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Brazzil - Culture - April 2004

A Brazilian School of Laughs

At Circo Picolino in Salvador, Bahia, nothing is what it seems.
The total number of program participants is currently around
400. This figure may grow to as many as 450 by the end of the
year. About 380 are children, and most—but not all—of
those come from economically distressed environments.

Phillip Wagner


Picture Ana Maria Bourscheid, 37, was born and has lived her entire life in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Degreed in Psychology in 1994 she says, "I took a long time in university and I worked in other places, but when I graduated I came here. There was a group for little kids, at 4 or 5 years old, and my son Pedro was at about that age.

"Here at Picolino we have education, it's social and also it works with the body and I like this. It's everything that I like, but it's not easy. It took me time to find my place here. Picolino is a circus and in a circus nothing is exactly what it seems. Everything changes and everybody changes. You do something in particular, but it needs you to do another thing and another thing."

Circo Picolino was founded in 1985 by photographer Anselmo Serrat. While working in cinema, producing films, he met a circus and theatre group and was attracted by the more immediate feedback the performers received for their efforts.

"It was important for him because when he made films it took such a long time, maybe one two years for him to see, to feel, the result. At the circus it was completely different, it was immediately". So Anselmo took a leap of faith and enrolled in the Academia Piolim de Artes Circenses, a circus school in São Paulo. "It was maybe in 1982," Ana said, "long before I knew him."

After completing the program at Piolim, Anselmo, who was from Rio, put together a group that performed on the streets there and in other cities. They came to Salvador and just never left. In São Paulo the group performed "circus theatre", but today it's a school, and strictly circus.

Ana Maria Bourscheid


Bourscheid is the circus's pedagogical coordinator, today. "We use the other performing arts also: theatre, music, and dance, but it's circus," Ana continued. "It's not traditional circus. We have no animals; we just use the human body". But Circo Picolino performances are built around a theme, which changes from year to year.

Currently, Picolino is offering two shows, one just for the kids. "It's a little pedagogic," Ana noted. "The children have the experience, but they are not really artists yet". The children range upward from age seven.

No Social Program at First

The total number of program participants is currently around 400. Ana expects that it may grow to as many as 450 by the end of the year. About 380 are children, and most—but not all—of those come from economically distressed to economically desperate environments.

"In the beginning the school was not for these children," Ana said. "It was a school for children whose families could afford to pay. So they were middle class. That's how Circo Picolino began. But in a few years everything changed".

Picolino's first exposure to underprivileged children involved juveniles in detention, kids in trouble with the law. Anselmo encountered someone involved with juvenile justice. Two experiences grew out of that: "They were very special, very good, but the time was limited. It was only a short time, maybe something like three months".

The work with these first poorer children was funded by the local government. "Just when it started to get results the program was finished," said Ana. "Then in 1991 we did the first long-term partnership. That was with Project Axé. We worked with them until maybe 1997". So, the already well established Axé was providing some support for Circo Picolino to work with street children from roughly 1991 through 1997.

Becoming an NGO

Near the end of the partnership with Axé, Picolino also began to work with UNICEF, and then with project Agatha Esmeralda, an Italian NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). Picolino itself was not an NGO when it first came into contact with UNICEF. "We were a private organization. But the work we were doing was already not private, it was public. UNICEF said that they knew about our work and were interested in working with us. But they told us that we needed to get NGO status", which Picolino did in ,1997 with the help of Vladimir Oganouska, a Brazilian from Salvador. At the same time, Picolino became an association.

NGO status made it possible for Picolino to secure financial backing from UNICEF and other governmental and private organizations. UNICEF is no longer a funding source, but, at that time, it helped to cover some of Picolino's expenses to work with children from public schools.

The way it works today is that an organization, like Agatha Esmeralda for example, provides some money to cover the cost of a specific number of children, say 100. It works the same way with government agency sponsorships. The government will provide some funds and for that money Picolino is able to work with a certain number of children.

Today UNICEF's support comes in the form of continuing to promote Circo Picolino as a worthwhile social program. Picolino professional staffers, the `artists', put on workshops and performances which generate some revenue. There are about 20 professionals at the circus. Current governmental funding comes from the Salvador Departments of Education and the Social Development.

The most recent major sponsor of Picolino is ABC Trust in Great Britain, which helps to underwrite the cost of the course which each Circo Picolino instructor must complete. Each of the instructors who work now with the children studied with Circo Picolino. There are 80 to 90 children at Picolino at any one time, along with about a dozen of the 20 or so available instructors.

A Place for All Kids



Two groups of children are served at the Spartan CP facility, such as it is. One group comes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Although the majority of the children are from very poor communities, it's a mix. "It's for us important to have children from different realities".

