The twenty-fifth anniversary of Cirkus in Beweging, the new locales of Woesh, Circolito, Salto and Circusplaneet, or the renewal of the Circus decree… Reasons enough to invite Jonas Van Soom (Cirkus in Beweging), Matthias Vermael (Circusplaneet), Els Degryse (Woesh), Lieven Leemans (Circolito), Daan Yperman (Ell Circo d’Ell Fuego) and Veerle Bryon (Circus Zonder Handen) to come together for a detailed group discussion about circus schools in Flanders. But also about Victor Orban, cooking burgers in the Quick and open air swimming pools.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #57 – December 2018 // Author: Bram Dobbelaere // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Your schools have evolved from amateur structures full of motivated volunteers to full grown organisations with salaries, dossiers and scores of meetings. How do you maintain some kind of dynamic in your organisations?
Lieven Leemans: “It isn’t easy. In the beginning I was the only person being paid, and I never counted my hours on the job. If you start to employ more people you can’t really expect them to approach the job in the same way, constantly chalking up extra hours on the job. For the moment things are working out, we’ve decided that it’s flexibility rather than the number of hours you put in that counts.”
Daan Yperman: “At Ell Circo d’Ell Fuego (ECDF) institutionalisation is one of our biggest fears. That said, becoming more professional implies a certain degree of responsibility, in terms of safety for example. That demands a more advanced structure, and it’s quite a challenge to achieve some sort of balance in all of that.”
Jonas Van Soom: “As Cirkus in Beweging became more and more professional the drive we had as volunteers slowly disappeared, at least in the beginning. It took a while for that enthusiasm to come back, but now that our organisation is up and running well, and everyone has the space to bring their own input to the job, it’s all worked out quite well.”
Veerle Bryon: “I think that Circus Zonder Handen is a very special volunteer organisation because everyone gets paid, also for small tasks. I think that has a lot to do with our public. We work with young people from very difficult situations, who often carry some financial responsibility at home as well. We’ve chosen to pay them in degree for the things they do for us. It’s not a lot of money, but otherwise they would have to go get a job in the Quick cooking burgers to make ends meet…”
Else Degryse: “It’s a real challenge to keep an eye on all of that, because often our young people expect to be paid for everything, at a younger and younger age. At a certain point you get more funding and doing things for free no longer seems possible. We’ve had to work hard to keep an aspect of volunteer work as part of what we do. We think it’s important that things also get done on that basis, by the people who are fully employed by us as well.”
Matthias Vermael: “At Circusplaneet professionalisation has also made things more relaxed. It’s a relief to be in a situation where we no longer have to pay people part-time for a full-time job. For an organisation to flourish it’s important that we can pay professional people what they deserve for the work that they do.”
Your chief activity is to offer weekly circus lessons. The quality of those lessons depends entirely on the quality of the teachers. How do you keep them motivated?
Lieven: “You need quite a few artists to get your circus school going, to give the specialised lessons and to be there for the students to look up to. But don’t give them a permanent contract with a lot of hours , or they will run away. The teachers that have worked with us for a long time enjoy that moment when the students surpass the teacher. ‘I taught them how to juggle and now they are going on to study at the professional circus schools!’”
Veerle: “What motivates our teachers is how important circus education becomes in the lives of their students. But it does happen that people who teach multi-circus (a curriculum which includes several different circus techniques, red.) decide at some point that they have had enough, and either they leave to do something completely different, or they stay on but assume a new roll in the organisation. Teaching can be a draining occupation.”
Daan: “It’s the same with any job I guess, but everyone is out to improve their situation. I don’t think there are any schools that pay incredibly well, so that can’t be the motivating factor. When you start out you get a lot of motivation from the progress made by your students, but we try to add extra value in other ways: for instance we’ve set up a brain-storming exercise with our teachers to help us in forming the entire program. As an organisation you have to always be aware of what you offer and would like to offer your people.”
Jonas: “Our lessons are taught by three different teachers, and I have the impression that that helps stimulate and challenge our teachers. If something doesn’t work you have to re-invent yourself, as an organisation but also as teacher. Take a new direction, find new challenges, and in circus that’s still virgin territory.”
