Between 2005 and 2008, six European circus school directors met to discuss their work. They came to the conclusion that if they collaborated they had a wide range of competencies they could share to help develop the sector of youth and social circus. Eleftérios Kechagioglou, director of Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde, had over 15 years of experience working in southern Parisian suburbs, while Vincent Wauters, director of Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles had already started developing circus pedagogy. Taina Kopra, director of Sorin Sirkus had become a key actor in the development of youth circus in Finland. Together, they met Circus Elleboog, which had been involved in social circus since the 1950s. Once they all met, along with two other circus school directors (Zaltimbanq and Belfast Community Circus School), it appeared obvious that combining all of these competencies would be an essential step to developing and professionalizing the youth and social circus sector. The end result was the founding of the Caravan International Youth and Social Circus Network.
So Caravan was established by 6 European Circus Schools in 2008 with a base in Brussels, the epicenter of European cooperation. The network has since grown to 23 member schools. The European essence of the network remains strong as 17 members are European and the core funder is the European commission. However, its membership has expanded beyond the borders of the continent, opening to Mediterranean countries as well as Asia and North America. We’d like to share some background on our work and to illustrate four notable benefits of becoming part of this growing extended network of like-minded organizations.
1.Caravan’s focus on youth and social circus widens to the aspiring professionals sector
What Caravan members have in common is their definition of social circus as an educational tool, one adapted to the specifics of a target public, and the drive to dedicate their work to groups from disadvantaged backgrounds, with specific needs and different socio-cultural backgrounds.
“The core element of the existence of Caravan is joining circus arts, pedagogy and social work.”-Vincent Wauters, director of Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles
In order to provide adapted, high quality circus training to these various audiences, Caravan has focused its work on the development of strong pedagogic tools. In 2011, a research project led to the creation of the framework of competencies for social circus trainers. The different partners agreed that the main objective of the social circus trainer’s mission is to support “the personal development of its participants, by developing personal qualities such as open-mindedness, self-esteem, tolerance, respect, responsibility, autonomy, perseverance and self-confidence. Circus can also serve also as a mediator that enables groups to create a true group cohesion by working on the inclusion of all participants”.
Vincent Wauters, the director of Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles, echoes these ideas, saying “The core element of the existence of Caravan is joining circus arts, pedagogy and social work.” To combine these two factors effectively it was important for the different partners to bring their expertise. He explains: “The objective for us to join Caravan was to share and exchange pedagogy. It was then interesting to work with Circus Elleboog in Amsterdam (who had great experience in social circus as they were born into it), with Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde (France) who was also strongly involved in social work and Cabuwazi (Germany) who was working in social work but in an experimental way. Hence, it is this ping-pong game of exchanges between all of us that was fascinating and that has developed over the years.”
In order to implement these pedagogic tools, Caravan members have been working with a wide range of different target groups. For instance, Cirkus Cirkör (Sweden) and Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde(France) work with youth from disadvantaged neighborhoods, Parada Foundation (Romania) works with street children, Belfast Community Circus School (UK) has been working on gathering the two religious communities following the years of violence in Northern Ireland.
2. Membership Leads to Developing International Cooperation
The network offers two types of membership. Full members are circus schools based in countries belonging to the Council of Europe. They are committed to pedagogical development and have artistic activities. These Caravan members share responsibility for the development of the strategy and direction of Caravan and have voting rights at the General Assembly. Currently, Caravan has 12 full members. Caravan also offers an associate membership open to circus organizations who share the Caravan vision and objectives. They receive all of the information produced by Caravan on a priority basis. They can use Caravan administration to put out their own information to all members. They also get invitations to attend all conferences and networking events staged by Caravan.
One of Caravan’s strengths as a network is providing multiple levels of interactions between circus organizations: directors, head trainers, young trainers and youngsters all of whom experience the benefits of international cooperation. Yet, most of the Caravan organizations are also involved in other bilateral or international networks, creating a large net of international cooperation. One example of how all of these organizations work in unison is when large international Caravan events gather participants from beyond their network. For example, every alternate year, Caravan organizes international seminars highlighting the evolution of the sector. It also takes part in and supports similar events held by partners. For instance, in December 2013 an international conference entitled “They’re smiling from ear to ear – Wellbeing Effects from Social Circus” was organized by Sorin Sirkus(Finland) in partnership with Tampere University. Eleftérios Kechagioglou, director of Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde recalls how diverse this meeting was as a result of Caravan’s networking efforts: “at this occasion, Cirque du Monde facilitated a workshop and people from all over the world attended the seminar including participants from Canada and the USA.”
