Spectacular Tokyo ‘Social Circus’ Scene Sees Disabled Performers Wowing Audiences


TOKYO – “Social circuses” aim to improve people’s lives and improve social problems; At the end of April, the Mainichi Shimbun attended a performance in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district and discovered a world of entertainment offered by a diverse group of people.

Hazuki Kubota, right, is seen supported by a professional artist as she grabs a ring in Tokyo’s Toshima district on April 24, 2021 (Mainichi / Kota Yoshida)

At dusk, performers in costumes of primary colors and dressed as insects appeared one after another on a stage set up in a place between 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 in a black and silver striped insect. With the help of other dancers, she sat away from her wheelchair on a ring measuring about three feet in diameter. Surrounded by fantastic music and lighting, she was lifted about four meters.

Kubota suffers from cerebral palsy and has rarely had the opportunity to use a swing before, as she has difficulty loosening her grip, especially in her right hand. She was firmly supported by professional performer Hiroko Hiyama, and when she slowly released her left hand and extended her left arm, the audience cheered loudly.

About half of the 43 performers on that day were “citizen artists” with disabilities; like one of them, Kubota had been entrusted with a spectacular aerial performance. For her, it all started with a workshop organized by the Yokohama-based nonprofit, Slow Label, which she attended in 2016.

To encourage people with disabilities to participate on stage, Slow Label visits workplaces and facilities employing people with disabilities to recruit workshop participants. Those who then wish to become members can train and perform on stage. There, professional dancers called “guides” support them. The group has been operating since 2014.

“If someone has a disability, 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 promotes growth,” said Yoshie Kurisu, 43, president of the NPO.

A year after Kubota started participating in the workshop, she tried aerial tricks for the first time with encouragement from staff. Although she was initially afraid to sit in the ring, she has continued to perform ever since. When I asked her 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 following the workshop. On weekdays she goes to a welfare center, but tends to stay home on weekends because she has nowhere to go. It was in 2014 that she attended her first workshop, where she felt a thrill when she saw the members of the group do a headstand. Once she started practicing the tricks at home, her life became more energetic.

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

Kurisu started her business under Slow Label after an osteosarcoma she developed in 2010 prevented her from using her right leg. With her background in stage production and event management, she successfully staged her first performance at the Yokohama Paratriennale art exhibition in 2014.

Kurisu started using the term “social circus” in 2019; it was originally conceived in Europe about 25 years ago as an activity to support people suffering from poverty and other problems through participation in the circus.

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

The performances were originally scheduled to begin the next day with the audience in attendance, but the declaration resulted in their cancellation. Instead, the show streams for free on YouTube from June 1 to July 31. Among the professional juggling and acrobatic artists who participate in it, some have hearing and other disabilities, and there are also dancers with lower limb disabilities who cannot walk and dance with only their arms.

Kurisu said, “I want people to see the pleasure in art created by many types of people.”

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

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