Is it essential for you that your teachers have either followed the Formation Pédagogique (FP) in Brussels or the course for Coach in the Circus Arts (BIC) that Circuscentrum offers?
Matthias: “Those diplomas are not important in themselves, but they do offer a certain guarantee of competence.”
Els: “We don’t have the luxury to demand that, we’ve just lost an entire generation of teachers. So at this point it’s ‘all hands on deck’! We had to replace almost everyone and offer extra classes and coaching to the new teachers in order to keep up the level of the classes we were offering. The diplomas you mention are not a prerequisite, but we do encourage it. I also think that if we put out a job ad for an acrobatics teacher in Oostende, the response would be under-whelming.”
Veerle: “For us it’s just the opposite, for the specialisation lessons we are lucky enough that ESAC (Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque, red.) is right here in town. The problem is that students get hung up on those specialisations, so our teachers do as well. For us it’s almost impossible to find an all-round circus teacher. A lot of our kids are more into tricking and urban techniques.”
Jonas: “We don’t have any problems with multi-circus, but we have problems finding enough teachers for the specialisation lessons. The FP or BIC don’t cover the specialisations. Some artists manage to give those lessons very well. An advantage with the specialised lessons is that you can more easily vary and change teachers, but with the youngest children, it’s the continuity that’s essential.”
Veerle: “Sometimes the BIC is no longer adequate because you’ve learned to teach a lot of things in which the children are no longer interested. A lot has changed in the field. I myself followed multi-circus for a long time, but now you hear six and seven year-olds saying: ‘I have been doing multi-circus for two years now, isn’t it about time that I specialised?!”
Lieven: “The question is whether or not as a school you should give in to that trend, we continue to push multi-circus for our kids: add something else if you like, but keep your focus on the big picture.”
Jonas: “Parents expect more and more from their children. We also see that multi-circus is something that kids will do until they turn 12, then they go do something completely different. The perception that circus is something for little kids…”
Veerle: “We had a big gap when it came to kids of a certain age and a certain profile. We started looking into the reasons why, and the fact that we now offer rope skipping, tricking and parkour is the result. I think that’s only normal in an organisation like ours. Nobody is particularly interested in a beautiful locale in the heart of Molenbeek where you can go and learn how to spin plates.”
Is it important that the schools also prepare a new generation of professional artists?
Veerle: “We don’t have the means to do it. I think all us are striving to grow artistically and pedagogically, but at the moment we’ve financial difficulties so we’re mostly just taking care of the basics. Perhaps it’s not enough of a priority for us. (turns to Daan) If I look at ECDF: that’s something you’ve been doing for quite some time.”
Daan: “It’s funny, because we are not set up to do that. We want our young people to develop, and we do it by offering them really heavy physical training, with a lot of pure acrobatics. That’s how we attempt to develop their mentality as well, and as a result, a lot of our kids go on to study in the circus academies. We are proud of that, and it’s great and all, put we don’t push them in that direction. They should only go on to further study if they really want to. Perhaps it’s a result of our program, but it’s not a goal in itself.”
Veerle: “It’s not a priority for us either, but since a lot of our kids face real difficulties finding a job, we do try to offer them a bit more of a chance by giving them the skills that could help them go on as artist, trainer or animator.”
Matthias: “But that’s something different than going on to study as an artist. That is helping young people develop competencies, making them stronger for the moment they have to go out and find their place in the jungle of the professional world. That in itself is really a valid mission for a circus school.”
Jonas: “Ok, but if there are no ateliers which do aim to prepare their young people to go on to become professional artists, where do they go for that? I think that in other countries that exists. Do we have to continue in Flanders to wait for that one talented student to come along who suddenly at the age of 14 shows the natural talent and motivation necessary for a life in the arts? The ‘Ell Fuego-method’ is one way to challenge youth, by especially training them technically, and out of that experience they may discover once they’re a bit older that they want to go on to develop artistically as well. That’s a good model that’s based on challenging students and developing their intrinsic motivation.”
More and more schools are beginning to offer artistic support for artists in residence, original creations, collaborating with cultural centers, festivals… How do you see your own evolution in that area?
