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'Social circus' stage spectacular in Tokyo sees impaired performers wowing audiences

Performers dance on stage in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on April 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

TOKYO -- "Social circuses" aim to better people's lives and improve social issues; at the end of April, the Mainichi Shimbun attended a performance of one in Tokyo's Ikebukuro area, and discovered a world of entertainment given by a diverse group of people.

    Hazuki Kubota, right, is seen supported by a professional performer as she grasps a ring in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on April 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

    At dusk, performers in primary-colored costumes and dressed as insects appeared one after another on a stage set up at a spot between some tall buildings. Some had long arms and legs, some were small and some were in wheelchairs.

    One of the performers, Hazuki Kubota, 22, was dressed as a black- and silver-striped bug. With the help of other dancers, she was sat away from her wheelchair on a ring measuring about one meter in diameter. Surrounded by fantastic music and lighting, she was lifted about four meters up.

    Kubota has cerebral palsy, and rarely had chances to even use a swing before because she has difficulty loosening her grip, especially in her right hand. She was supported firmly by professional performer Hiroko Hiyama, and when she slowly released her left hand and spread her left arm, the audience applauded loudly.

    About half that day's 43 performers were "citizen performers" with impairments; as one of them, Kubota had been assigned a spectacular aerial performance. For her, it all started with a workshop run by Yokohama-based nonprofit organization Slow Label that she attended in 2016.

    To encourage people with impairments to participate on stage, Slow Label goes to workplaces and facilities employing people with disabilities to recruit workshop participants. Those who then wish to join as members can go on to practice and perform on stage. There, professional dancers called "accompanists" support them. The group has been conducting its activities since 2014.

    "If someone has an impairment, people tend to try to dissuade them from taking on challenges because they say it's too dangerous. But trusting other members and taking on challenges together builds growth," said Yoshie Kurisu, 43, president of the NPO.

    A year after Kubota began participating in the workshop, she tried aerial tricks for the first time at the staff's encouragement. Although she was initially scared sitting in the ring, she has kept performing since. When I asked why, she used a communication board to say: "The view from above."

    Kaori Ogawa, 26, who lives with Down syndrome performed on stage that day. She also joined the group as a result of the workshop. On weekdays she goes to a welfare work center, but she tends to stay at home on weekends because she has nowhere to go. It was in 2014 that she attended her first workshop, where she felt a thrill seeing the group's members doing handstands. Once she started practicing the tricks at home, her life became more energetic.

    On stage, she stood on the shoulders of a male dancer while holding a pole. From there, she fell backwards and other members of the group caught her, in a successful finish that the audience greatly applauded.

    Kurisu began activities under Slow Label after an osteosarcoma she developed in 2010 meant she could not use her right leg. Using her stage production and event management experience, she successfully organized her first performance at art exhibition Yokohama Paratriennale in 2014.

    Kurisu began using the term "social circus" in 2019; it was originally devised in Europe about 25 years ago as an activity to support people suffering poverty and other problems through circus participation.

    On April 24, the eve of the third coronavirus state of emergency declaration in four prefectures including Tokyo, the first "social circus" performance ended after a one-night-only show for people related to the event.

    Originally, performances were scheduled to start the next day with audiences present, but the declaration led to their cancellation. Instead, the show is being streamed for free on YouTube from June 1 to July 31. Among the professional juggling and acrobatics performers taking part, some have hearing and other impairments, and there are also dancers with lower limb impairments who cannot walk, and dance with only their arms.

    Kurisu said, "I want people to see the fun of art created by many kinds of people."

    (Japanese original by Tomoko Igarashi, Tokyo City News Department)

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