On stilts, on the trapeze and with hula-hoops: Young people with Down's syndrome can be grandiose artists. Berlin's Circus Sonnenstich has been proving that for 15 years.
Two performers kiss briefly, but with great seriousness. It is all part of their acrobatic number. Hagen and Maria glide effortlessly into the next lift. Circling one another, Maria does a cartwheel and then Hagen takes her in his arms. The pair are concentrating hard and appear to be totally lost in their performance. They move gracefully to the rhythm of a melodic tune by Julia Fiebelkorn, who together with her accompanist, guitarist Rodrigo Santa Maria, stand just a few meters from the two artists. Hagen and Maria turn, they are completely at one, they perform steps sensually and poetically. As they finally take a bow, the entire audience applauds. Hagen, red-faced, claps too. Maria brushes a strand of hair from her face.
The two performers have been rehearsing for the grand gala to mark the 15th anniversary of Circus Sonnenstich at Berlin's Wintergarten Variety. Hagen is wearing a pair of baggy tracksuit bottoms and a sloppy t-shirt and even without costumes and the make-up, everything ran smoothly and to startling effect. A soft smile flits across Maria's face. She has been a part of Circus Sonnenstich for ten years now. She said that when she first began training she was incredibly nervous. Seeing her today as an acrobat in action, rolling balls or on the trapeze, that's hard to believe.
Circus Sonnenstich was founded by a small amateur sports club. The club provided disabled people with the opportunity to perform in the circus. The majority were born with Down's syndrome, and would otherwise rarely be considered capable of performing this way. Through regular training sessions with Michael Pigl-Andrees and his experienced team of empathetic circus trainers, the artists and stage director, actress Anna-Katharina Andrees, have actually unfurled a great deal of potential in the young performers and achieved a consummate level of competence. Today a total of 16 artists between the ages of 19 and 26 belong to Circus Sonnenstich. They dance waltzes on stilts, enthral on the trapeze, gyrate with hula-hoops and perform grandiose juggling tricks with the diabolo.
Thinking the possible
"We believe in that which is possible in the future while supporting our artists in the present," said Michael Pigl-Andrees. In their daily lives, the young performers with Down's syndrome rarely get the chance to test their own limits. They would be constantly supervised and protected. But at circus training they must show courage, learn to trust themselves and overcome their fears. The joy that overcomes them once they master a performance is palpable. "I've been at the circus for eight years and I'm really happy, every Thursday I see our lovely trainer," said Friederike. "In the circus I am like like a cat," said Hagen gleefully. And Anna explained: "On stage I feel reborn!"
In the last few years, Circus Sonnenstich has created five big productions which have been celebrated both here in Germany and abroad. The current program "Beziehungs-Weise" ("Or Rather") has been staged 18 times in continuously sold-out theaters. A highlight was their performance in "Cirko" (Center for New Circus) in the Finnish capital Helsinki. The program is continually being performed at trade and political congresses, and a lot of the artists have taken part in film and television productions. With that, they continue to demonstrate their astounding abilities to new audiences. They themselves gain confidence and independence. In the meantime, the acrobats offer circus workshops for, among others, volunteers who work in disabled institutions abroad. That provides them with one of the greatest rewards: that disabled people are able to surpass themselves, when people challenge them to do so.