Students from the Apôtres school in Jounieh waited anxiously for the curtain to rise on the show they had come to see.
Then Freddy Yachoui ran to the middle of the stage, jumped onto the table and began his gymnastics routine to wide applause. Yachoui alternated between contorting his lean body and standing on his head. Then he did a backbend as the students held their breath.
After his performance, the clown took the stage with his balloons, drawing laughter from the students who competed to grab the balloons.
Many scenes followed with juggling, gymnastics, climbing chairs, ropes and other circus performances.
All of these were part of "Le Cirque Fantastique", a production of Cirque du Liban, which began December 20th and continues until spring.
In the past, Lebanon hosted circus troupes composed of foreign performers, but now it has one of its own for the first time. Named "Cirque du Liban", it is six years old and is about to become an international act.
"Our circus is theatrical and is inspired by the Cirque du Soleil in Canada which depends on the people, the flexibility of their bodies and their acrobatics," said Thierry Antonios, the 23-year-old circus founder. "We do not include animals in our theatre."
Backstage, Antonios goes over the show's lighting and music direction to make sure they are synchronised with the performances. After receiving assurance that the student audience was impressed, based on its vigorous applause and calls for an encore, Antonios smiled.
"It is the moment I have been waiting for," he said. "Since childhood, I loved the circus and watched it on television. When I grew up, I said to myself, 'Why not have a circus in Lebanon?'"
So Antonios took the initiative and began working to found a Lebanese circus. He visited other countries to gather ideas.
"In 2005, I met with my partner Ishac Abu Sari, and we travelled to Russia and Ukraine where we learned the foundations of the circus and obtained information and ideas, and we practiced magic and balancing acts to use in Lebanon," he said.
When they returned to Lebanon, they began looking for people who could perform in a circus. By 2006, they formed a troupe of 30 Lebanese performers aged between 12 and 25 years old. Since that time, the troupe has been performing shows using international techniques.
Antonios, who said the show's content changes each season, said that every two months the circus members receive training in Ukraine and Lebanon from specialists.
The current edition of "Cirque du Liban" includes 20 scenes that incorporate gymnastics, trampoline, acrobatics, magic and balancing acts. Performances last for an hour and a half.
"Everything the audience sees is made in Lebanon as we have scene designers, a producer, a theatre manager and a director, in addition to my experience and my partner's in this area," Antonios said. "Each person designs a scene and presents it to us for approval."
The troupe is currently preparing to build its own circus tent, and Antonios said his goal is to have 50 artists on stage and 30 backstage and perform internationally. He said the circus has performed in Arab countries, Turkey and Canada and is preparing a huge performance in Qatar next Ramadan.
Circus performers shared their happiness about being part of a unique experience in Lebanon.
Yachoui, 15, said he was delighted to be participating as a prominent member of the circus.
"For five years, I have been giving flexibility and back-bending performances, and people like that," he said. "I have been practicing flexibility since childhood."
Yacoub Abu Sari, 23, who specializes in audio-visual techniques and performs balloon shows and light games, said, "Since childhood, I have loved the circus. There was a camp for foreigners in Lebanon a few years ago in which I participated and learned about the light and balloon games. After practicing it as a hobby, I decided to pursue it as a career and travelled to Ukraine to acquire training, and I am still doing it today."
Abbas Mrouwe, the circus' 20-year-old clown, travels from Germany, where he lives, to Lebanon to participate in shows each season.
"My participation in the circus goes back to my loving this world and the friends I made in the troupe," he said. "Every time there is a show, I return from Germany, where I work as a men's hair stylist to give my performance. I am very excited that Lebanon has its own circus."