Ana continued, "There are children who come from poor communities, but where they're at home, where they have family and go to school. There are others who are many times at (the) streets, they work at the streets. From this group, some come from homeless shelters".

Child jugglers and fiery baton twirlers who learned the craft at Picolino are a common site on Salvador street corners. They perform for hand-outs from captive-audience motorists at red lights. "And there are some children from middle class," said Ana, "whose families can pay. It's very important to have children from different realities because that's the world, it's like that. In Salvador there are places just for street kids, or just for middle class kids". Circo Picolino doesn't make that distinction. "It's a place for all kids".

The children participating in the program at Picolino are usually there from 2 until 5:30 or so in the afternoon. Saturday is reserved for university students and the small group of accomplished `artists'. "One of our instructors wanted to attend university, but it was too expensive," said Ana.

"He couldn't pay. So we worked out an exchange where some of the students from the university could study with Circo Picolino in exchange for him being able to study at the university". Circo Picolino, in fact, has conducted some classes at the university.

The Work They Do

Ana offered some insight as to the work they do. "The main thing with the children when they are here is to work with them doing exercises, practicing performances, and rehearsing. But we also do other things with them, and it's different from group to group. On Fridays we have different activities, like capoeira for example. And we work with them to help them learn to read. Now we're already preparing the show they are going to perform in December. So we are going to study with them because we always have a theme. (For this show) our subject will be Salvador".

I learned that the upcoming program will be called "Pictures of the City." Ana continued: "We began to study the city. So, we ask them, `where do you live?', `how is the place you live?', `what is the difference between that place and other places in Salvador?' We ask them to pay attention to the places they pass to come to Picolino, just to think about themselves in the city. And we begin to work to study Salvador history with them, and also the social differences. Pituba, for example, is not like Pirajá and things like that. And we always are asking the schools how the kids are doing".

Picolino and Education

Performance at (regular) school is tracked. "The first problem is that they don't enroll, or their family doesn't enroll them. We have to ask the family to do this. If they don't, we talk to the school. The second problem is that they have to go to the school. They begin and then you see that they are not going to school anymore.

"Every month we contact the schools and we ask if the children are going to school, and how they are doing. We don't do what the school does, and the school can't do what we do. It has to be together". Regarding the children she added, "I think that it makes sense to them to come here. It's not something that they are doing for the others (parents and other authority figures)"

"When I arrived here we didn't have an educational department," said Ana. "Now I am responsible for that, and now we have an educator, a teacher. But the children are taught here only indirectly because if they see it's about education they will resist. They know the (public) school and they don't like school. Sometimes the schools are not so good.

"Well, we tell them it's important for their lives, and that seems simple. But their families probably often are people that didn't go to school. So we do other things, other ways. We work with pleasure, we play games. We will read a book with them or something".

Picolino also works onsite in three local public schools under the auspices of the Salvador Department of Education, which provides some support. "Those children don't go to Picolino, Picolino goes to them". And Circo Picolino gives 16,000 public school students each year an opportunity to attend performances for free. These annual "projects" are sponsored by corporations which receive tax breaks in return.

Barebone Facilities



Circo Picolino facilities are strictly bare bones to adequate, and space is a serious problem. With the progressive growth of enrollment, a second tent is needed. Circo Picolino has one, but they don't have additional ground upon which to erect it.

The city owns a soccer field adjacent to Picolino that could, theoretically, be relocated. Certainly it would seem to be much easier to do that than to split Picolino into two localities where logistical issues could be nightmarish.

Everything they currently get by with is on-site, including a small library, crude kitchen and dining facilities, Little-House-on-the-Prairie-like food and circus equipment storage areas, small, overcrowded administrative offices and so forth. "We have a freezer," said Ana, "but it works not very well." Picolino makes everything they use in the way of circus equipment, excluding of course the tents themselves.

A Chronic Problem

One of the biggest challenges facing Picolino is how to pay the staff. Most financial sponsorships come from organizations, including governmental entities, which stipulate that the monies can only be used to directly support participation of children in the program.

"It's for food, for the transport (of children to and from the facility), for equipment, but not for the professionals". Those funds cannot be used to pay staff, and Picolino has—of necessity—a large staff. It includes 20 instructors, each of whom has come up through the ranks, many from the original partnership with Axé. Picolino is no longer affiliated with Axé.

In many cases the staff members are living under the threat of being re-relegated to the margins of society. In order to pay for the staff Picolino needs to come up with private funding sources willing to target that need. A short term solution was arrived at, but the outlook for the future is tenuous. "We passed the summer. And it was very hard, there was no money. Now it's ok for maybe six months, less I think, maybe less," concluded Ana.

Transportation and Food Issues

Transportation is a significant issue. Underprivileged children in the program are issued bus passes, which are usually more expensive than food in the case of students fed at Picolino. Salvador and surrounding communities are expansive, accommodating approximately three million people.

