Photo: Jonah Samyn

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Short history and overview of the street arts and circus

In Belgium, modern street theatre emerged from the events of May ‘68 and in the seventies it was mostly known for its political content. In the eighties the form became more important than the content and the Flemish street theatre became mostly pure entertainment. In these years the first companies were founded, but practically all of them never left Belgian soil to give a performance. In the Walloon provinces, Chassepierre was founded in 1973, but Flanders would still have to wait ten more years for its first meaningful festival. It was at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties that the largest Flemish festivals emerged; from the start they kept a focus on the European and international scene without forgetting local artists. In the heyday of the Belgian family circuses there were about twenty traditional travelling circuses, but since the fifties their number has been dropping because of the rise of new forms of entertainment. The traditional circus had been travelling from town to town for decades, but it was at the festivals at the end of the nineties that the public got to know a new form of circus. The Belgium circus left the family environment, and young artists tried out new material on the streets, in tents, and at site-specific locations.

In 2008 the Circus Decree gave wings to the Flemish circus, but even today festivals like MiramirO, Theater op de Markt and Perplex still play an important role in the development of the Belgium scene. They co-produce new spectacles, and because there are very few agents or organisations with a specific focus on circus and street art, they are quite valuable for helping circulate work through the Belgian scene. Circus in Flanders is, as in the rest of Europe, becoming more and more professional. Where it used to be pure entertainment for markets and fairgrounds, Flemish circus is evolving into a real contemporary art form that uses different art disciplines such as street theatre, video, performance, dance, etc. As it becomes more professional the circus craft is also being removed from its family context, and today every young person who wants to become a circus artist has the means to do so.

In the seventies Flemish artists chose the street as a playground because there was no other place to take their political theatre. Today we see that contemporary theatre-makers want to escape from the traditional black box to confront actual reality with their work, and more and more they do this by using the street, a tent, or a specific location to present their performance. Once again the festivals are there to help them with this new quest, and give them pointers on how to deal with the administrative paperwork and interact with these new types of public. Alongside this trend, there are also Flemish circus artists who are slowly becoming integrated into the programmes of regular theatre venues. A neat evolution, and an interesting challenge that gives the Flemish circus and street theatre scene something to work on in the decades to come…

Bauke Lievens

— Dramaturg and Academic Researcher, KASK (School of Arts Ghent) —

What do you see as your most important task in circus/street arts in your country?
"As part of my four-year research project (funded by KASK School of Arts, Ghent) investigating strategies for artistic research in the creation of contemporary circus, I see one of my most important tasks as being to generate dialogue between circus artists. To talk about circus. Or to find words to do so. To (re)define what we do, how we do it and why we do it. In a second phase, I would like to open this dialogue to policymakers and programmers. To realise that idea I am currently publishing a cycle of Open Letters to the Circus, to be followed by the organisation of several Encounters that gather invited circus artists from all over Europe to talk and discuss. The first letter was published online in December 2015, and was followed by a first Encounter in Ghent in January 2016 with a second planned for Bristol in March 2016."

Photo: Chris Van der Burght

Sven Gatz

— Flemish Minister of Culture, Media, Youth and Brussels —

What are the most important challenges for circus / street arts in your country and specifically when it comes to audience and marketing development?
"As general context, the cultural policy in Belgium is in quite a specific situation. A Belgian cultural policy doesn’t exist. Culture is a responsibility of French-speaking and Dutch-speaking communities. So, I can just talk for the Flemish government, who are responsible for the cultural policy in Flanders (Dutch-speaking Brussels included). For me, audience and marketing development is a different matter for circus and street arts. Circus, and especially contemporary circus, is programmed indoors (tents, theatres and black boxes) and in public space. Circus is an interesting developing art discipline, but is still fragile. Concerning audience and marketing development, circus has some problems with the sorts of things the public associate with circus (the red nose, the elephant, etc) because contemporary circus has nothing to do with the old-fashioned image.Contemporary circus is for me an art discipline on the edge of dance, theatre and performance. So there is a big potential audience we can convince to come and discover circus. But communication/marketing in circus is always a blind date: it asks an adventurous spirit for a member of the public to buy a ticket, to look for an au pair for the kids, to search for car parking, and come to see a circus show. Therefore it is important that circus is included as a separate category in the brochures of established cultural venues and art centres. The regular press can and must be a partner in audience and marketing development. Neither cultural journalists nor the public have a frame of reference to write, talk and reflect properly about contemporary circus. Mostly they have a focus on the technical skills. Besides offering blind dates, it is necessary for circus organisations (companies, festivals, cultural centres, arts centres, etc) to develop a community around their programme. It is so difficult to convince the public to come and see a circus show, but once they’re in, they’re really in and keep coming back with family and friends. Public development for street arts (also circus in public space) is another topic. Most street arts festivals are free, and when they’re well organised and marketed they get a big audience, even if the public don’t know anything about the companies and their artistic proposals. But there is a question about the artistic level of street arts; there is a real division between artistic work and entertainment."

Photo: Alexander Meeus