Searching for a Safe Space through the art of Circus

a circus performance with young refugees

Since the mid-1800s up until the 21st century, circus has been one of the largest showbiz industries in the world roping in imaginations and captivating audiences with its outlandish performances, gutsy acrobats, and crazy clowns. What makes circus extraordinary isn’t merely that it is a musical or a magic show, but that it creates a place for outsiders to become superheroes of the day, giving them a sense of belonging and for audience to interact with cultures and people of all kinds.

Image Copyright Kris Dewitte

A lot has changed over the past few decades and circus has evolved from being a trivial source of entertainment or a satirical representation of the chaos in society to a platform for growing movements such as the Social Circus and is pushing towards acknowledging and exploring social justice and the greater good. Though, the element that remained common throughout the years has been the idea of belonging. From providing a home to the ‘freaks’ and ‘outsiders’ to building a safe haven for the marginalised communities, circus always indiscriminately gives everyone a fair chance to find their space.

We at ArtsPositive also share a similar ideology of creating an unbiased safe creative space for all. And recently we spoke to a young circus artist, Marth De Kinder, who, was always thoughtful about the sense of belonging and finally found her voice and grounding in the art of circus.

Image Copyright Kris Dewitte

During the months of July and August this year, Marth along with Hetgevolg’s (The Consequence) Hartenprojecten (Heart’s project) produced a circus project, Ruimte (pronounced; rum +‎ -te, meaning; Space) for their Hartenklop Festival (Heartbeat). The project involved working with a group of young refugee children between the age of 11 to 18 years from Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, Angola and also a few local children from Belgium. The theme was based around the concept of the three following questions; 1. Where do you come from? 2. Where do you want to go? and 3. Where do you feel like you belong? Without sticking to a particular script, Marth developed the idea day by day along with the children, by listening to their stories and bringing them to life.

A lot of the boys, I worked with had come to Belgium alone, leaving their families behind and it became heartfelt for me to see that by spending time together during the project, they had all become each other’s newfound family in a foreign land”, Marth said.

Hetgevolg’s vision is to work with both professional and non-professional artists for their theatre productions. The non-professionals include people who fall out of regular walks of life. Or as Marth prefers to address them, “people who are searching”.

Image Copyright Kris Dewitte

The creation of Ruimte spanned out for over five weeks. Marth decided to spend the first week, getting to know the children and developing trust, which to her is a very important element while learning and practicing acrobatics. The group then worked on various exercises and improv techniques, which slowly led to the development of the idea. Marth also gleefully recalled that she would start every day with a clear plan-of-action but rarely ever followed it as she would get inspired by the children’s interpretation of stories and tasks. During the production, the children were also occasionally coached by Stefan Perceval, teacher/ actor and the director of Hetgevolg.

Image Copyright Kris Dewitte

After the final performance, Marth reminisced, that the audience had mixed reactions to the show. Since the act had both comic and grim elements, there were children laughing and having a ball, at the same time adults with teary eyes and a few others, who confessed they felt guilty for laughing, during some scenes. Although, the common link remained that the performance had changed certain perspectives for all of them.

When we asked Marth, what inspired her to take up, Ruimte, she said that she always wanted to search for the voices of the voiceless, find out their stories and narrate it to a greater audience to bring a shift in perspectives. Even as a child, she had a hunger for stories, which she feels was instilled in her by her father, Jan De Kinder, who is an author and illustrator of children books.

Circus Artist, Marth De Kinder

Today, Marth interprets her art and circus as a language in itself that helps her tell various stories, ones that are inside her and ones that belong to others. Listening to people’s stories of struggle and courage, changes her immensely as a person but the greatest reward is when they become part of her. They become friends.

Writer Isha Bhattacharya for ArtsPositive