Some children as young as 10 or 12 must, on the days they participate, travel an hour and a half to two hours after school to arrive at Picolino and then another hour and a half to two hours to get home. When the regular school day, which precedes Picolino, and three to four hours of "circus school", is factored into the equation the physical impact on these young Brazilians becomes clear.

Not all of the children are fed. There are different programs for different children. The children from Project Agatha Esmeralda, for example, are not subsidized sufficiently to cover the cost of food. Picolino benefits to some extent by a government program that expropriates food from supermarkets when it reaches its expiration date.

But, basically, noted Ana, "The children come from many places. Each community has to find a way to account for their food and transport". Sometimes that means providing funds to Picolino to cover those costs. In other cases the children are (hopefully) fed elsewhere.

It all depends on where the child comes from. Everything, with respect to services rendered, other than emergency medical, depends on which program gets the children to Picolino, because Picolino does not have, independent of sponsorship, the resources to effectively address those issues. That's not to say that some children aren't being subsidized directly by Picolino.

The program did not, for example, terminate the participation of children previously sponsored by Project Axé when the Picolino-Axé partnership ended. It's just one more reason why Picolino struggles to find ways to pay its professional performers and staff members.

Emergency medical services are currently being donated to Circo Picolino by VitalMed, a local emergency clinic service. And it's not restricted to only treatment in case of accident. Whenever a child in the program, or a staff member, is not feeling well they can be seen by VitalMed. "We had some accidents, but nothing serious" said Ana. "And some of them happened not when the children were in the activities. Sometimes a child just runs and falls".

On the Road

At the time of the interview, Anselmo was with the small group of Picolino professional performing artists on tour in interior Bahia, specifically Juazeiro, not far from Senhor do Bonfim. It's part of a project to take Picolino to six cities in the interior: Juazeiro, Vitória da Conquista, Jequié, Camaçari, Feira de Santana and Itabuna.

Previously Picolino had only conducted workshops and/or provided some training in the interior for educators who specialize in educating through art mediums. This is the first time Picolino has toured interior Bahia putting on performances.

Circo Picolino twice toured in Europe. The first was a four month youth circus tour, sponsored by a wealthy individual from Switzerland, which boasted of nine circus performing groups, including youth circuses from Brazil, China, India and two locations in Africa, plus a musical group. That tour included stops in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Belgium, England and Austria.

The second was a roughly three-week tour around France that was organized and scheduled by a promoter. The France tour basically paid for itself on a pay-as-you-go basis with incoming revenues covering recent and current expenses. Picolino nearly went to Spain this year, but was unable to complete all of the necessary arrangements.

They want to try again next year. The anticipated Spain trip would be patterned after their successful French tour, which relied on scheduling venues associated with festivals and other natural opportunities to pull in audiences. The same individual who handled the scheduling for the French tour, Alexandrine Bianco, will do likewise for Spain.

When I asked about any possible overtures from the United States, maybe for securing a "big brother" relationship with Ringling Brothers, Ana first responded with "Well, they're a traditional circus, and we're a school." But it seemed clear that the idea held an attraction for her.

She added "That's really one of our problems you see. We can't afford to have someone in a position to do things like that, to make contacts for us and it's a problem. We don't have a public relations person. We just don't have funding for it. That's the thing".

Circus Basics

Circo Picolino teaches the children tightrope walking, the flying trapeze, acrobatics, juggling, human pyramid building, and Indian rope gymnastics. Performances are generally an hour to an hour and a half in length. "We can put on 30 minute programs with the children, just to show what they can do. But then we have our theme shows, the `spectaculars', where we make a lot of research and everything is more elaborate, more complex.

"Our themes are all related to our culture. For example now we're making that one that represents the day by day scenes of life here in Bahia. We did one earlier that was titled `warrior', and it was about Glauber Rocha, a very important filmmaker".

Rocha depicted Brazilian socio-political history in the Cinema Novo movement of the 1970s in Brazil. "It was about him, and we had a projection during the performance. This was not the young kids, this was our professional group. We did one show also about (the African-Brazilian religion of) Candomblé, and the Orixás (saints).

Phillip Wagner is a frequent contributor to Brazzil magazine. His current focus is preparing to pursue graduate studies at Indiana University in September of 2004, with a regional focus on Brazil. He is currently in Brazil improving his Portuguese and working with social programs. Phillip was recently named a Campaign Associate for Oakland, California-based Nourish the New Brazil, which supports President Lula's national Zero Hunger initiative. He was also recently named Bahia Program Development Director for the Rio-based Iko Poran volunteer placement organization. Phillip maintains an extensive Brazil focused website at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm and can be reached at pwagner@iei.net

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