The Palestinian Circus School is well known to those in the circus world. Last year it was frequently in the news when one of their instructors was held in jail. More recently thanks to a high profile exchange with Circus Zonder Handen, a circus school in Brussels, and the wonderful resulting documentary entitled ‘What happened in the tent’, from Majd Khalifeh and Roel Nollet. But what is it like to run a circus school from day to day in occupied territory? How do you protect your pedagogical and artistic vision when everything around you is determined by destabilising conflict? We talked with Jessika Devlieghere, the Belgian co-founder of the school.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #56 – September 2018 // Author: Hanna Mampuys // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
How did the Palestinian Circus School begin?
Jessika Devlieghere: “I had been involved for some time in organising summer camps in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Searching for ways to offer an artistic and cultural experience to the children, we came across some instructors from Cirkus in Beweging (among whom Veerle Bryon, founder of Zonder Handen, red.) who joined us for the camp of 2000. In three weeks’ time we worked towards a performance that would be given for family, neighbours and the people in the camp, … In spite of the difficult conditions it was a huge success. It was an experience we wouldn’t forget, though it wasn’t until 2006 that we could realise a follow-up. By then I had spent more time in Palestine, and I had gotten to know Shadi Zmorrod (who later would co-found the Palestinian Circus School, red.), a Palestinian theatre director who had also begun to take steps towards the circus. We submitted a funding request to the Flemish government, and when they gave us a green light we got started. The goal was to offer something a bit more permanent around circus in the West Bank: we devised a three week workshop during which we hoped to instruct local young people so that in time they themselves could carry on the initiative. Once again it was the plan for a delegation from Belgium to come and lead the workshops. At the last moment the Belgians had to cancel the trip: there was heavy Israeli bombardment of Southern Lebanon (the Israeli-Lebanese war of 2006, red.) and it became clear that it wouldn’t be responsible for the Belgians to make the journey to Palestine. Determined to realise our existing plan, we put out announcements via Shadi’s network, and we received responses from various sources: a duo from France, a girl from Italy, an American: all people who at that time were nearby, working or just travelling, and who all made their way to Ramallah to help give the workshop. In spite of these rather amateur beginnings, it was a resounding success: the experience for the kids, the numbers of people who showed up to see the result… That was pretty much how it all began.”
In the meantime you’ve grown into a circus school which offers weekly lessons to some three hundred students.
“Yes. Our lessons are based on the European model. Probably very recognisable to schools in Flanders. One of our challenges is that there is very little to fall back on. There is virtually no organised recreation for children or young people in Palestine. Gymnastic lessons, for example, just don’t exist. We are starting from zero, and our instructors are as well. We get regular feedback from those outside our organisation, artists and trainers from the circus world outside of Palestine who visit us to share their knowledge, but we want to keep our focus on our own young people, so that they themselves can take on responsibility for the lessons. It takes some time before someone is technically strong enough and has acquired the pedagogical tools and self-confidence needed to stand in front of a group of students. At this point we have a pool of some ten instructors to carry out our weekly program, and we are in the middle of an intense training program for new instructors, a ‘training of trainers’, in order to prepare some new people, coming from outside the school as well. Our current head teacher followed a year’s pedagogical training at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal. Two other students have tried out their luck in artistic courses, respectively at CNAC (Centre national des arts du cirque) in Châlons-en-Champagne (FR) and Flic, the circus school in Torino (IT). They were supported financially by the Palestinian Circus School, under the condition that they would return to give workshops and share the knowledge they had gathered in their travels. We haven’t asked them to come back permanently, it would be defeating the purpose to take away their chances to continue their careers abroad by sentencing them to the limited possibilities in Palestine, and to what the school can still offer them. They are already severely limited by their Palestinian nationality. The girl that studied at CNAC was lucky enough to get residency in France. But for most Palestinians it’s impossible to stay anywhere for very long outside of Palestine. The visas are expensive, unreliable and for short periods of time. That’s a big obstacle, if you are an artistically trained Palestinian who wants to start to work and build a career outside of Palestine.”
What is your role in the school?
“In the beginning I took care of the business side of things. Administration, planning, funding…”
And creating a vision?
