In the urban landscape of Buenos Aires, Argentina, fauna is fantastically diverse. I love watching the human wildlife. My favorite species is the callejero, or street circus performer. In parks around the city, they set up their slack lines. They hang their long, silk telas from trees to practice aerial dance. Juggling pins fly. The callejeros spend hours in the parks, simply teaching and learning circus arts.
Each year, callejeros from Buenos Aires and all over Latin America convene outside the city. The event is called La Convención Argentina de Circo, Payasos y Espectaculos Callejeros (Argentinian Convention of Circus, Clowns and Street Performer Shows), or La Convención for short. It’s a grand affair that gains a bigger crowd each year. The November 2011 Convención attracted around 900 participants.
The event was founded in 1996, when the circo nuevo (new circus) phenomenon began to grow in Argentina, mirroring movements and conventions that were going on in Europe’s bohemias.
“La Convención was created to satisfy the need for space. We wanted a space for meeting, learning, exchange and union – by artists and for artists,” comments El Payaso Chacovachi, one of the founding clowns. That first year, 250 people and one small circus tent started something special.
Now, fifteen years later, this has become one of the greatest street-level shows on earth (or at least in the southern hemisphere). La Convención has always been a five-day marathon of workshops, contests, parades and performances. On day one, the big tents go up – two real circus tents.
Flocks of circus artists arrive with their own tents, costumes and juggling pins. A small village springs up in the grassy sports field complex that the organizers have reserved. Dining options: a food tent with lovingly prepared vegetarian fare, or public grills for DIY barbeque. There’s time to decide – dinner doesn’t start until 10 p.m. at the earliest.
Ambling through the tent village, I feel lucky. My Porteño friends with callejero tendencies had tipped me off about the gathering. Word of mouth is the only kind of publicity for this deliberately non-commercial event. I stand out a bit as a foreigner with no circus attire, but nobody minds. I gravitate toward the hula-hoopers and the swapping of skills begins.
According to the printed program, a schedule of organized events is set for each day. “Jueves, 1600hrs: Charla, debate y mesa redonda (Thursday, 4 p.m.: discussion, debate and round table).” This is in jest. The first three days pass in a dreamscape of loose workshops by day and drum circles by night. Artists savor this time as a chance to learn, teach and grow their talents.
Every imaginable skill from the school of new circus is represented – the juggling of anything from pins to discs and cigar boxes, contact juggling, unicycling, staff spinning, diabolos, poi, hoops, aerial dancing, trapeze and improvised, new forms of object manipulation, balance and strength. Art meets play. Spontaneity reigns.
The last two days – a Saturday and Sunday – are the culmination of La Convención. Saturday is the grand parade. Everybody unpacks their best and finest circus attire. They achieve a “new circus” look by mixing classic elements like wigs and noses with contemporary design. Red, black and white stripes are everywhere. Tutus ruffle. Leotards and leggings are worn tight. I watch two clowns paint each other’s faces, matching each other.
The nuevo circo clowns pile into buses, cheering and playing whatever instruments they can find – tiny charango guitars, kazoos, melodicas and accordions – in an exodus toward the city of Monte Grande. They take to the streets.
Hours of parades degenerate into a massive street party. A foam machine covers everyone with a layer of white. Paper plates of shaving cream appear out of nowhere, suddenly widespread. Pie in the face! Soaked and soapy, I join the chaos.
Back at the circus grounds that night, all the face paint and foam has been washed off. Another party erupts in the Big Tent. A brassy ska band keeps everyone dancing into the small hours of the morning.
A final big day is ahead. The best of the professional performances have been saved for Sunday. The grand finale: shows by the most prestigious circus schools and companies in Argentina, like Compañia Colectivo Xibalba and Escuela Le Lido.
On the bus ride back to Buenos Aires, I read the event booklet cover to cover. I find this:
Founder’s Manifesto [translated]
“Clowns, circus people, and street performer artists are a special stock within the world of professional artists, and I call professional anyone who lives by their profession.
Because of their particular characteristics, as half artist and half foraging go-getter, and since they clearly mix their lives with their art, they are associated with freedom within the collective imagination.
Their freedom is physical (they generally work traveling), economic (the money they earn is directly associated with their ability and effort), and psychic (they don’t have to be the best, they’re happy just being). This freedom allows them to take the reigns of their own lives. So, they happily wander the world without borders, full of limitations, creativity and courage, actualizing themselves as artists and as people.
La Convención is designed to celebrate these lives, and also to learn, to familiarize, to inform ourselves, to enjoy. Most importantly, we come to celebrate once a year for six days, creating our own utopian world full of free and sovereign ideals.”
~ El Payaso Chacovachi
Official festival website: http://convencionargentina.com/
Photos from last year’s Convención on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ConcursoFotograficoConvencion
La Convención 2012: November 23 – 28