Matthias: “At a certain point everything in our working started to get more artistic. Circuscentrum played a big part in that, for example by bringing in directors from Kopergietery (a creative venue for young people, focusing on drama, dance and music, red.) to teach some of their training courses. We are stepping back a bit from that now, as our emphasis must remain educative, even during our festival in the Gentse Feesten.”
Daan: “In Antwerp, our work automatically generates that support. It is more than just a circus school because of our facilities, the buildings, the material and the artists who work with us. You become a sort of magnet for circus in the city, whether you like it or not. And actually ECDF didn’t begin as a school. We started out as an artistic organisation, which thereafter began to work pedagogically as well.”
Jonas: “Artistic development isn’t a goal but creative development is. Making a performance is first of all a stimulation of that creativity, and of course the final outcome of that performance is important as well. Top level productions are no longer a rarity, and professional festivals are starting to book them. With that comes the pressure to continue to perform at that level, and sometimes there’s little room left for experiment when the whole process becomes so demanding.”
Veerle: “During our Circus Days we also program things from outside the atelier, so that our kids perform together with professional artists. That’s also a form of cultural education, a real introduction for a lot of people. Parents send us their children knowing very little about what we do, and we want to help them get over their red-nosed image of the circus. We program in function of our educational project.”
How important are social circus and socio-cultural circus projects to your working?
Lieven: “We want to give more emphasis to that side of the work because we feel like we have something very valuable to offer. Achieving small triumphs and learning to live with setbacks as well, learning to work together, those are valuable experiences for many who come from challenging backgrounds.”
Veerle: “For us, social circus is the cornerstone of our work. We think it’s very important to reflect the world in which we live. Our society has changed immensely and a lot of different people are now part of it. We don’t always see it because we live such segregated lives, but if you cross the canal from the center of Brussels into Molenbeek: it’s a completely different part of town, with a different population, different restaurants and cafés,… you don’t have to be naive about that. I do think that we succeed in involving all sorts of people in our work. Our teaching team reflects that diversity, and we have people with disabilities and people from immigrant backgrounds. It’s a real challenge: how do you maintain the quality of your education if half of the group consists of children with disabilities or behavioural problems? The results are wonderful and people feel good when they are with us, but there is a lot of financial strain which comes as a result. Everyone who participates in the school pays according to their income, but if half of your 1000 participants come from the lowest incomes, it’s tough to keep things running. You’re fighting as well in a political climate which seems anything but sympathetic to endeavours aimed at inclusivity.”
Matthias: “You have a larger movement in society to contend with… Trump in America or Viktor Orban in Hungary are pushing an agenda diametrically opposed to what we do.”
Veerle: “I find the biggest problem is that funding for social circus happens on a project basis. You work for three years in a particular neighbourhood, and suddenly the project is ‘finished’, the funding’s gone and it’s all over. In the end it feels almost counterproductive to have even made the attempt. It’s always the same people who get left out in the cold. The job market rejects them, in school they are the losers, so dropping them is the very last thing we want to do.”
Daan: “There are 1001 different kinds of social work… For example this past year we have been running a big project, with funding from the European Community, which is using circus to increase the competencies of people looking for employment.”
Els: “As a circus school you have to make choices. You can’t appeal to everyone or be an expert in everything.”
Is there enough diversity in the circus schools or do the white middle-class cargo bike families continue to dominate your story?
Jonas: “I’m not sure of the exact figures, but you do feel it: the majority of our kids come from white two-income families. I don’t think that has changed much over the years. Social projects tend to happen on a temporary basis. We are asked for special projects here or there, but it’s always for a limited amount of time.”
Lieven: “In the old days most of our kids came from the Freinet schools, but I think over the years we have become more mainstream. It is no longer elitist, even if we are far from reflecting society as it really is.”
Veerle: “Are we talking about ethnic diversity or social diversity? In the little book which just came out, 10 Years of the Circus Decree, I read in the chapter about circus schools the proud declaration: “The circus world is inclusive.” I found that really offensive. You can hardly claim that’s true when out of 1000 participants there are maybe 5 with disabilities and a few kids with Moroccan roots. That’s anything but inclusive, and it’s not what society looks like. We have to be a lot more careful about making those kind of assertions.”
Matthias: “We are a white middle-class organisation, but we have really chosen to strive for diversity and be representative, to be open to all and to work inclusively.”