“Yes as well, to some extent, but always as part of a larger team. Mostly to try to insure that we had one vision that everyone could agree upon. I think that’s the strength of our work, that everyone involved considers it to be their own personal project. The first generation of students to come out of this project have in the meantime taken their place at the core of the school. After a while I started to focus on international contacts, the communication, getting funding, and organising foreign tours. My last big work was to organise the first ‘Palestine Circus Festival’ in 2016, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the school. Since it was such a success, we decided to make it a bi-annual event: the second edition will happen at the end of September-beginning of October 2018.”
You returned to Belgium a year ago. Why?
“First and foremost for my son. There are so many limitations growing up in Palestine. There are little to no facilities for children or young people, the curricula and teaching methods in the schools are not what they should be. We didn’t want to wait too long for him to take the step to another language, another education system, another culture. So when he turned eight last year we moved back. Also for me personally it was no longer do-able. Living and working in such a grave context, at a certain point I felt that I was damaging my own mental well-being, that I could no longer function in a healthy way.”
The situation in Palestine has only grown worse these past years?
“The situation is deteriorating very very quickly. And that is something you feel in every dimension of life. Is there still hope? Hope for what? You stop asking that question in order not to go mad. People in conflict situations normally shut down certain emotional functions in order to survive. I think I wasn’t capable of doing that. My head was constantly spinning. Every day you are under enormous pressure. If you are born into that situation, you start to find it normal… it’s anything but normal! The borderline of normal human behaviour gets transgressed daily. And my frame of reference remains Belgium, so that makes it all the more difficult. I know that it’s possible to grow up in a place that is secure, where there are chances to develop and blossom. Children in Palestine are incredible suppressed when it comes to their personal development. Their dominant frame of reference is the conflict, violence, and a severely disrupted society. In school there are no answers offered for the social and emotional needs of growing children and young people. There is no money and no room for that. For the government it’s not a priority. With the circus school we try to offer an alternative frame of reference. A beacon for rest, constructiveness, self-expression and freedom. A counterweight to all the dominant negative values.”
What are your biggest pedagogical challenges?
“Above all else we are aiming for a balance between our social function and the technical and artistic quality of our work. The kids who come to do circus with us want to get good at it and as a school we need to live up to those expectations, to that hunger, and not coddle them because it’s ‘only’ a social program. Social circus gets quickly labeled that way. Our goals are social, but we want to achieve them without going the charitable or paternalistic route. We want to treat our students as people with opportunities and capabilities, not reduce them to victims of a conflict. At the same time we want to offer them the social and emotional development that they probably won’t get anywhere else. Along with that comes the constant question of how much we want to change society and how much respect we can bring up for the society in which we are presently working. How disruptive can you be in the work, and how much do you support the culture as it is? Our starting point has always been to respect the local culture. We believe that we can get further from that starting point than from a place of provocation. The most vulnerable groups, the ones who get the most out of our work, are often the most religiously conservative. To continue to reach out to those people and not undermine our own goals, we have to show respect and play by certain rules. It’s an attitude which can put you in direct conflict with the idea of ‘artistic freedom’. The term artistic implies being socially critical, and in Palestine there are more than enough things one could criticise. Unfortunately we have to strike a compromise in the Palestinian Circus School. We will never hold back those who we’ve trained and who thereafter strive for artistic freedom. But work that is too critical of society cannot be presented under our name. We choose, with all respect for the culture, to try to bring about small changes. Without clash or provocation. That’s why the productions that we create to play inside Palestine differ from those with which we tour internationally. Our kids really need to tell their story. It’s the only story they have, and if when we begin to work artistically together their story will always be the subject. The students have an incredible urge to explain their situation to the world beyond our borders, to give expression to life in conflict. That’s why the performances that tour internationally are so heavy in content. But the Palestinian children have no desire to offer just another regurgitation of their daily situation. What they need is to escape from that conflict for a moment, believe for a moment that there is another possible life out there and that they as artist, musician or journalist can bring something positive to this world. That is why they need role models and our artists fulfil that function for them. Those performances may include a wink to the political situation, but are mostly comic and interactive.”
What’s the significance of the international tours?
