Soaring to new heights

Layla Rosa directing a performance of Walthamstow Youth Circus at last year's Walthamstow Garden Party
Layla Rosa directing a performance of Walthamstow Youth Circus at last year’s Walthamstow Garden Party (credit Jess England)

Walthamstow Youth Circus founder Layla Rosa is aiming high, she tells James Cracknell

Like the young performers that Layla Rosa helps train, Walthamstow Youth Circus has had a lot of highs and lows since being formed five years ago.

Layla was herself once a professional circus performer for many years and for a long time ran theatre collective, Shunt, which stages large-scale events across London. She also continues to teach students at the National Centre for Circus Arts and freelances as a choreographer.

The skills and experiences picked up from this background were the perfect preparation for launching a youth circus school in Walthamstow, where Layla moved ten years ago.

“As a tool for social change, to bring people together, circus performance is a very diverse art form,” explains Layla. “There is something in it for everyone.”

Providing a space for children in Waltham Forest to learn circus skills became Layla’s ambition.

“After living in Walthamstow for a few years an opportunity opened up. Aerial circus is quite a difficult thing to house because of the infrastructure required, but a colleague had set up a warehouse space and I took the chance to hire it for a couple of hours each week, so I could start Walthamstow Youth Circus.”

From its base on Argall Avenue Industrial Estate, since 2014 it has been teaching circus skills to children aged from six to 18 years and prepared them for performances at local events such as Chingford Big Weekender and Walthamstow Garden Party. These shows have earned Walthamstow Youth Circus a reputation for astonishing displays of acrobatics.

“We built up a following and the kids love it,” says Layla. “We offer high-quality aerial circus training, led by professionals. Several students went on to the National Centre for Circus Arts.”

Last year, however, it almost came to a sudden end. “I’d say we were a victim of gentrification. The circus centre got repossessed, the space got closed and we had nowhere to go – six weeks before last year’s Walthamstow Garden Party.”

The youth circus could have easily closed, but St James Street Big Local stepped in to provide emergency funding and enable them to continue for long enough to perform at the garden party. It meant relocating temporarily to Shoreditch.

“I continued to lobby Waltham Forest Council to provide a home for us but it was really hard and it exposed the lack of infrastructure available in the borough.

“We built up a lot of support to demonstrate that the youth circus was something to hold on to. It was a hidden gem in the community.”

Harmony Hall, a Walthamstow community centre itself now under threat of closure, stepped in to provide a temporary venue for Walthamstow Youth Circus. But in the long-term, a much bigger space was needed. That was when UnLtd, a foundation for social entrepreneurs, was able to help by securing a space at a newly-opened climbing centre in Blackhorse Lane.

“After much negotiation, Yonder allowed us to install a small aerial rig. It meant we could continue our training and get ready for this year’s Walthamstow Garden Party.”

Securing a long-term venue is only one aim, however. Layla wants to provide bursaries for young people who might not otherwise be able to join the circus and learn these skills.

“I would love to not have to worry about where we can train and focus on fundraising and providing bursaries. UnLtd helped us secure Yonder but they are also investing in us as a social enterprise, providing mentoring and helping me build a business model, to develop our long-term potential.

“Part of their belief is that this is a really great thing and while running an aerial youth circus is expensive, it is worth it. Circus training can have an enormous impact on people’s health and wellbeing and is an inclusive activity. It encourages and supports creative risk-taking, which is so important in our society.

“My mission is to build the culture of community circus in Waltham Forest.”

For more information about Walthamstow Youth Circus:
Email walthamstowyouthcircus@gmail.com
Visit facebook.com/walthamstowyouthcircus

This article is supported by St James Street Big Local in association with UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. To find out more about UnLtd:
Call
 0207 566 1100
Email cheryl.ndione@unltd.org.uk
Visit unltd.org.uk