moving - especially in Finnish culture where there’s such an emphasis on maintaining personal space.”
Sirkus Magenta’s 20 trainers also teach juggling, unicycling and stilt walking as well as some valuable life lessons.
“Circus is as much about failure as it is about success and this is one of the first things we tell students,” said Hudson. “There’s a lot of falling over but you also learn when you fail and that’s really important.”
Eemi Jamback had dropped out of school after a bereavement and could barely leave the house when he was encouraged to attend his first training session. “It really helped by giving me something different to do each day. Working with strangers made me less shy and now I’m healthier and fitter too,” he said. “I can do basic stunts as well as pair acrobatics. Life is . . . almost . . . good - and that’s because of the circus.”
Some students are so buoyed up by their experiences that they plan to train as instructors.
Hudson and her team are evangelical about the power of circus. As well as working with troubled youths, they offer classes for families, disabled groups, the elderly, and general hobbyists. Recent circus virgins-turned-converts include Finland’s minister for international development, Heidi Hautala, who was pictured doing a forward roll at a Sirkus Magenta session, as well as the team at Finn Church Aid, a humanitarian organisation. Representatives were so taken by circus training that they asked Sirkus Magenta to work with them helping refugees at the Za’atari camp in Jordan.
“These are people who have been through war, who are suffering from trauma or post-traumatic stress. Many have lost family, but they’re learning to trust again and growing in confidence,” said Johanna Norrdahl, Finn Church Aid’s representative in Za’atari.
“It gives them structure and keeps them busy, reducing the risk of radicalisation in the camp, where young people are targeted all the time.”