It turns out, you can actually run away and join the circus. The old run-away cliché may have been a childhood dream, but few have been brave enough to actually do it.

Laurence Estève is one such brave French woman. It was a journey that started in the Caribbean when Lauren and future husband Brent van Rensburg met. They returned to South Africa, where Brent was born and decided to invest their skills here. The country was changing. Nelson Mandela was released, and there was a reason to ride the wave of optimism at the time. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to start a new adventure and pursue their passion for the circus and transform lives through movement.

“We started 26 years ago, and I still get excited. I still get emotional seeing the transformation in the kids,” Laurence says. “Passion and the process drives this. This is not for everybody.”

Laurence’s and Brent’s list of achievements is mind-boggling. She was knighted of the Ordre National du Merit (of the national order of Merit) by the President of France Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 for her contribution to social development and has behind her a stellar career in teaching, windsurfing and snow skiing. In South Africa in the 90s she performed as part of a trapeze duet for 600 shows in Sun City.

Brent held the world record for the highest-flying trapeze in 1997, a feat he performed for an advert. His love for the circus started in his early teens, and for 15 years he travelled the world performing, including Italy, Denmark, Norway, France, England, Monte Carlo and the United States, learning six languages – and managing to fit in an engineering degree too.

The Zip Zap Circus is a place of transformation and healing, using humour, outrageous stunts and artistry to touch audiences and change the lives of the young performers in the process.

Many of them come from trouble backgrounds. For most, their journey with the circus started when they were at a crossroads in their lives. “If I wasn’t in the circus I’d be on the streets. I’ve always been a naughty guy. Now I can misbehave on stage and make people laugh,” says Jacobus, the mischievous ringmaster.

Lizo James is the “old man” in the cast. He’s been with Zip Zap since he was 11 years old, and now at 33, feels as passionately about the circus as he did in the beginning. “It has been amazing. I’ve seen a lot of places and I’ve met a lot of people. I was doing drama in Khayelitsha. I was the leader with the gumboots guys. I had it in me. That’s the gift.”

Jason started with the circus when he was 8, and then left. The strong sense of family drew him back to Zip Zap. He enthralls crowds with his tumbles, jumps and juggling.

“Home is home. I lived in London and didn’t like it and so I came back.”

The performers train six or seven days a week from 10am – 5.30pm and their training is both practical and theoretical. On weekends they devote time to teach young children from diverse communities some of the skills needed to be a part of the circus. Many of them stay. The circus has helped nearly 2000 children since its start.

“In 1992, we saw people were packing to leave the country. We thought, the circus always brought people together so why don’t we do what we know and contribute with the skills that we have. We started with a trapeze rig at what is now the waterfront,” Laurence says.

They then started teachings school children how to put on shows to raise money. Soon, the talent bursting out of these communities sparked the idea of creating a show with all of them under one roof. “When kids work together towards one goal, they don’t worry about where you come from. Because they have the same goal: to have fun, to have the best show possible.”

Zip Zap circus continues to change lives and has evolved into an important vehicle to reach children who may otherwise be lost in an unforgiving environment. “Some of the older kids then come to us and say, ‘we want to be professional’. They begin putting together programmes that help young kids in the communities.”

After Zip Zap’s successful symphonic circus with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra last year, they decided to do it again. “The orchestra is for all types of music. We’re very lucky, we play for ballet and opera, and we also have a very good skills transfer programme. This is very important for us,” says Louis Heyneman, CEO of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. “Many people were surprised last year. They said ‘we didn’t know the orchestra could play jazz and movie music’. I think this will be an annual occasion. This is how you develop art. We’re not in an old European city. We’re a young, vibrant African city and we must have a bit of both worlds.”

In 2017 Zip Zap Circus and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra joined forces and in 2018, the new classical masterpieces Journey Beyond will bring the house down. Journey Beyond, starts today at Artscape Opera House and ends on Sunday. It is not to be missed.

To book tickets click here.

Article written by

Nidha Narrandes

Nidha Narrandes is a food-obsessed travel addict with 19 years of journalism experience. She is happiest on a road to nowhere without a plan. A masterchef at home, she can't do without chilli - because chilli makes the world a tastier place.