[This article was published in CircusMagazine #51 – June 2017]
[Author: Lene Van Langenhove – Translation: Craig Weston – Pictures: Kevin Faingnaert]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Arriving in the town where Circus Picolini is playing , I search in vain for a big circus tent, which turns out to be hidden on a plot of land behind a school building. The whole school has been colourfully decorated, red velvet curtains frame the entrance, there are drawings of clowns and circus tents on the wall, teachers wear big bow ties and skirts of tulle. What is about to take place is no run of the mill circus show, but one that comes as a result of an intense collaboration between Circus Picolini and the school children.
‘Circus in School’ is a project which immerses the children in different circus techniques and gives them a chance to put together their own circus performance. The people behind the initiative are Dennis Hartmann and Eefje Truyens. Ten years ago they took over Circus Picolini, which has existed since 1996. The Hartmann family toured around with a real family circus and soon after the company was founded they started doing circus camps as well, together with youth organisations Crefi and Kazou. The Picolinis developed a way of teaching circus techniques to children, and from there came the idea of organising these visits to schools. The demand for Circus in School grew exponentially, and soon the Picolinis decided to focus solely on the work in schools and camps. When Dennis’ brothers and sisters left the circus life or moved on to other circus experiences, Dennis decided to continue the work with the schools and the camps, together with his wife Eefje.
Dennis grew up in the circus. Before they founded Picolini, Dennis’ parents had earned their stripes with different circuses. His father and grandfather had always worked in traditional touring circuses. Dennis: “My grandfather still worked with wild animals, he traveled all over Europe. My father focused on clowning, juggling and acrobatics. I learned everything from him. This is what I love to do.” In a former life Eefje was an elementary school teacher. Up until the day a circus came to the school where she was working and – you guessed it – she fell in love with Dennis. Loving a man from the circus almost automatically means loving the circus as well. And that’s how the interaction with schools took form: “In the end, what we’re doing with Circus Picolini is really a fusion between our passions and our strengths: circus and primary education,” says Eefje. Together they travel from school to school in Flanders and Brussels. It’s not a traditional circus, nor is it an arts-education program. Dennis: “Circus Picolini doesn’t really fall into a category. When people meet me they really can’t believe I am a circus director. People still have the image of the eccentric circus director with moustache and hat, the character I play during the show.” Eefje also experiences being stuck in the middle: “We don’t bring traditional circus, but we do travel from school to school, we live in caravans and put up our tent each time. We’re really something different, our roots are in regular circus and we play on location, but it is always linked to a school or a camp.”
Alternative School Party
The first stage of the school project is to give three workshops. The students get to know different circus techniques and continue to practice with their teachers. When Dennis comes around the next time, they form groups. No matter how old they are or which class they are in. each child may choose which technique they want to pursue. From that point each group, together with Dennis, works further on their chosen discipline and finally put an act together. The Sunday before the project week Dennis and Eefje put up the tent, with the help of a few strong parents. The whole week is devoted to circus: the tent gets decorated, Eefje tells stories about circus life, and she’s there in the circus tent with the entire school, right up to the final rehearsal. The grand finale is the show on Friday and Saturday together with the Picolinis.
And that’s where I find myself, together with curious moms and dads and grandparents who take their places in the circus tent, full of anticipation. Teachers peddle their gadgets before the show begins and the volunteers behind the bar and the hotdog stand prepare for the spectators who will be coming for a drink and a chat after the show. The show itself is an entertaining mix of the acts from the kids and the numbers of the Picolinis themselves. Full of pride, the groups present the numbers they’ve been working on. There’s juggling, diabolos sent in controlled flight through the air, plates held in perilous balance on the end of their sticks, … The audience is charmed by Eefje’s act with a puppy and holds their breath as Dennis balances up high on the rola rola.
The acts from Circus Picolini add that little extra, but it’s the children who are the true stars of the show. Dennis: “A lot of people think we would have more audience if we were to put up the tent on a square in the centre of town, But for us it’s not about that. The most important thing is that the parents and the grandparents are there.” Look at it as an alternative school party, where the ambiance is guaranteed. Eefje: “It’s really the children’s show, in collaboration with Circus Picolini. The show can only work if everyone works together and the whole school gets behind it. The performance is for a select but enthusiastic audience. The school sells the tickets and although everyone is welcome, the show is mostly for the families of the kids.”
In the beginning Eefje only worked behind the scenes, but now she loves to be on stage. “I had no ambition to work in the circus, but when Dennis’ family wanted to step out, we decided to take over and go further with their work. It all went so well that I finally had to give up my own teaching job. Working 24/7 with your partner is not always easy, but we manage to do it well. I never imagined doing an act myself, but when I got a dog it wasn’t long before I was training him.” She continues: “Our children are growing up in the circus. And even if I am from ‘the outside’, I love the life they have. There’s absolutely no pressure on them to learn tricks or perform, but they see it day in and day out so of course they want to do it themselves. The boys are already good jugglers, the girls are working on diabolo and their splits.”
During the show the girls sometimes do the sound and hand out the objects for an act. Amélie is only four, but she helps in presenting the show as if she had never done anything else. The two year old Olivia steals the show as assistent and even spins a plate on her finger.
Dennis tells us that the teachers are always amazed at what their pupils are capable of doing. “The first time I come for a visit and tell them the things we are going to do and what we are aiming for, I see the doubt in the teachers’ eyes. Or they want to learn the techniques themselves, but have to admit that the children are better at it than they are. But in the end, they are essential to help direct things, and they are the best judges of who can work with whom.”
The most important stipulation for a successful project is that everyone cooperates. If the school or the parents committee don’t believe in the project, or if they expect Circus Picolini to arrive with a ready-made existing show, then the challenge is that much bigger. With seventeen years of experience Dennis knows by now that for every school, the final result is always worthwhile: “In the end they are always very grateful for what we’ve accomplished with the children.” “Often they can’t believe that a real show will come out of this,” Eefje tells us. “It’s only once the big tent is standing that they realise it’s really going to happen. At the dress rehearsal everything comes together, and you see everyone thinking: ‘Wow!’ That’s a really satisfying moment.”
What are Dennis and Eefje’s thoughts on traditional circus? “I wouldn’t want to do it myself,” says Eefje, “but we certainly don’t look down on it. I think we both have our strengths and I like going to a traditional circus once in a while. But they have a completely different relationship with their audience. We work together with the children, the teachers and everyone involved. I wouldn’t want to miss that.” Dennis: “If a circus is playing nearby, we’ll go to see it, but on the rare occasion where we do have some free time, we would rather do other things.” Eefje: “It’s a big job because there’s only the two of us. That’s one thing we do have in common with traditional circus: if it’s your passion, you’re willing to work hard for it.”