[This article was published in CircusMagazine #51 – June 2017]
[Author: Hanna Mampuys – Translation: Craig Weston – Picture: Brecht Van Maele]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
The present coordinator of Circusplaneet and the future coordinator of Ell Circo d’ell Fuego are respectively a dancer with a diploma in art sciences who loves to camp in the wilderness, and a gymnast with a substantial history in the scouting movement who once taught five circus schools simultaneously. High time for a double interview!
[note: in Flanders we often use the word ‘circus atelier’ for ‘circus school’, so both terms will pop up regularly in this interview]
Eva Grauwels has been the artistic and pedagogical coordinator for Circusplaneet in Ghent since September 2016. Mieke Gielen is soon to become the pedagogical coordinator of Ell Circo d’ell Fuego in Antwerp in a few months’ time (fall 2017). Two circus schools that are bursting with desire, vision and dreams for the future. Modesty be gone! Circus in Flanders is doing very well!
Eva, what brought you to your present position?
Eva Grauwels: “I studied dance in high school and later got my diploma in art sciences. When the job offering for Circusplaneet came out, I was already teaching adults and had a regular job in the world of dance education. The job appealed to me because a lot of my work at that time was administrative and I really missed the human aspect, the act of educating, working closely with teachers and students. So I took the gamble and now here I am. I actually never thought ‘I’m going to do something with circus’… well maybe yes, as a child. But that’s a phase I think everyone goes through.”
You really didn’t know much about the world of circus at that point. Wasn’t that a disadvantage?
Grauwels: “It’s a close sector, where everyone knows each other. That’s something I had to catch up on in a hurry. Luckily things are pretty warm and friendly in the circus sector. In the dance world everyone knows each other as well, but everybody also knows their place. In circus there is not the same kind of hierarchy. That openness is wonderful and it creates possibilities. One advantage is that I am coming to Flemish circus from a different perspective. Sometimes that can bring clarity, for myself as well as for the sector. And of course I come with all the experience from my former jobs. Today the line between circus and dance is getting more and more vague, so the move I made was not entirely illogical.”
Mieke, what brought you to the circus?
Mieke Gielen: “In Zonhoven, where I grew up, there was no question of following circus lessons, nor any kind of circus atelier nearby. Otherwise I might have found my way to circus much sooner, because I was always drawn to it. But I thought that the only circus that existed was what I knew from Cirque du Soleil and other mega-spectacles. Nothing for the ‘normal’ gymnast I was at the time. During my studies at the Sportkot in Leuven I came in contact with the circus school Cirkus in Beweging. That it was possible to do circus on a recreational level was a real eye-opener for me. And of course my training as a gymnast was a real bonus. I fell in love with it all and with my university diploma in my back pocket I went to the Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles to follow their Formation Pédagogique (a one year program towards becoming a circus teacher, red.). After that year I never left the circus again. I resolved to stay open to anything the sector could offer. That kind of news travels quickly, with circus teachers few and far between even then, and therefore high in demand. Before I knew it, I was teaching in five different circus ateliers at the same time. I was in a different town each day of the week giving lessons. It helped me get to know a lot of people and a lot of organisations in a very short amount of time. It was a good begin. After that I worked for a while full-time for Circolito, the circus school of Mechelen. I got the chance there to develop further as a docent, to get to know the international circus scene better, and to work artistically with RRRush and Da Stoelt, among others, together with Tom Pyck from whom I learned so so much. Meanwhile I’m teaching in the Leuven circus high school and the Thomas More university college in Turnhout, I’m working on the ESAC workshop organised by the Circuscentrum and I also try to keep my own acrobatic training up to snuff. I constantly push myself to try new things. Sometimes it’s exhausting but it’s never boring. And it keeps me motivated.”
What’s your motivation for working in this sector?
Grauwels: “What’s appealing to me is that everything is in motion. The circus sector is a young one, and all kinds of possibilities are still open. So the things you do have an impact, you feel like you can contribute.”
Gielen: “That’s right, even if I am here almost by accident, I feel like I’ve already made a difference; by teaching kids, by bringing certain people together, or initiating certain projects.”
Grauwels: “I like to think about the future and to participate in shaping that future. Any art form is capable of renewing itself and developing, but often the structures built around it are so inflexible that the process can be painfully slow one. With circus, that is not yet the case.”
Mieke, you recently set up the organisation Ondersteboven (Upside down), which is aimed at combining circus with experiential learning. Can you tell us more?
