The energetic vibe of Colombian streets comes to the stage, writes Stephen Jewell.

Many people dream of running away to the circus - but few go as far as Colombia.

Formed in 2006, globetrotting troupe Circolombia was established by London-born ex-strongwoman and high unicyclist Felicity Simpson as a platform for the diverse talents coming out of the National School of Circo Para Todos, the "Circus for All" in Cali, Western Colombia.

Now encompassing 101 performers in numerous countries across the world, their latest show Urban will be one of the highlights at the Auckland Arts Festival.

"Our shows are really different," says Simpson. "They're Colombians so they were born singing and dancing. They're really energetic and they've got their own vibe."


Composed of 14 men and two women, the testosterone-fuelled, streetwise show boasts a down-to-earth, gritty quality. "It's ever so good," declares Simpson. "It's a story about the artists' lives - where they come from and what it is like to be a boy with the pressure from the gangs. It's a mix of joy and violence with all the problems they have to encounter."

According to Simpson, the youthful cast is the real deal. "They're the kind of people who if you saw on the other side of the street at 11pm, you'd run home," she laughs. "But then as you slowly discover through the show, those stereotypes are broken down as you get to know them as people through their personal stories."

With its contemporary reggaeton soundtrack, Urban should strike a chord with Auckland audiences. "It's Latin hip-hop," says Simpson. "Some people have asked why there isn't more salsa and merengue but this is what Colombian kids listen to. When you go down the street in Cali, each level of the apartments has got big, wide speakers in the windows. They're all playing different songs, so it's like a permanent cacophony of noise."

With its vibrant combination of live singing and acrobatics, the show promises much more than just a few fancy tricks and vigorous dance moves. "It's all sung live, which is another big difference," says Simpson. "It isn't a circus show - it's a circus concert. It all started when we discovered they could all sing. So we started bringing in more and more tunes, and that just brought more and more out of them."

Based in the south of France, Simpson was in London to see worldwide phenomenon Cirque du Soleil's latest extravagant production at the Royal Albert Hall. But while they cannot afford anywhere near the Quebec-based entertainment company's sizeable budget, she believes their success has enhanced the fortunes of smaller outfits like Circolombia. Not least of all because Cirque du Soleil was also one of the first sponsors of the National School of Circo Para Todos in 1997.

"They've made circus theatrical in the sense that artists now play roles, whereas in the old days, you would never copy what someone else does as that would be a great sin," she says. "People used to rehearse in private, so no one could see how they did a particular trick. But people are now contracted into roles and are completely replaceable. It's got people going to the circus, so that can't be a bad thing."

While it doesn't feature any of Cirque du Soleil's lavish pyrotechnics, Urban's emphasis on raw immediacy is just as effective. "It's all about who the performers are," says Simpson. "Why they're on stage is more important than just going 'ta da!' They're using their skills as a tool for expression. They're not acting; they're just being themselves. It means no one can be easily replaced. It's all about their personal lives, so if one of them leaves it completely changes how it all fits together. But what that brings to it is that it's extremely authentic. You know you're with somebody as you can see that person on stage and get a flick of their sweat."

Auckland Arts Festival
What: Urban, with Circolombia
Where and when: The Civic, March 13-17