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In April 2007 Belfast Community Circus School took a group of 8 young people and 2 youth leaders to Lima, Peru, as part of a project supported by Connect Youth. The project came about as a result of a British Council initiative, which brought together youth groups from Latin America with Belfast Community Circus School. The youth encounter involved 8 young people and 2 youth leaders each from Belfast Community Circus School; La Tarumba in Lima; Circo Social del Sur in Buenos Aires; and Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde in Paris.
As part of the agreement with young people participating in this project, there were regular weekly meetings to prepare for the trip to Peru. These meetings served a number of purposes:
- Familiarisation with language and culture of Peru
- Devising and rehearsing a circus piece to reflect Belfast’s approach to the artform
- Recording young people’s impressions of Belfast and circus for DVD
- Building team spirit
- Planning fundraising activity for the exchange
This preparation was generally successful, but it was noticeable that the young people were quite restrained when it came to commenting on life in Belfast. This led to some concerns that they might be slightly withdrawn when they reached Lima. The team building element to the meetings went very well with a strong sense of being part of the same project.
Activity in Lima
The group were the last to arrive in Lima, following a travel delay and this led to concerns that they might miss out on the initial bonding and that this might cause difficulties. However, when they all met each other, the young people immediately connected with each other and began communicating through the medium of circus (through informal skills exchange) and music (through a led drumming session). From this point onwards, the project continued to run very smoothly. La Tarumba had managed the organisation superbly – looking after everything from accommodation through to meals and transport. In addition to the planned programme, La Tarumba managed to arrange invitations for all participants to receptions at the Argentinian, British and French Embassies.
Much of the time during the project was taken up with circus skills exchange and training; performing routines prepared by each country; and in the creation of a new devised ensemble show featuring all 32 young people. All of the young people showed themselves to be capable and willing to embrace a schedule, which asked much of them both physically and mentally. Although the programme did not allow for much ‘free time’ the young people were happy to be working and playing with circus together and this process seemed to do much to build bonds between them. The young people from Belfast made great progress in the area of skills development and also in terms of their understanding of the culture of Lima. This came about as a result of the diverse experiences including staging a performance for residents at a shanty town on the outskirts of the city; meeting with diplomats involved in the politics of the country; mixing with young people from Lima. Information and learning about the other cultures involved was perhaps less extensive. However, through informal exchanges and also through the viewing of DVDs presented by each group, the understanding of the young people was enhanced with respect to each group.
Impact on Young People
The overwhelming response of the participants from Belfast was extremely positive. With all of them reporting that they had found the experience enjoyable and informative. Half of the young people have expressed a definite desire to return to Lima to meet up with the members of La Tarumba and to engage in further training. All of the young people have continued to communicate with other participants since returning to Belfast via email. The exchange visit stimulated greater understanding of different cultures and was responsible for young people beginning to take an interest in global politics with discussions breaking out between young people regarding the causes of poverty and the impact of consumerism on the environment. It is impossible to imagine these young people engaging in such discussions prior to the exchange taking place.
The exchange also fuelled the participants’ desire to build their circus skills knowledge. This translated into skills exchange with other participants whilst in Lima and an increased time commitment to learning skills when back in Belfast.
Impact on Organisations
The exchange enabled all four participating organisations to learn much about the foundation, funding, aims and objectives of each other. The dialogue brought about increased understanding of the shared purpose and operational matters pertaining to each group and also brought greater awareness of where the differences lay. Each organisation was greatly enthused and invigorated by the encounter and the intended day long round table discussion turned into two and a half days leading to an agreement on the way ahead for a further exchange programme such was the enthusiasm generated by this exchange. Being able to connect so successfully with other youth organisations from around the world has given Belfast Community Circus School greater confidence in both its own worth and also our ability to participate in successful international exchanges.
Difficulties/ Issues arising from the project
As with so many EU funded programmes, the lead in time is very short and this can create problems when trying to pull together an exchange involving four countries, three languages and two continents. Thankfully, the hosting group, La Tarumba, have a fantastic administrative team and a very efficient methodical approach to any task they undertake, so the visit was enjoyed by all participants without a hitch. However, as will be evident on reading the post event evaluation submitted by La Tarumba, there were difficulties and unwelcome pressures they faced in part because of the condensed timescale.
There were also some issues caused by the financial restraints of this programme. The ability to raise 30% of travel costs varied enormously from country to country and the exchange would have been seriously jeopardised without the support of the British Council in London and Buenos Aries. In addition, administrative costs and the cost of youth leaders is not covered by eligible costs which makes life a little difficult for organisations without the surplus to carry such expenses.
Having been involved with a variety of projects with an international dimension over the past twenty years with varying degrees of success, Belfast Community Circus School entered into this process with hope rather than expectation. In the event, the project produced more than we would have dared hope for. The experience demonstrated quite graphically that circus really does have the potential to bring together young people from diverse backgrounds and cultures and unite them in a common endeavour. The project had a substantial and important impact on the participant’s maturity – for most young people this was the furthest they had travelled from home (in many instances it was their first time out of their native country); the first time they had spent any length of time with young people from other countries; and the first time they had been able to compare such a wide range of experiences of young people.
All of the participants expressed a desire for further encounters and exchanges with each other and all were sad to have to part at the end of the exchange. E-mail contacts between the young people have been maintained since the exchange, just as they have between leaders. For the organisations involved, the exchange was an affirming experience giving leaders the opportunity to hear about social and community circus approaches and experiences in each country and ultimately to understand that all the groups face the same challenges and share the same humanity at the centre of their work.
The exchange resulted in enhanced mutual respect, enhanced personal development, eroding of the barriers of language and culture to be replaced by understanding and respect.
If asked to score the experience, Belfast Community Circus School and all the participants would have to give this 10 out of 10!!!!