Gielen: “In my search for new challenges I came across experiential learning, a pedagogical approach in which movement based activity is used as a means of learning something about yourself and about the group, without a particular goal other than that. The challenge inherent in the activity is a catalyst, providing experience and provoking reactions among the participants. Creating space for what comes to the surface can be a step towards one’s personal development. I immediately saw the potential of circus in the world of experiential learning, and had the practical opportunity to test out my assumption. A success! It was after that experience that I started Ondersteboven, together with Milena Nowak, who is familiar with experiential learning through her work with ‘special needs’ children. It’s really taken off and next year we already have two big projects that have been approved!”
Would I be wrong if I said that there is a degree of experiential learning in every circus lesson?
Gielen: “You’re right of course, but in most cases it’s inadvertent. With experiential learning one really stimulates that process, that’s quite a bit different than ‘teaching circus’. If someone is afraid of doing a flip then you can help them, by putting down an extra mat, and convincing them that they can do it. Or you can ask: ‘Why are you frightened?’ Perhaps that student will never learn to do a flip, but they have a chance to learn something about themselves that can be useful in other life situations. So, you have the ‘normal’ way of teaching – passing on knowledge and skills, which is also necessary, right? But I think that having a notion of group’s dynamic can be a big plus for any teacher.”
Eva, you are the artistic and the pedagogical coordinator at Circusplaneet. That’s quite a combination. Is there a clear division between your artistic and pedagogical responsibilities?
Grauwels: “Never, there is a constant crossover. We certainly want to give the artistic aspect its place in the weekly circus lessons. Being creative with the technique that’s being taught in a lesson is a learning goal in itself. That inspires both students and teacher, new things happen, and at the end of the year, the step from the technique to creating a number for our final presentation is a much smaller one. I try to remind our teaching team of the fact that there are different ways to give a lesson, among other reasons because not every child responds the same to a given style of teaching. We also offer lessons that particularly focus on creativity, on teaching one’s peers, on crossovers between different techniques, etc… Different ways of sneaking our artistic vision into the lessons, while at the same time allowing our experiences in the lessons to influence our artistic vision.”
I am convinced that many ateliers recognise that aim. How well do you know the work of the other ateliers?
Grauwels: “That’s starting to happen, but I would certainly like to know them a lot better. I recently took part in an exchange program around administration, organised by Circuscentrum, with different European circus ateliers. It clarifies a lot when you hear how others deal with the same issues you wrestle with from day to day. A meeting like that is inspiring and creates a sort of bond. And of course we should encourage more of that kind of exchange between the Flemish ateliers right here at home.”
Gielen: “Of course there is more than one way of achieving that. I believe that it only works if one’s approach to things remains personal and close to one’s own priorities.”
Grauwels: “The entire community contributes to the identity of the atelier: the teachers, the students, the artists who come to train, the volunteers, … it’s great to see that every atelier has its own identity. You see that for example in the fact that certain techniques are more popular in one atelier than in another.”
What place does artistic education have in a circus atelier?
Gielen: “I can only speak for myself, from my own experience at Circolito. At a certain point we offered artists a creative working space, open to anyone who wanted to make something. One condition necessary for the success of that initiative, was to also offer some interesting opportunities to present that work, to validate that creative process. The combination works: the room is there, but in the end you have to make some decisions in order to get up on stage with a finished piece of work. We also noticed that it had a positive influence on the work happening in our production-groups. The bigger egos could express themselves in their own projects in the creation room, and that relieved a lot of pressure that was being put on the collective work. And if the kids see that it’s more important to stand as a group than to stand out as an individual ‘star’, it only raises the quality of the final performance.”
Grauwels: “I find that chances for artistic learning must be offered at every level. From the very beginning to the most advanced. In Ghent we’ve recently launched, alongside our production groups, something we call ‘fresh talent’: we welcome anyone with an artistic idea to come to us. We help them determine a plan of attack which corresponds to their idea, according to what they want from us. Some want to be supported from the beginning to the end of their process, others just need a place to work. But finally the aim is to present the work, even if that’s just to each other. To go further than just trying things out, to make choices and to go for it.”
What do you feel is the number one priority for a pedagogical coordinator?
Grauwels: “Developing talent – the talent of everyone who follows lessons with us. Whether you want learn how to stand on your hands at 50, or you’re preparing for auditions after high school, our goal is to provide equal possibilities to each student. Diversity within the teaching team is half the battle: where one is best in training students at an advanced technical level, another is incredibly good at working with beginners from all walks of life. We don’t require our teachers to excel in everything, the trick is to take full advantage of the qualities of your team by putting the right person in the right place.”
