Felicity Simpson is founder, Artistic Director and Creative Producer of Circolombia, currently performing URBAN, as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival.

In 1995, Felicity co-founded the Foundation Circo Para Todos in Cali, Colombia, and two years later opened the first professional circus school in the world specifically dedicated to underprivileged children. Circolombia was established to produce shows and create jobs for the graduates of Circo Para Todos, and continues to promote the talent and uniqueness of Colombian performers.

On the eve of their Australian debut, Felicity spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

CircolombiaFor the benefit of readers who are not aware of Circolombia or Circo Para Todos tell me something of your origins?
'Producing Shows, Providing Emotion', Circolombia is a live entertainment production company based in London to promote and provide the world's stage with the dynamic difference of Colombian performers. Circolombia was first born in January 2006 – from the distinct need of professional insertion for graduates from Circo Para Todos in Colombia. Circolombia is renowned for working with highly skilled young artists internationally, producing an explosive and distinctive circus style.

Circolombia now has around 85 permanent performers, between ages 17 and 28.

Circo Para Todos was established in 1997 by Colombian Héctor Fabio Cobo Plata and new circus pioneer Felicity Simpson, Circo Para Todos is the first professional circus school in the world specially dedicated to disadvantaged children and youth at risk, training them as circus artists and instructors to a professional level. To date, all graduate artists are working in their chosen field around the globe, and Circo Para Todos has become Colombia’s National Circus School. Graduates have won prizes in China and Paris Festivals.

Its rigorous professional training and development model has inspired similar projects in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa.

And what inspired the ethos both organisations share?
Uniting youth and celebrating their achievements in excellent and innovative productions is intrinsic to Circolombia, as is helping young people start their own journeys of self discovery and development.

A true narrative of the streets of Cali, URBAN is based on the lives of the young cast; telling the world what it’s like in their reality, through their eyes, their ears and their voices.  

Raw is a word often used to describe your works, tell me something of your personal thoughts about this common choice of descriptive?
Director Felicity Simpson: “It was time to unleash the force of youth, an energy field touching the whole theater, to the last seats and back. Here is the difference – they don't act, they come alive onstage to make their "circo concierto". All the energy from the street explodes: a mix of what they have learned in the school and lived in their lives. They express themselves through their own specific language, putting together acrobatic circus skills and live singing reggaeton. It’s a risky, "raw", edgy show, just as their life experience is in Cali.” 

Urban provides a positive, authentic and inspiring message, which genuinely relates to the young people involved and the audience as a whole: with passion and determination, you can reach the stars

Tell me what Circolombia, indeed the show URBAN, is not?
"Urban is the antidote to all those circus acts of clean-cut, juggling and tumbling young men who are clearly yearning to be taken home to meet your mum. This is not polite and it is all the better for it" – Lyn Gardner, The Guardian sums it up best.

Can you give me a snapshot of URBAN? 
Urban would like to be a snapshot of a genuine experience showing how determined youngsters can reach the stars and succeed against the odds.

There are so many myths that circulate in the media about Colombian culture – can you tell me about what your company does about this mythologising?
Art transforms and we hope that URBAN helps the public to see 20 sides of the same coin.

Cali is a city of joy and violence yes, but the artist’s explore and expose much more than these clichés. We definitely also show the bright side of the street, the richness of their resourcefulness, their determination and JOY, they are fearless. We refuse any form of "porno-miseria".

Highs and lows are apart of any urban street experience, can you share an insight about the highs and the lows depicted in another of the URBAN stories?
During fuego, one of the darkest and very personal scenes – which questions how difficult it is to break away from a circle of violence – artists decided to bring on a candle each for everyone ever lost to violence.

Transformation. So many in Cali find themselves disadvantaged and living in poverty tell me about one of your performers who best demonstrates this transformation?
Jose Henry Caycedo, at 28, is the oldest of the group, and working as their artistic tutor. He started working internationally in 2005, and has bought a house for his aunt in Cali. Out of 84 Circo Para Todos graduates,15 have bought their own homes in better areas. "I came in at 15 years old," he said. "It's five years of training, of suffering, it wasn't easy, and part of it is knowing your companions, their qualities, their good energy, and how to create a show. Thanks to this I could also realise my own dream to make a path to where I am today, and we can keep feeding back, and helping youth in Colombia through art."

Tell me briefly about the composite range of skills in your crew?
Banquina (flying jumper), teeterboard, blondin (dynamic rope), skipping rope, cloud swing, aerials, Cyr wheel, high wire, mana a mano, dancing, above all rapping, singing at the same time – this is a circus concert.

And the soundscape is vivid?
Set against the backdrop of the Colombian city Cali, Urban weaves through the poetry and violence of street life with a pounding live reggaeton soundtrack, raw contemporary aesthetic and volcanic force.

High octane performance forming a tapestry of interwoven stories; tales of life and death, rhythm and groove, and plots full of lush strings and heavy basslines. A true narrative of the street, this multi lingual live feast will catch you up from the very beginning, spellbound, and carry you along with it, through streets of brash percussion and far off tribal beats, down alleys of haunting melodies and into avenues full of the sounds and atmospheres of the Carnival.

It is a journey through emotion, a pulsating story-telling voyage of rhythm and expression, words and movement, thoughts and ideas, with traditional and modern meeting in a furnace of frequency and fire. This is the voice of these young people; telling the world what its like in their reality, through their eyes, ears, voices, and experiences on the streets of Cali, through their hearts minds and spirits, and most of all, through their bodies, microphones and speakers. A hip-hopera for the modern era.

Breathtaking. Tell me about one particular performance that has audience members at the edge of comfort?
OK. Watching these sweating athletic bodies in action can be a little wierd for some. Cherry on the cake, but a total white knuckle moment for all is when one of the poets aims to be catapulted into the air to land on a tiny seat high up on a rikety pole.

Funniest moment during the rehearsals for URBAN?
In Germany the whole group had a terrible case of diarrhoea, but the show must go on. Our wonderful company manager Ketsia managed to find a chemist on a Sunday and got the strongest pills to sort them out, however, she over did it, and the entire company was constipated for a week.

How do you define beauty?
Being natural and pure, unpretentious it is or it isn't. Beauty has to be.

Circolombia's URBAN opens tonight at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival. Until Jan 27, 2013. Further details»