Veerle: “It is just no longer acceptable to cater solely to the white middle-class in the arts or education, because it no longer reflects reality. I have very strong opinions about that, but of course I acknowledge how challenging it is for organisations that have different roots to meet the social challenges, especially without structural or sufficient funding.”
For many schools, having your own space is the big dream, for some of you that dream has come true. What kind of opportunities come with having your own space, and are there other consequences that you didn’t expect?
Els: “I never saw it as a priority, certainly when we were just starting out as a circus school, but as time went by the longing for a space of our own became an obsession for our entire team: a fact that became impossible for me to ignore. So you take the subsequent risks, and once you have landed, it really does start to feel like coming home.”
Matthias: “Structures made specifically for circus simply don’t exist. A new sport club can immediately apply for an existing sport hall, but those spaces never completely comply to what you need for circus. At some point you just accept that a space that suits your needs is something you have to create for yourself. Having your own space means having lots of new worries, but also lots of advantages. Artists come and train and you have a place of your own where things can happen.”
Lieven: “Last year in April we finally moved into a bigger space, now we have enough room for artists to come and seriously train. For example this week we had people from Cirque Éloize and Collectif Malunés working side by side in the same space… That’s super!”
Daan: “Sometimes it comes down to economics. If you are paying a vast amount for rent on a monthly basis it just makes sense to buy something. For example, we have a space that we’ve been able to furnish ourselves, but the cost of renting it is pushing us towards that moment where we will end up buying something of our own.”
Jonas: “The city of Mechelen made a clear choice by giving a building to Circolito, which means that the city has engaged itself to a certain degree in the project. The same situation exists in Leuven.”
The new Circus decree goes into effect in 2021. From then on it will in theory be possible for each circus school to receive structural funding, but qualification will depend on a minimum number of total participation hours. So that means that the smaller schools may not qualify, falling out of the boat, and out of the decree…
Matthias: “We had big discussion about that and together we reached a consensus: all of the schools had to be included. The decree still has to be reviewed by a parliamentary commission, but I think it is important to show our solidarity with the smaller schools and those just starting out. We have to continue to insist: that was the vision with which everything began and that vision hasn’t changed.”
Daan: “The cabinet asked us to come up with our own proposal. In that proposal it was explicitly written that we wanted a solution for the smaller schools. We wrote a whole piece about the schools with a lower number of participation hours but that’s disappeared in the final draft. It is important to repeat our continued demand that our proposition be carried out in its entirety.”
Lieven: “The Strategic Advisory Board for Culture (SARC) came up with the same conclusion, three pages full of remarks and observations, of which one sentence is included in the final decree: ‘Juggling will hence be referred to as object manipulation’. They ignored all the other propositions from the SARC. I wonder how united we can remain in our solidarity if all the funding has to come from one communal coffer. Those who are the best at writing for grants will get the most money, and if one school gets more, then the other ones will get less. It’s going to be messy.”
In closing, I invite you all to dream about the future out loud. What do you wish for your own circus school?
Els: “I dream that CircusMagazine might once again belong to the circus schools. And it may sound strange because we just bought a building: a bigger building!”
Lieven: “I was visiting a German circus school and they’ve bought a vacation park. It has become a veritable circus town, where schools come all year round and summer camps come during the vacations. We have a big hall, but nowhere for people to sleep. That would be great, because it opens up the possibilities for residencies. We also want to collaborate with regular schools, that they come for a week’s visit, so the kids can get a real circus immersion, and let all the circus schools come to us to do their camps.”
Veerle: “With an open air swimming pool?”
Matthias: “Actually a sort of Circus Club Med…”
Jonas: “It looks like we may lose our circus hotel. There is a little farm in our park and I dream of taking it over and converting it into a new hotel for young people and artists. Together with the completion of our new building.”
Matthias: “The biggest challenge at Circusplaneet is diversity, and my dream is to become an organisation that can offer answers for all the challenges society holds in store for the next five, ten, and most probably 100 years.”
Veerle: “My dream is that a time will come when we can completely focus on content, instead of putting so much energy in dossiers and funding. I think the work we are doing is mega-relevant and it would be nice if we could finally put all of our energy into that work.”