The newly-acquired locale of Cirabana Cirkus, a community project teaching circus arts to children in one of the poorer barrios of Havana, looks like an abandoned building from the street. Once a grand old movie theater, it was closed during the Special Period (as were most of the movie theaters in Havana)—and then eventually re-opened as a carpentry workshop.
But Carlos and Aramis, the co-Directors of the group, are thrilled to be here. For 9 years, since founding the children’s circus company in 2008, they have been moving from borrowed space to borrowed space—and for the last four years they have been practicing in the park. Determination and love have kept them going—they receive no salaries and have no funds from the government.
But now they have this space, registered with the Ministry of Culture, and they were proud to give me a tour. We wove our way between kids practicing their skills on one discarded piece of carpet and one small yoga mat—most were tumbling and balancing and juggling on the bare cement floor. A few fluorescent lights, left behind by the carpenters, illuminated the large, high-ceilinged space. A small ladder leaned against one concrete wall where the youngest member of the troupe, 5-years old, was practicing balancing a rod on this head while he climbed the ladder. Eventually the ladder would be moved from the wall and he would mount it with no wall supporting him– balancing in the air with the rod on his head. As children kept arriving for the practice session (they practice every day from 5 to 8 PM), they moved immediately to their stations and began their exercises without any adult direction.
And for the two hours or so that I was there they continued in that way, practicing the numbers they would perform in various shows around the city. One pair, adorably serious in their efforts, practiced their routine over and over. A group of boys joked around near the back wall and Aramis called out to them—“Are you on vacation?” They immediately resumed their practice. Pairs of little acrobats, a young boy on a balance board (a repurposed skate board), a juggler (using plastic bottles), and an adolescent boy who balanced 4 bottles on his chin treated us to a series of numbers, the static-y music provided by a tiny speaker that has a short circuit and kept fading in and out.
But the most memorable exhibition was that of a young, deaf girl who was a contortionista—she twisted her body into unbelievable forms, intense, unsmiling until the end when we applauded enthusiastically and a broad grin lit up her face.
I couldn’t help thinking about the gym where my young granddaughters go for their gymnastics classes—a huge space full of every kind of equipment you can imagine. Tumbling mats, balance boards, rings, bars, trampolines, trapezes, climbing ropes—well everything that an aspiring gymnast in an affluent NJ suburb might dream of. Maybe they would be willing to donate some equipment to Circabana? But how would we get it here?
I left this young, dedicated circus company with tears in my eyes, kisses all around, and a determination to help them out in whatever way I can. Maybe a fundraiser on GoFundMe, or a party in my house. Maybe some circus troupes would be willing to contribute.
There is a crisis in the circus here, Carlos explained. He is a graduate of the National School of Circus Arts. The lack of appropriate equipment is making it almost impossible to sustain the circus. On one of our shopping trips, Rori pointed out the red and white striped tents of the Havana Circus in an amusement park named “Coney Island” where none of the rides were functioning anymore.
But Circabana Cirkus doesn’t care about any of that. They are building a company out of love and nothing else. On Sunday I went to see a few of the kids perform in a children’s show at a restaurant in Playa, walking distance from my house. On the patio of a seafood restaurant, Don Cangrejo, were gathered at least a hundred kids and their parents to see the show. Waiters with large trays of perros calientes in oversized buns wound between the tables. La Colmenita de Cotorro, a neighborhood branch of the most famous Cuban children’s theater company performed a familiar Cuban folktale with music and dancing and confidence enough for any Broadway show.
And the kids from Circabana, nervous and excited, wowed the crowd with their acrobatics. I sat at a table with their mothers and grandmothers, their proud smiles gleaming in the morning sunlight, feeling like one of them—proud and happy to have been invited in to yet another uniquely Cuban experience. I said good-bye, promising to stay in touch and do what I can to help them. “Ya tu familia Cubana ha crecido. Your Cuban family has grown,” Aramis said as he kissed me goodbye. And it’s true.