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Albert & Friends Instant Circus changing young lives one unicycle at a time

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Michael Patterson (front row, right) taking part in an Albert & Friends circus skills class at 14-years-old

Imagine unicycling a loop around your friends or swooping overhead in an aerial acrobatics routine. Sound like a fantastic dream?

Well, learning this type of jaw-dropping skills isn’t such an impossibility thanks to the work of the local Albert & Friends Instant Circus, which receives financial support from Hammersmith & Fulham Council for their work with children.

Now in its 33rd year, the Hammersmith-based circus and performance skills school has been the training ground for thousands of children and adults. Each week, students from the tiniest 15-month-olds to grown adults take part in classes that cover stilt and tightrope walking, juggling, hula hooping and even trapeze.

Fun, creativity, and trying new challenges are the order of the day, with the emphasis firmly on building self-belief and unlocking potential. Founders Albert and Trea Owens launched the troupe in 1983 after running a summer holiday project for the H&F Council – and, more than three decades on, its students have performed around the world.

In fact, recent alumnus Michael Patterson, 19, is now studying at the prestigious École Nationale de Cirque in Montreal, Canada, after winning a place on its degree course.

But for the former Brackenbury Primary School pupil, circus skills weren’t always a natural fit. It was a free session at Sands End Community Centre in Fulham that sparked Michael’s interest, although he admits it was hard at first.

“Tightrope? Couldn’t do it,” he reveals. “Unicycling? No way. But they supported me and brought me out of my shell and I just tried and tried and tried.”

Michael attended Albert & Friends classes – which run at Melcombe Primary School, in Fulham Palace Road, and St Albans Hall, in Margravine Road – for 10 years, and his determination paid off.

He now specialises in ‘hand to hand’ acrobatics – performing amazing feats of strength and agility. Doing something different has helped build his confidence and Michael adds: “It’s always nice to see different people’s reactions, and I always get compliments. Making a change in a positive way was one of the best feelings.”

Michael has not only performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Albert & Friends, but also travelled as far afield as Estonia, Finland, Italy and the US. Brother Chris, 17, is also a keen student and mum Bryanna says she has been amazed by her sons’ achievements.

“This was Michael’s dream and he had the drive to do it,” she explains. “He has even learned French, and is the only person from the UK at the school in Montreal, which is a challenge in itself.”

But the weekly classes and regular holiday projects aren’t the only ways that the dedicated Albert & Friends circus troupe is engaging young people in the area. The organisation – which also became a registered charity in 1997 – carries out community and education projects across Hammersmith & Fulham.

A team made up of Alex (Tiggy) Pattinson, Charley Phillips and Amy Scorgie works hard to make sure Albert & Friends is reaching as many local young people as possible.

Its high-energy performance opened the first H&F ArtsFest in 2014, while Lyric Square was overtaken by the troupe for the London International Youth Circus Festival the same summer.

Among those performing in Lyric Square were pupils from Woodlane High School, a special school in White City. As part of its Circus in Education programme, Albert & Friends has been collaborating with the school for the past three years, and runs weekly sessions for all of its 92 pupils aged 11-16.

Woodlane High School deputy head teacher Robert Morgan says the biggest impact has been on pupils’ confidence levels. “It empowers them,” he reveals. “Our pupils do tightrope, stilts, juggling, skipping and unicycle, and we’ve found the impact extends beyond the circus skills classes to having the confidence to try other new things.

“It teaches them perseverance, as well as improving their co-ordination and physical strength.”

The pupils each have chance to spend a term experiencing the Albert & Friends sessions – with a double PE lesson of 90 minutes given over to circus skills each week.

“There are so many different things they can try, and Albert & Friends caters for all different levels,” adds Mr Morgan. “It’s very engaging. A real highlight was the festival in Lyric Square, as it gave parents chance to see what the young people had been learning. They were really amazed.”

The circus team has also worked with other local schools including Jack Tizard School and Cambridge School, as well as participating in last year’s St Patrick’s Day parade in London, in front of a 95,000-strong audience.

Although Albert & Friends is supported with funding from the council and Arts Council England, it has to run as a business, and the troupe are involved in activities such as team-building sessions, workshops and even birthday parties.

And after 32 years at the helm, founders Albert and Trea took a step back from the day to day management of their beloved instant circus at the end of 2015, handing over the reins to new chief executive, Esther Gagne.

With 15 years at Cirque du Soleil under her belt, Esther is determined to keep the Albert & Friends torch shining brightly.

After all, she points out: “It’s a really dedicated team at Albert & Friends and we do see concrete results with the young people.”

Find out more about Albert & Friends Instant Circus at www.albertandfriendsinstantcircus.co.uk.

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