Zip Zap circus school teaches life skills

The Baker Boys, a slapstick comedy act.
The Baker Boys, a slapstick comedy act.
(Image: Zip Zap Circus School)
 

 

Work and fun combine in the visionary concept of the Cape Town-based Zip Zap Circus School.

Founded by MD Laurence Estève and artistic director Brent van Rensburg, the Zip Zap school of circus arts uses innovative methods to inspire and empower young people, equipping them with skills they can take with them into any life situation.

Originally called Dare to Dream, the current name aptly originated from the mouths of children.

Youngsters from all walks of life are encouraged to join the school where they learn invaluable life skills such as teamwork, trust and dedication, with the important element of fun as the foundation of all courses. Around 60 children are enrolled at any one time, and they have to learn to treat each other with tolerance and respect.

Through professional training coupled with entertainment and fun, children are given an opportunity to become good citizens, to experience the world and receive recognition from audiences in other countries, thereby building their self-esteem. This allows them to fulfil their potential while they become young leaders and ambassadors for the school and for their country.

There is no charge for studying at Zip Zap, thanks to assistance and sponsorship from the National Lottery Board, the Grandwest Cape Culture and Heritage Foundation, the National Arts Council, Cirque du Soleil, and others.

Proceeds from the school’s performances, including corporate events, also help to fund its operations but, said Van Rensburg, they are always happy to bring more sponsors on board.

A daring combination

Cape Town-born Van Rensburg learned his daring aerial skills at a circus school in the suburb of Observatory between 1973 and 1978. For the next 15 years he travelled internationally, appearing under the big top and working as an instructor in France, Norway, Monte Carlo, Italy, the Netherlands, England, Denmark and the US.

During December and January 1986 he worked as the late Patrick Swayze’s stunt double on the film Steel Dawn, shot in Swakopmund, Namibia.

However, a back injury meant he could no longer perform and he decided to become an acrobatic instructor, completing a two-year course at the Clown College in Florida, US. After graduation he spent the next few years giving circus workshops at Club Med holiday resorts, and it was at one of these that he met his future wife.

French-born Estève studied physical education after school and acquired a handful of teaching diplomas in various sports disciplines. In 1988 she completed her Masters in Science and Technology of Economy and Administration of Sports Institutions at the University de Paris IX.

She learned her circus skills from Van Rensburg – they later performed as a duo trapeze act known as The Flying Classics in the Circus Gruss in France in 1991.

In 1992 they returned to South Africa to pursue their dream of establishing a circus school for the Cape Town youngsters who spent most of their time on the streets.

Backed by Van Rensburg’s 30 years of experience and passion for the circus, it wasn’t long before young participants were juggling, flying and tumbling, and two years later they debuted at the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Positive goals

The school has a number of stated objectives – these are to “enhance the lives of young people who would otherwise never be exposed to the magic of the performing arts”, while entertaining audiences of all ages and from all cultures. It also aims to equip the children with the skills to live sustainably, and foster the priceless qualities of self-esteem, confidence, self-expression and mutual respect.

In doing so Zip Zap works to break down cultural differences and to facilitate coexistence between all South Africans. Also, it aims to nurture talent and, using the language of the circus, develop literacy and communication.

Finally, Zip Zap’s children act as ambassadors for Cape Town and South Africa.

A circus way of life

Various courses are offered, from on-demand training at beginner level to a full-time adult course. Children begin their training at age seven, continuing through to adulthood where they may become independent performers or stay with the Zip Zap Circus School and help out in all areas pertaining to the running of the shows.

Initially, young children are taught as and when they wish, with no set schedule for lessons. Here trust, teamwork and confidence using music and dance are introduced.

Older children keep to a more rigid lesson schedule, which teaches them the paramount importance of teamwork and discipline in the circus environment. They may choose circus acts and receive specialised training in those areas.

A full-time program is offered for adults, which teaches all the skills needed to run a circus. These include financial management; communication; healthy living, sound and video editing; sewing; choreography; rigging; circus instruction and direction; and travel planning.

Zip Zap also holds an annual Trainers of Trainers short course, where instructors from Canada’s renowned Cirque du Soleil, and their colleagues from Africa and elsewhere in the world, come together to share circus teaching skills as well as knowledge and methodology.

Hope for the future:

The Cirque du Soleil has an outreach program, Cirque du Monde, which is active throughout the world. Zip Zap is a Cirque du Monde partner in South Africa.

Cirque du Monde sponsors Zip Zap’s annual Trainers of Trainers course as well as their Ibhongolwethu project, which operates in the semi-informal township of Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town.

With the help of Médecins Sans Frontières, Zip Zap staff run a programme twice a week for HIV-positive children on antiretroviral treatment. This provides children who have dealt with hardship and illness most of their lives with a sense of worth, belonging and a positive outlook for the future. The community in turn learns awareness, acceptance and understanding about HIV/Aids.

The programme culminates in an annual performance at a local community centre.

Local and international performances

Thanks to the experience of its founders, Zip Zap’s performances are on par with international standards, and are professionally executed and highly entertaining. The team has been invited for the fourth time in as many years to perform in Paris in October, with a month-long tour of France to follow.

South African fans can catch their next show at the Spier Estate in Stellenbosch, Western Cape province, on 30 October 2010.