In this series, CircusTalk will attempt to explore different aspects of the social circus world. In this article, the author will focus on social circuses that address the refugee crisis.
There is no issue in our world today more dire, urgent and controversial than that of refugees. As Syria is being torn to shreds by various political forces, Europe is flooded with refugees of all ages coming in droves, risking their lives on inflatable boats for the chance of a life without terror. On the other side of the world, the US is taking children away from their parents and putting them in detention camps, justifying their inhumane actions by blaming the parents for illegally crossing the border.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
So, how is the world of circus – social circus, but not only – approaching the worldwide refugee crisis?
Circuses Off Stage: Social Circuses Volunteering with Refugees
Social Circus is a vastly diverse field, with companies and organization dedicated to anything from helping special needs children develop life skills to aiding women in overcoming difficult backgrounds. It is no surprise, then, that are are multiple social circus organizations that attempt to aid and lighten the lives of refugees.
Two of these organization are the Flying Seagull Project and CircusAid. The Flying Seagull Project, according to their mission statement, “believe that it is everyone – man, woman or child’s – right to put aside the cares of life and smile for a while.” The organization volunteers at refugee camps throughout Europe, maximizing the impact that circus can have on people (especially youth) under risk. I had the pleasure of meeting the founder, Ash Perrin, at a conference in the UK a few months ago, and his personal anecdotes on refugee children finding joy and laughter in the visiting circus artists, accompanied by a video showing their encounters, were truly inspiring.
CircusAid was founded by Jill Maglio, an occupational therapist specializing in circus (and founder of Holistic Circus Therapy). Miss Maglio’s approach to social circus is deeply influenced by her background as an occupational therapist: “Research supports that occupational deprivation results in mental health issues while social circus results in increased resilience and community connection. We all know children need to play for healthy development. We forget adults need to play too, especially during this time of vulnerable redevelopment”, and programs are “grounded in evidence based practices developed through occupational therapy and social circus research.” CircusAid has just embarked on a 3-month volunteer trip to refugee camps in Greece, with a mobile circus tent where they will be teaching workshops in juggling, hula hooping, aerial arts, acro-balance and other circus disciplines, for both children and adults.
Circuses on Stage: Companies Interpreting Refugee Issues
There are two shows I wish to cover in this article: the first is SARAB by the Palestinian Circus School, and the second is Limits by Swedish circus company Cirkus Cirkor.
The Palestinian Circus School was set up 12 years ago to bring circus to young people in Palestine. It aims to build powerful creative identities in the midst of injustice and despair, and to offer young people the voice to speak out about their daily life, their struggle for freedom and their immense desire to live a dignified life. Their show SARAB (“Mirage”) is the result of the ensemble visiting refugee camps and talking to the people there about their experiences.
The show is not easy to watch, nor should it be. The show is in no way linear, there is not beginning/middle/end, no easily traceable arc to allow the audience the comfort of familiarity. Rather it is a constant bombarding, singular moments melting together to create an ongoing, indiscernible status-quo of traumas and fear. There are sirens, there is running, flipping over wooden blocks in parkour-like frenzy, there’s a trapeze artist tossing pamphlets at the audience as if from a moving airplane over a bombed city… At some point a door in the ceiling opens and pours out dozens of naked dolls, immediately reminding the audience of the horrifying images of dead refugee children washed ashore. It is a show of vignettes and burning images more than acts, with audio narration compiling a myriad of voices, testifying as if from another world.
This show was particularly fascinating to me due to its unique nature: a social circus organization founded to address one crisis (Palestinians under Israeli occupation) creating a show about another crisis (refugees in Europe). Their choice to research and create a show about this issue was not incidental: for the performers/creators (the students in the Palestinian Circus School created this show as an ensemble), this is a subject that is very near to their hearts; they live with aspects of it every day.
I asked Paul Evans, who directed the show, to shed light on the process that led to its creation:
“After living through their own history but also going to different refugee camps and hearing their stories, they felt it really important to tell the different stories of the multiple and continuing refugee crisis. The stories that we use in this piece – some are Palestinian, some are Syrian, some are Myanmar, some are from Rwanda… So we have taken a selection. Part of it is to highlight the human stories that are happening, I feel that particularly in the west we’ve become a bit numb to the numbers. These are human beings, and in this country [UK] we have pretty much shut our borders and are turning our backs on it. It’s not acceptable that we keep treating people as numbers. What we don’t talk about is: what forces people into this refugee situation?”
