17 December 2002
There’s not many people in the world who can juggle five balls. Six balls takes hours and hours and hours of practice. And seven? Well, you can count them on one hand. And when you do, make sure you count in 14-year-old Johan Moolman of the Zip Zap Circus.
The Circus, made up of a group of energetic and enthusiastic kids ranging in age from 7 to 20 years, is packed with extraordinary talent in trapeze, acrobatics, juggling, unicycling and clowning.
The kids, in their colourful costumes and ready smiles, work together as a well-honed team, displaying confidence, poise and skill that attests to hours of practice and training. And besides juggling seven balls, they juggle rings, clubs, balls, even burning clubs, and the smaller boys juggle sitting on a bigger boy’s shoulders, who is on a unicycle.
They tour the country, usually during school holidays, giving free shows in shopping centres. Some kids have gone on overseas trips – at present there are four boys performing in Holland. The school has around 60 kids, half boys, half girls.
Zip Zap teenagers take on African stick-fighting
The Circus is based in Cape Town, where it began in 1992, and is the only free circus school in the country. It takes children from all walks of life – some are street kids, others have no parents, several live in mansions, others live in shacks in townships. They don’t pay fees for their five hours of training a day they get, and they still go to school, in some cases paid for by Zip Zap to encourage the kids to finish their formal schooling.
Free shows, no training fees . . . how do they do it? The Circus has one major sponsor in the form of Old Mutual Properties, and they perform free of charge in shopping centres belonging to the large corporate. But most of their funding they earn themselves, through corporate, stunt and film work. Two recent movies they were involved in are Home Alone 4 and Sinbad. Several years ago they did the stunt work for the Sanlam advert in which a trapeze artist walked across a tightrope strung between two buildings.
David Koch, assistant trainer and tour manager, explains: “We do corporate acts just for entertainment, but we also create shows around what companies want, maybe to build trust, to represent safety or dignity.’
The school was started 10 years ago by Brent van Rensburg and his wife Laurence Esteve. Van Rensburg has worked in circuses worldwide. He set up the Circus with the aim of teaching kids life skills through circus skills.
It’s not hard to see that it’s working – the kids exude confidence and pride, trust in each other (especially when you’re dangling from someone’s wrists four metres above the ground) and just plain enjoyment, obvious in their happy smiles. Says Lizo James, 17: “This is my school, it is good for me and makes me excited.’ He admits it is hard work. “It is not easy, you have to train hard to be flexible.’
The kids also learn practical skills. They make all their own props and costumes, and learn make-up application.
It goes further. Several of their acts are very humorous – a clown act with three bakers who throw their dough around, tumble over and under their baking table, getting lots of laughs from the audience.
Another act involves boys dressed up as animals, tiptoeing behind a hunter dressed in khaki. They jump over a vaulting horse in every imaginable way, creating a very amusing scene. Two talented boys come on with African drums, and elicit much laughter with their mimed actions, but produce some pretty cool drumming.
Koch says most of the ideas for the humorous sketches are put together by the kids themselves.
And don’t skimp on the applause. Says Ryno Keet, 17: “The best part is getting a good round of applause.’ For him it shows the audience appreciates all the hard work that goes into each act. It requires a lot of “dedication, commitment, perseverance, and a need to get better’.
Zip Zap has links with the world-famous Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian-based circus, which sends interns to the Cape Town school.
Zip Zap also has an outreach programme. They take street kids for a three-week basic circus skills course and some reveal great talent, but it can be heartbreaking. “Some of these kids could be stars, but they inevitably go back to the street’, says Cock.
Three boys from Zip Zap will be going to study at the UniverSoul Circus in the US in February.
Future plans for the circus are to create a centre of the arts, with a hostel attached. “We get inquiries from around the world. We’d like to set up an alternative kind of school’, says Koch. This requires approval from the Department of Education, so it will take some time.
Smiles, confidence, poise . . . isn’t this what every teenager needs?