“We couldn’t survive without them, without our spot on the international scene. We need pedagogical, artistic and technical input from outside the school. It’s as well vitally important to keep our doors open to the rest of the world. In Palestine we are literally walled in, shut off from the world and seen through the lens of a biased media. We have to grab at every chance we can to keep those doors open, if only to stay in touch with other ways of being human and existing in this world. Thirdly, international touring gives our young people a chance to grow professionally, as well as offering them some international opportunities – although we know that an artistic education in a foreign country is no guarantee for a career thereafter in the arts. We already spoke about the problems inherent in working abroad, but if you want to start a career in Palestine you won’t get very far. There is no market for art or culture, so you can’t make a living. Even the members of the most prestigious dance company in Palestine are doing it as a hobby, while working on the side to earn a living. The authority’s budget for culture is 0,003 percent. Our budget comes almost entirely from foreign sponsors. The majority of our students pay nothing or next to nothing to come to the circus school. The little income we do have comes from the foreign tours we do of our performances. And the future doesn’t look much rosier. Culture is getting pushed to the back seat on a global scale these days, and international development organisations have taken a real blow as well. So where does that leave cultural development projects?”
But creating and playing productions is about much more than just bringing in the money.
“Of course. And we have to fight to maintain that. It’s logical to think commercially, to consciously offer performances which you know will sell well. And there is pressure from some of our sponsors to think in those terms and increase our degree of self-sufficiency. But that goes completely against the ideals of the school. In the early years we sometimes did that, but I can tell you that when you’ve just finished performing at the birthday party for a 7 year old son of some wealthy family, a party that may have cost 20.000 dollars, and you are standing outside again with your students, once it’s all over, then you feel… really small. What kind of message does that send to our students…?”
What are your future plans?
“If we can maintain and go further with what we have, that would already be great. Our ambitions don’t go far beyond that. Maintain the quality of our lessons, offer a curriculum that’s better geared to the needs of our students, getting even more children and instructors involved. We’ve been trying to formulate and put down a written record of our methods. We want to take that process further. We’ve just finished a pedagogical manual for use in our day to day work at the school. We want to expand that now to our work with the disabled. Laying down proof that the work we are doing is based on years of expertise and substantiated methods. Parallel to that we want to further the artistic side of our equation, to give more people a chance to get involved in our program, and more firmly establish the Palestinian Circus School as a professional company on the international map. When we started out people often booked us out of sympathy, as an act of engagement in our struggle. But our young people want to be invited to the stage for their capabilities, and for the artistic quality they offer. Hopefully in the future there will be more space for that side of things.”
This past spring the Palestinian Circus School was on tour in Europe with their newest production Sarab. In Belgium they played at De Roma in Borgerhout and in Leuven’s CIRKL festival. We talked to two of the seven artists about the creation process: Hazar Azzeh (21) and Ahmad Abu Taleb (27).
What is Sarab about?
Hazar Azzeh: “Sarab is about the reality of refugees, war and terror. A reality which is an integral part of our history as Palestinians. It talks about the tragic fact that history repeats itself and that these problems remain equally relevant on a global scale today.”
Ahmad Abu Taleb: “The word sarab means mirage. The dream of a safer more stable place that refugees have in mind when they leave their country seldom becomes a reality for them.”
How do you begin a new creation process?
Hazar: “The starting point is the necessity to react against something you cannot accept, the wish to lead others to see what is being ignored. It is an attempt to express our rage, our means to effect change in the face of so much injustice.”
Ahmad: “We searched for a theme that could be relevant to an international as well as local audience. We began the creation process during a period of heavy armed violence in the Arabic world and beyond, and the stories of banishment and migrations that were part of that story brought us right back to the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: the beginning of the occupation by Israel, the expropriations and the sufferings of our people, moments burnt in our memory since childhood. For this creation we went out in search of stories from refugees world-wide, the stories of our own grandparents and from our own daily reality.”
How do you translate all of that into circus?
Ahmad: “We analysed our collected stories through movement. The fact that this is part of our own experience helped us to translate those stories into the physical material that would form the basis of the performance.”
Hazar: “Circus, theatre, dance, our own emotions and the group dynamic during the creation process are all elements which helped us transform something which cannot be expressed in words into a circus theatre performance. Both the story and our own circus technique are important to us, so it’s not easy to find the right balance when translating this complicated material into a physical language with circus techniques.”
Which experience do you want to offer your audience?
Hazar: “We want to share with them the experience of being a refugee. Our goal is to shut them up for a moment in that emotional world, so that when they leave the theatre they can no longer look at the world in the same way. We want to challenge people to break the silence, to react against injustice and to participate in the changes we are trying to initiate.”