The grinding poverty that marks North Jakarta’s coastal subdistrict of Cilincing is palpable. The sight of creaking fishing boat masts at the nearby harbor, as well as the sight of women shucking mussels amid a sea of rubble and rundown houses, is one image of the area’s plight. But once a year, a touch of cheer uplifts this community of more than 371,000 people, as the circus comes to town.
Held by the non profit Red Nose Foundation last Sunday, the annual spectacle attracted thousands of locals keen to avoid the weekend tedium and cheer on the performers — who were none other than children from the neighborhood.
“The circus is the sixth of its kind to be held since Red Nose Foundation started off in 2008,” said executive director Dan Roberts, who established the foundation with his wife Renny and friend Dedi Purwadi.
“I’m happy to say that the show is getting bigger year after year. It has gone a long way, from a small group of 17 kids to 220 kids in our branches at Cilincing and Bintaro Lama,” Roberts said.
A graduate of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University Dan, in circus clown mode, enlivened the show, engaging the audience with a deft mix of humor, fluent Indonesian, and spectacle.
Following musical opening acts from schools in the capital such as Global High School and Jakarta International School, Roberts ushered in the 110 performers that make up the students of Red Nose’s Cilincing branch. The show occurred a day after their counterparts at Bintaro Lama, South Jakarta, hit the stage.
Divided into five skill levels, with five being the lowest rung and one the highest, the performers made the audience forget their troubles for over two hours with a skillful display of acrobatic stylings.
Backed by an energetic mix of Western music and local tunes, including songs such as “Kopi Dangdut,” the youthful performers delighted the spectators for hours.
But it wasn’t all about the circus for the children, who ranged in age from toddlers as young as five to 17-year-old high school kids. Traditional acts also took center stage, among them a Lenong Bocah-style performance of hilarious skits highlighted by improvised, witty dialogue.
“I’ve had the idea to do shows and lessons for impoverished kids since I was in Chicago, so I started looking around as to where I can do so in Jakarta,” Roberts said.
“Initially I taught over 3000 kids throughout the Greater Jakarta area before I decided to settle on Cilincing and Bintaro Lama. I was struck by the terrible circumstances that the kids in Cilincing were living in, and yet I was inspired by their joy and excitement,” added the 29-year-old, who graduated from the Jakarta International School in 2002.
Roberts pointed out that the laughs did much to uplift his pupils from their squalid surroundings, and urged them to use the stage to release their inhibitions. However, the former Clowns Without Borders member has no illusions about the challenges his charges face.
“Cilincing is a glaring example of poverty [in Jakarta]. The public schools are typical of those in slums, with underpaid, under-educated teachers, while the kids have no or little support from their families. Crime is also a problem here, particularly drug use and pressure to participate in gangs, particularly for the boys,” Roberts said.
Renny agreed. “Cilincing and South Bintaro pose different challenges. The former is marked by their tough environment, while the latter, which consists of a community of scavengers, is marked by the conservatism of their families,” she said. “In Bintaro Lama, we have to be more tactful and patient to win the families over.”
The challenges posed by the cycle of poverty and conservative traditions is a factor that Roberts knows all too well.
“One of my students in Cilincing had things looking up for her, particularly after I sent her to a circus summer camp in the United States. After she came back, she graduated from her junior high school on top of her class,” he said. “But she missed out on high school and was forced to work by her family. Now she’s married with a child along the way.”
But the daunting challenges don’t faze Red Nose’s kids, among them Eka Novia “Beby” Wulan, who was one of Roberts’ first students.
“I started off by juggling with rings and balls, and then moved on to acrobatics. When I did so, I was always on top of the pyramid,” the diminutive Beby said with a laugh.
“My time in Red Nose really opened my eyes. When I was in the ninth grade, I got to go to a circus summer camp in the US state of Vermont to sharpen my skills. I hope to pass on my skills to my younger siblings, one of whom also performed in the show.”
The State High School No. 52 senior, one of Red Nose’s success stories, pointed out that her time performing at Red Nose Circus gave her many valuable insights.
“We have to practice juggling all the time to get it right. If we can do so, and in accordance with certain guidelines, we can master it in a month. I guess life is like that, in the sense that if we work hard and apply ourselves we’ll get far,” Beby said.
Red Nose has an emphasis on education, and offers classes in English, math, photography and guitar lessons aside from juggling. Roberts explained that he’s out to further this goal.
Beby, for example, hopes to study accounting or management at the University of Indonesia.
“Unfortunately, Indonesia doesn’t really have an accessible student loan program for kids who want to go to college but can’t afford it,” Roberts said, adding that “Companies are usually eager to be donors for scholarships, while awareness of Red Nose in the government is spreading, so we have reason to be upbeat.”
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on November 15, 2013