When asked what it was like to work with youth (ages 21-26) on a difficult topic that is not so far removed from their own lives, Mr. Evans replied:
“If your lived experience is very close to the material you’re making, you close down and don’t express so much. So part of our process was encouraging to push a bit further, to represent images to their extent. The temptation is to pull back, so part of my job was to push that because these stories shouldn’t be easily digestible.”
The work the Palestinian Circus School does for its students is incredibly important, then, on multiple levels: not only does it provide them with refuge through circus arts in its after-school programs, but it has given them the opportunity to confront and process their own difficult backgrounds by way of connecting and presenting the traumas of others so similar to their own.
The other show I wish to discuss, Limits, does not fall under the category of social circus (Cirkus Cirkor does have a community branch, but this show was a commercial one). However, I felt it belongs in this article due to its sensitive, humane and creative treatment of this issue. The show touches on the refugee issues, but furthermore, as their website states, it widens the lens to look at borders, to contemplate “Europe’s ever-tightening boundaries against the world beyond its borders, and the consequences that closed borders bring in their wake”.
The show constantly plays with the concept of borders as delineating and defining spaces, but also as that which stretch the limits of humans existence. They ask: “Are limits real or imaginary? Are they a dead-end, or a motivation to search for new paths?”
This back and forth between borders and limits is not accidental. In fact, here’s something interesting for English speakers to consider: In my mother tongue (Hebrew), the word for “borders” and “limits” is one and the same. When I watched this show, I suspected that it’s also the case with Swedish. I was right.
Furthermore, a quick research revealed it’s the same word in over a dozen languages, including German, Hungarian, Armenian, Maori, Sudanese, Swahili and others. It was surprising to discover that languages of entirely different branches (including Indo-European, Canaanite, Niger-Congo, Austronesian, and more) have evolved, separately, to having these two supposedly different concepts come together under the same term.
There are some beautiful moments in the show, including an artist attempting to scale what looks like the wall of a prison or a cage (a variation on a traditional ladder act), and constantly failing and picking herself up; an acrobatic flyer whose base is nothing more than a pair of mannequin legs, dead and non-responsive; and a trampoline act where items of clothing are continuously tossed about in the air.
The show cleverly walks the line between exploring issues of refugees, and doing so by stretching the limits of the human body. Circus, then, becomes a tool not only to muse on people crossing borders, but on how we each cross our own internal borders each day by pushing ourselves to grow.
Which led me to think about the role of circus as a catalyst for change. Not only social circus (which aims to tackle social issues by definition) but other branches of circus too, including the performative. For many, part of the definition of contemporary circus is that it aims not only to entertain, but rather to send a message, stir deep emotions and thoughts, and spark a conversation. Circus shows these days often go beyond the accomplishments of entertaining physical feats: some contemporary circus shows push farther by focusing on the microcosmos of human life, the interpersonal relationships we have with one another or with the self. Others, like Cirkus Cirkor’s Limits, choose a macro lens and stretch the genre’s limits (pun intended) further so it makes people consider and ponder the social issues that plague the world.
Of course, often times the micro and macro mix: the relationships between people are affected by their societal affiliations, and the big issues that plague society boil down to families and individuals whose lives are affected by the political games their governments play. It is as Mr. Evans said: behind the numbers are real people. We’d do well to remember that each of us could have been a refugee had we been born in a different the wrong place or time.
It is inspiring to see circus that uses its entertainment power to push for change, to advocate for the values circus has long held: that people of all races, genders, religions and backgrounds are people, and as such we all deserve to be treated with the same respect and compassion. Yes, circus can be entertaining, but circus artists do not owe entertainment to their audiences; in fact, making an audience uncomfortable can be a goal worth setting just as much as entertaining them. By holding up a mirror to society, circus not only stays relevant but makes an argument for its validity: We are not just here to entertain you, we are here to transform you. Together we can change the world.
The organizations and shows I have presented here are but a drop in the ocean of social circus work targeted at refugees. If you know of more, please share them in the comments! See you in the next segment in our series, dedicated to …….?
Related CircusTalk content: Social Circus: Women Helping Women
Feature photo courtesy of Palestinian Circus School