Santiago's red light jugglers

Cristian Rubio Munoz juggling while on a unicycle in front of halted traffic

Every few minutes some of Santiago's busiest junctions become improvised stages as jugglers, unicyclists and even puppeteers perform for their temporary audience of drivers waiting at the traffic lights.

Perched on the saddle of a unicycle in the middle of a downtown pedestrian crossing, Cristian Rubio Munoz juggles a trio of clubs.

In less than a minute, this stretch of tarmac will again be a five-lane highway. But for now it is a temporary stage. His feet pedal back and forth, his upturned face is frozen with concentration. A ball balances on the end of a wooden stick clenched between his teeth.

With only a few seconds left and the lights about to turn amber, Munoz jumps down from his high saddle. He darts between vehicles collecting a few hundred pesos as the cars begin to pull away.

For some, this daredevil display would be a recipe for disaster. Mistime the lights by a few seconds and you risk being mowed down by midday traffic. But for the 27-year-old performance artist from the sleepy town of Los Angeles, south of the Chilean capital, the risk is part of the allure.

"The danger makes it more entertaining," he says. "After a while you get the hang of it and you know how long you have before you have to get off. I've learned how to pace the routine so I won't get run over, or at least I hope I won't."

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Media captionWatch street performer Cristian Rubio Munoz in action

Is it profitable? "It's relative," he laughs. "Month's end is usually the best time to make money."

On a good day, he'll earn 50,000 pesos ($100, or £65). On a bad day, he'll come away with 5,000 pesos. Usually though, he'll make about 15,000 pesos ($30, £20) in a three-hour session. In a city where a full-time teacher can earn as little as 300,000 pesos a month, it's a living.

The junctions can be more lucrative than other spots, but you have to really know your craft, he explains.

"You have to be more dramatic. Everything has to be faster with bigger gestures to engage people.

"In a park you can have a conversation with someone to keep their attention. Here, you have to be everything in a second."

Image caption "Here you have to be everything in a second," says Munoz.
Image caption He juggles clubs and a football while aboard a unicycle...
Image caption ... then collects money before drivers move off (photos by Raimundo Barros).
Image caption Pascual Ortega Hidalgo performs a hoop routine...
Image caption ... before the green man turns red (photos by Maryrose Fison).

On any given day, jugglers, acrobats, clowns and dancers can be seen performing on Santiago's busy pedestrian crossings. Some are drawn by the prospect of earning money, and young people in particular may have few other options. For others, the crossings offer an outlet to express their creativity before an ever-changing audience.

As delivery trucks rattle past, 36-year-old Andres Santana Gonzalez, paces back and forth along the pavement waiting for his next audience to pull up.

When the vehicles come to a stop, he hoists up his eight-pound contraption and walks onto the crossing. His mobile theatre bears the words semaforoterapia - traffic light therapy - and humor por llevar - humour to go. For the next 43 seconds he performs a puppet routine - a brown bear is the star this time - as passers-by and drivers gawp.

Andres works Santiago's crossings five days a week and performs in the coastal town of Vina de Mar at weekends. Because there is such a high demand for spots on Santiago's crossings, he swaps locations every few hours.

While he's learned to adapt his routines to the timing of the city's traffic lights, he's acutely aware of the occupational hazards of the job. A low point came when a drunk driver drove into his theatre. "The worst thing was that it was intentional," he says.

But it didn't put him off. "Every car is like a world. You never know if people are happy, so-so or sad. I try to let the people take away some positive thinking in their minds," says the puppeteer. And what are their reactions like? "Muy variada - very varied."

Chile's circus scene first emerged in the late 19th Century as a ragtag group of troubadours who performed variety shows in the port city of Valparaiso, 80 miles west of Santiago. Over the past century, the number of circuses has grown tenfold to 100, featuring about 3,500 circus performers.

During the Pinochet dictatorship, between 1973 and 1990, acrobats and clowns offered a form of escapism for the general public, relieving the humourlessness of public life with light-hearted and sometimes astounding acts.

Since Chile's return to democracy in 1990, the number of performers in the country's capital has continued to grow, even if they are no longer needed as a political release valve.

"Today the pedestrian crossings are being used to earn money as well as a space to display art," says Francisco Alvarado Aretio, producer of El Circo del Mundo Chile (the World Circus Chile), which was founded in 1995.

"It's like on the television shows where you have a minute to show your skill before a jury gives its verdict. The crossings are similar. The artist is giving their best performance for the cars on the street in the time it takes for the lights to go from red to green."

For puppeteer Gonzalez, waiting for the lights to turn red once more, his goal is quite simple. "I just try to make people laugh."

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