A little quote from www.flanders.be: ‘Flanders is the northern federated state of Belgium with Brussels as its capital. It is the gateway to Europe and is located less than 500 km from the major European capitals. It shares its own capital with the EU, NATO and numerous other international institutions and companies. Together with the renowned seaports, extensive rail and road network, the productive and highly educated population, the excellent healthcare and the R&D-friendly climate, all of this is what makes Flanders unique in Europe.’
Of course they forgot to mention that circus is what makes Flanders really unique. Okay, we have chocolate and beer, we have Eddy Merckx and Eden Hazard, we have Luc Tuymans, Alain Platel, dEUS, and Matthias Schoenaerts. We even have Herman Van Rompuy, the first European president ever. But what’s most important: in Flanders, life is circus. Flemish people are strange, absurd, humorous, edgy and surreal. Like circus. Correction: like Flemish circus.
In Flanders, the cultural policy aims to provide the widest possible range of arts for the widest possible audience. Over the last decade, the circus has become fully integrated in this policy following the enactment of a special Flemish Parliament Act on Circus Arts. The circus arts, which are linked not only with the amateur and professional arts, but also with heritage, socio-cultural work, youth work and sport, now have their own place in the policy thanks to the creation of a separate legal framework for this art form. The Flemish Parliament Act offers new and much-needed opportunities for further development, reinforcement and innovation in the circus arts.
Flemish Culture Prize for Circus
Since 2003 the Flemish government gives different Culture Prizes, e.g. for Theatre, Dance, Photography, Graphic novels, Literature, …). One artform was missing: circus. But since 2015 this injustice has come to an end. With the Flemish Culture Prize for Circus the Minister of Culture explicitly recognizes the vivid and growing circus sector in Flanders. The first laureate is Ell Circo d’ell Fuego, the Antwerp based circus school, internationally (re)known for its Extreme Convention. Read the press release here.
>> Online brochure on the support of circus arts in Flanders
>> Article of the Italian journalist Adolfo Rossomando (pages 3 to 10) on the factors that led contemporary circus to become widespread in Flanders (written for Unpack the Arts)
Flemish circus is growing. It’s becoming more and more international. Some big names are Circus Ronaldo, Cie Ea Eo, Rode Boom, D’irque & Fien, Alexander Vantournhout, Collectif Malunés, Bert & Fred, Cie Pol & Freddy and Circo Ripopolo. Flanders also hosts renowned international artists/companies like Claudio Stellato and BabaFish. And of course there are some ‘real Belgian’ companies like Carré Curieux, Les P’tits Bras, Cie Baladeu’x and Compagnie du Mirador, who consist of both Flemish and Walloon artists. Finally, there are a few successful traditional circuses who travel from town to town at their own risk, like Wiener Circus, Circus Pipo and Circus Barones.
Flemish circus isn’t commercial or easy. Flemish circus is strange, absurd, humorous, edgy and surreal. It can be poetic too. And chaotic. We love it.
>> Overview of Flemish circus companies
The most obvious places to learn circus in Flanders are the twenty youth circuses spread over the region (we prefer to call them ‘circusateliers’, because they also teach circus to adults). More than 5000 people attend weekly classes in one of these youth circuses. The biggest ones are Cirkus in Beweging (Leuven), Circusplaneet (Ghent), Ell Circo d’ell Fuego (Antwerp), Circolito (Mechelen), Woesh (Bruges) and Zonder Handen (Brussels).
Circuscentrum offers a few important educational programmes too, both pedagogical and artistic: BIC (a 20 day course to become a circus teacher); Training the trainers; Masterclasses for artists; ESAC-stage (a 10 day course for young talent) and more.
Unfortunately, until now Flanders has had no higher education school for circus. Talented and motivated students go to the Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (ESAC, Brussels), the Academy for Circus and Performance Arts (ACaPA, Tilburg, NL), Codarts (Rotterdam, NL), the Centre National des Arts du Cirque (CNAC, France), or the National Circus School (Montreal, Canada).
>> Overview of youth circuses in Flanders
>> Overview of Circuscentrum’s educational programmes (sorry, only in Dutch)
>> The European Federation of professional circus schools: FEDEC
>> The European Youth Circus Organisation: EYCO
Flanders isn’t big at all, but almost every city has its own outdoor festival in summer. Many of these festivals focus on street theatre and circus. The most important circus festivals are without a doubt Theater op de Markt (Neerpelt), PERPLX (Marke) and MiramirO (Ghent). Other big ones are Cirk! Aalst (Aalst), Zomer van Antwerpen (Antwerp), Circo Roma (Antwerp), City of Wings (Ypres), Cirque Plus (Bruges), and TREZART (Mol). Circuscentrum also has its own circus festival together with Arts Centre Vooruit: Smells Like Circus, a five-day focus on new circus work, with shows, try-outs, meetings and workshops.
Creation spaces especially for circus are slowly increasing in Flanders. Of course there is Circuscentrum with its two creation spaces, and Dommelhof, which is internationally known as residency center, but we also have Vormingscentrum Destelheide, Piste05, Ell Circo d’ell Fuego and a few others.
People have a certain image of circus. Sometimes this image is quite negative (animal abuse, circus as a marginal art, and so on). Through heritage we can show where circus comes from and what a rich history the art has. Posters and show bills, costumes, pictures, books and stories from the past can correct the negative image – not only for regular audiences but also for the circus artists of today. When you know the story and the history of ancient circus families, the only feeling you can have is respect. And you can learn a lot from them.
But heritage is all too quickly placed in an atmosphere of nostalgia. Nice memories, good old times. Heritage organisations (like Huis van Alijn in Ghent) and Circuscentrum have to fight this trap every day. Heritage is everything that’s valuable in our culture. It has to be preserved and transmitted to the following generations. It’s not only about things from the past; it’s also about the world today and the coming future. The communication of heritage is best done in a way that has meaning and relevance for contemporary society.