3. Membership Leads to Professional Training Opportunities and Recognition of the Competency, Plus a Guidebook &140 hour continuing education program
Thanks to two major European projects co-funded by the European Commission, Caravan, in collaboration with Caravan members and university partners, developed a training program for social circus trainers. After 5 years of meetings and research, the Guidebook for social circus trainers, entitled “Circus Trans-Formation (CTF)” was published in July 2014.
This guidebook is now widely used across the network at a national level. Not only each Caravan partner implements this 140-hour training within their organization, but it is also implemented at the international level in the framework of Erasmus + funding. This training “CTF in Action” offers the opportunity for twenty young trainers from ten Caravan partners to pursue their training and specialize in social circus. The four-week teaching takes place in four different circus schools providing the trainers with various methods and perspectives of circus. One of the former trainees shared how the training widens the scope of her perspective: « I found it very interesting to see different circus schools from different countries: their different working methods and values. This training gave me the motivation to continue training myself abroad. Next week I am leaving to Romania for six months where I will take part in the implementation of a social circus project. »
“Our idea is not to create professional artists, it is to offer hope for the children and then if they have the capacity and the skills, to create the path for the children to continue and to study more to become professional.-Taina Kopra, director of Sorin Sirkus
Creating a university degree in youth and social circus training
One of Caravan’s goals is to promote the youth and social circus sector by continuing its work to reinforce the employability of young circus trainers. In order to do so, the members aim to create a European university degree in youth and social circus training. However, a clear mapping of both the educational offerings and the market needs is essential to establish a relevant university curriculum.The end result is available now as infographics. Hence, between 2014-2016, the project “Circus +” gathered a consortium of six circus schools and three universities. Together they conducted this research leading to the definition of two frameworks of competences (equivalent level 4 and 6 based on the European Qualification Framework) and accordingly created two job profiles.
Now the partners will carry on their research to establish the study program for a three-year bachelor in youth and social circus degree. Caravan, along with 5 of its members and 4 universities is currently working on a projective timeline to implement this program by 2020.
4. Member Organizations Receive Youth Opportunities
In order to encourage the international cooperation at various levels, Caravan also supports its members in organizing youth exchanges offering the opportunity for youngsters (13-18 years old) to live an international circus experience, exchanging knowledge and creativity. For young adults, Caravan establishes links between sending and hosting of young volunteers (20-30 years old). In 2016, more than 40 young trainers traveled within the network and developed their competences in the communication, pedagogical or social circus departments of their hosting organizations.
Although the cooperation with professional artists was difficult in the beginning as Taina Kopra, director of Sorin Sirkus (Finland) explains, “Our idea is not to create professional artists, it is to offer hope for the children and then if they have the capacity and the skills, to create the path for the children to continue and to study more to become professional. We also tried to have professional circus artists to teach. At the beginning, it was difficult. They were reluctant to get involved. But once they came and felt the experience, then some great cooperation started”.
This type of collaboration illustrates how Caravan’s objective is really to create bridges at many different levels, between audiences, between youth non-professional circus enthusiasts and professional artists, as well as between organizations and universities. We believe that this multi-level cooperation provides great reflection and enrichment to all partners. Visit the website if you are interested in joining Caravan.
Ophélie Mercier is the coordinator of Caravan International Youth and Social Circus network. She encountered social circus in Egypt where she worked for two years with the collective Outa Hamra (literally Red Tomato). Outa Hamra is a street clowning and social theatre group that facilitates workshops and do performances in public spaces with a focus on the marginalized such as refugees, street children and low-income communities. Ophélie settled back in Europe last year and started working with Caravan. Changing the lenses with which she is looking at social circus, she now coordinates international actions aiming to promote circus practices in youth education and to favor their development through concrete actions such as youth exchanges and training for trainers. She is based in the southern suburb of Paris, where she still explores clowning techniques at various occasions.
 Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles (Belgium) – Le plus Petit Cirque du Monde (France) – Ateneu Popular Neu Barris (Spain)- Belfast Community Circus School (UK) – Cirkus Cirkör (Sweden) – Circus Elboog (Netherlands) – Parada FOundation (Romania) – Sorin Sirkus (Finland)  Université Catholique de Louvain  Guidebook  Circus + results  Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles (Belgium) – Le plus Petit Cirque du Monde (PPCM) – Sorin Sirkus (Finland) -  Haute Ecole Leonard de Vinci (Belgium)– University of Limerick (Ireland) – University of Tampere (Finland)
All photos provided courtesy of Caravan Network