Gielen: “You have to be able to adapt to the varying interests of your students. Perhaps some would rather give lessons than to follow training themselves, or are interested in the organisational side of things. It’s also good to have diverse role models in your team, not only ‘the circus artist’ that everyone looks up to. One pitfall is putting people in categories: the artist, the pedagogue, … Whilst in fact those identities can often go together.”
Grauwels: “For me, that openness is very important, especially in supporting one’s teachers. You get labelled so quickly. And ok, you have your talents and the things you tend to like, but people change. So perhaps you find yourself wanting to explore new horizons, take on a different function within the organisation… for me that has to be possible. That’s what keeps teachers motivated.
How do you see your roll as coordinator?
Gielen: “I start in September with a team that already has a history, so come with a plan I’ve already decided on before I arrive doesn’t seem like a very good idea. By nature I tend to be a ‘wait and see’ kind of person. I walk into the job with all of my experience and see where I’m most needed. What fascinates me is the idea of an organisation in the process of learning, one in which the focus is on personal development and supporting each other in that process. At this point there is no pedagogical coordinator at Ell Circo d’ell Fuego, so I will have to find my place, perhaps even demand it.”
Grauwels: “It was the same for me, my function was new, but I experienced that as an advantage. I could define the job myself, not take on someone else’s position. In that first year I mostly tried to create a platform from which to initiate changes. I would have loved to just blow in with all sorts of new plans, but you have to accept that it’s a slow process to get everyone on board. One aspect of our new program, which we can hopefully initiate in 2018, is to look at how it might be possible to involve to a greater degree all those who are part of Circusplaneet in the processes of our organisation. How can we stimulate those who are not part of the ‘team’ to come to us with their ideas, and how can we ensure that we maintain the openness to respond to those ideas. That goes along with creating an awareness in the community, of the need for all of us to share responsibility for the organisation. It’s not enough to post an idea, you have to be willing to put your own energy behind it.”
What does the future hold for the circus ateliers?
Grauwels: “I would love it if over time the lines of division would completely disappear: between the professional circuit, the amateur artists, the circus schools, the production groups, … That demands a particular attitude within the ateliers. To be open towards the sector, and that the sector be open towards the ateliers.”
Gielens: “I don’t experience those divisions in the same way. I feel like everybody is already very open.”
Grauwels: “It’s true there is a lot of things happening and circus ateliers are much more than just a place to take some circus lessons. But I feel the pressure from higher up the hierarchy to create categories. An example: recently Circusplaneet has been reassigned to the department of youth. That means that we are supposed to aim for people under 30. You feel a lot of pressure from the administration to define your work, but that’s about the last thing I would wish for. The present diversity is what makes everything so rich.”
Gielen: “The more we grow as a sector, the more we will have to deal with regulations and limitation. But I think that circus will always remain naughty enough to kick down whatever walls might be put up. What I would like to see in the future is that our circus pedagogy gets more recognition, so that it can provide inspiration for educators, social work, … And by that I don’t mean so much what we do (circus), but how we do it. You can easily apply our methods to different contexts. Someone should be doing research into those possibilities. How many studies have been done, of football, gymnastics, volleyball, …Circus is virtually unexplored territory, and it’s incredibly interesting and worthwhile.”
What are your wishes for the circus sector?
Grauwels: “The freedom to do our own thing and to grow in all directions.”
Gielen: “Space and confidence and the guts to truly go for it, to surpass yourself.”
Grauwels: “And to dare to go for that together!”
Gielen: “Indeed. If you can put aside your ego, so much more is possible. Within our sector, but also in collaboration with other sectors across the ‘border’. But of course, not allow ourselves to be reduced in the process.”
Grauwels: “Don’t be too modest, and never become pretentious.”
What does your personal future planning entail?
Grauwels: “I haven’t put together my 5 year plan. Although I never dreamed that I would be working in the circus, I am incredibly happy to be here. I feel that I am definitely in the right place. But who knows, maybe in a few years I’ll be doing something completely different…”
Gielen: “I’ve learned to only engage myself, with no expectations, in the projects that give me energy, and then to give myself to those projects completely. That works for me. I remain motivated, without the fear of failure. Because if something doesn’t go as I expected, then I see that as a chance to learn something. As long as I can keep making those choices, my future looks as bright as can be.”