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Raw documentary in new circus form

As a Tiger in the Jungle
Regissør: Sverre Waage

Two released Nepalese children's circus slaves offered an autobiographical performance during the Porsgrunn International Theater Festival (PIT). It was a raw and authentic testimony that exceeds all expectations of the new circus. 


The trauma stories come close for the time being. This stands out by telling the story of the abuse in a circus setting, such as where it took place, and that it is former children's circus slaves who convey their life story in this powerful new circus performance.

The dark side of circus life

700 Nepalese children have been rescued from Indian circus slavery per 2015, well-known Welsh producer Ali Williams tells me. Young children down to the 3-4 age are robbed or sold to the circus. Forced to learn circus skills through long days of bloodshed, violence and threats. With little food and rest, without safety nets and help with fall and wound injuries, except for the one they can give each other.

Only 13 of the 700 children wanted or were able to continue with the circus after being released. A company of former children's circus slaves who would continue to perform was created – Circus Kathmandu. But only two – Renu and Aman – were strong enough to cope with carrying an autobiographical notion of circus slavery. As a Tiger in the Jungle is a notion of survival against all odds.

The spotlight relieves

The pain the performance causes the athletes is double. Their bodies are full of injuries that inhibit them. Each learned movement is also a reminder of the former slavery. Nevertheless, the magic tricks and comforts the performance both themselves and the spectators.

The story does not become unbearable – even when it is.

The former child slaves move gracefully and grippingly in a trapeze ring high above the ground. The transcending power of trauma narrative abrogates the law of gravity in an unusual way. They hold firmly to each other in trust and life. They are there for each other – the only thing that prevents one from a fatal fall is the other. Not only physically, but also mentally, they intervene. In this superficial, weightless image, a growing up story is intertwined – a story that is too gruesome for the show to reproduce the worst.

The audience holds up the former circus slaves in utter admiration and compassion throughout every minute and every agonizing movement. "The meeting with the audience has always been full of love," the circus performers say when I talk to them during the rehearsals.

Raw meat and sculpture

Circus usually suffices to impress and shock, however As a Tiger in the Jungle convey their message in a low-key and melodic way. The director is tight and thoughtful. Selected words and movements call for a childhood abrupt swallowing and devouring of a hell where children are only a consumable. Still, humanity and artistic dissemination also create beauty in a scary and up-to-date account of being trapped in a bestial life.

With simple means, the unimaginable is told. A naivist-made tiger in the performance – representing a real tiger slave circus had – one day smells of raw meat; one of the children has been given a piece of meat by a villager just before the performance, and does not manage to wash his face until he is in the mane. The wild beast that awakens, attacks and mercilessly tows the child, makes the saddle mute. We are no longer at the circus, but where it happens. I feel blood taste in my mouth and shame. In fact, Renu and Aman experienced that a fellow slave and friend were killed and eaten by the circus tiger. It might as well have been one of them. 

Reality too strong

Sverre Waage (Circus Xanti) tells me that the tiger scene is subdued. In reality, the boy was consumed in the middle of the race, right in front of the other kids and the audience. The relationship between documentary storytelling and actual events is no longer one-to-one. The stories are rewritten so that the audience can relate to them. The sculpting makes it unbearable – even when it is just that. 

In the show, the children are robbed by human traffickers, while in reality they are often sold by their own family. Producer Williams points out the impossible financial situation many of the child slaves' parents find themselves in. It is easy to judge when you yourself are not faced with impossible choices – such as having to sacrifice one child to be able to feed the others. 

It was Williams who brought Waage to Circus Kathmandu. The performance is developed through conversations with the former child slaves about their lives. Waage has also added a third character to the show: a kidnapped boat refugee resold to the circus (sparkling played by Norwegian-Vietnamese Loan Hoeng). The grip makes the show burning current; Lack of protection makes children on the run extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Save the Children reports that one million children disappear annually.

Indomitable courage

During the trials the following day, I commend Renu and Aman for the courage they display by exposing themselves to the stress of conveying the outrageous they have experienced over and over again. Renu says quietly, "We can't do anything else." But how do they manage to continue with the circus after all they've been through? Aman exclaims: "Acting was never difficult – the audience saw us, embraced us. Exercise on the other hand… ”The face is twisted and the body becomes heavy.

Humanity and artistic communication create beauty in a frightening and up-to-date account of being trapped in a bestial life.

An exceptionally strong story is made even stronger by the honest performance. The former children's circus slaves boast emotions, experiences and confidences. At the same time, they inadvertently offer the common story their bodies are characterized by. Circus slave children who were injured and failed to heal themselves or defy the pain were discarded as rubbish. In the show they are referred to as "descending stones". The survivors carry not only their own trauma, but also the trauma of the children who succumbed. Renu and Aman are disturbed that they managed when so many didn't.

Self-sabotage or trauma?

Such an authentic and appalling performance is sensational and should conquer the world. But the liberated child slaves refrain from self-directed training – which both concerns the director and the producer. They are worried that the show will lose quality and opportunities.

But is it not the opposite? That the move is a trauma reaction? The workout awakens memories that the body's survival instinct sheds. Although the children are willing, their bodies are unwilling. The imprinted movements make them move back to the cruel. Only the strongest of us had managed to stand such a thing. Had the training refusal been incorporated into the performance, it would have lifted it further in my eyes.

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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