Monday, August 1, 2011

Circus Students Climb Walls Between Cultures

The Israel Circus School runs multicultural programs to bring Jewish and Arab schoolchildren together.
If you're swinging from a trapeze or performing a risky acrobatic stunt, you've got to have total faith in the teammate entrusted to synch with you. And so, reasoned Hanita-Caroline Hendelman, circus training could provide a perfect - and perfectly offbeat - setting for building bonds between all cultures in Israel.

"Seven years ago, I initiated the project of having classes from Jewish and Arab schools meet through circus to foster dialogue," says Hendelman, director of the Israel Circus School and the Association for the Development of Circus Arts in the Galilee town of Kfar Yehoshua. Three years ago, she began working with multicultural youth at risk, too. "We try whenever possible to mix groups of different cultures," she says.

"My main interest is how we employ the arts in social healing. I don't mean art or drama therapy, but art in its fullest form. I think art has the biggest potential for healing that I know of, and the Israel Circus School is a fully artistic and professional school for adults, youth and children. They learn to be creative, responsible, artistic members of the community, but as part of their training we involve all our students in our various multicultural projects."

An Israel Circus School aerial performance

Under the banner "Circus Arts for Social Change," she is now creating a local and international network of circus artists and supporters interested in building a new socio-political agenda "to find innovative and creative means of resolving conflict situations and setting up new social priorities towards creating a society that cares, honors and respects all its members."

Hendelman launched this initiative with an international multicultural youth circus convention, July 19-21 in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Acco (Acre). The event is called "Climbing Walls," at the suggestion of her co-founder and artistic director, David Berry.

"The bottom line of it all is conflict resolution. No matter where we are, there is always the potential for conflict within ourselves and with our neighbors, and these conflicts are the walls which then spread to cultures and nations," says Hendelman. "We need to start climbing these walls. This project is only a pebble, a first step to what I envisage as building a new socio-political agenda in all aspects of life."

Bias and fear give way to friendships

While learning skills including acrobatics, juggling, unicycle-riding, clowning, dance, drumming and improvisation, Israel Circus School students are also learning to rely upon each other and communicate in word and action.
Hendelman has said that this setting is an excellent medium for breaching emotional barriers. "It forces you into a situation of working with one another. You need to touch, and you need to support one another."

Initially arriving with feelings of bias and fear, Arab and Israeli kids - accompanied by their teachers - very quickly relax as they work together to master challenging physical feats. By the end of the day, Hendelman sees many of the students exchanging email addresses and telephone numbers.

Endowed by British benefactors, the Israel Circus School depends on grants. It works closely with other Israeli circus schools and organizations, such as the Galilee Circus sponsored by the Galilee Foundation for Value Education; Circus Maghar in the Druze town of Maghar; and Efshar Acheret (Another Possibility).

Groups of advanced students have performed at Israeli festivals such as the Acre alternative theater festival and the Jacob's Ladder Folk Festival, as well as in Germany and Turkish and Greek Cyprus with a grant from the European Union to create a circus program for Jewish, Muslim and Christian children. In February, the Israel Circus School was invited to entertain the crowd at the Israeli professional basketball finals in the Nokia Stadium in Tel Aviv.

From street theater to conflict resolution

The origins of the school go back to 1992, when Berry, an Australian immigrant, created a street theater group for youth in Kiryat Tivon. After several successful performances in major Israeli festivals, the group started evolving toward circus arts and invited a master acrobat from the Moscow State Circus to come aboard as one of five teachers to open a circus school in 2000.

Two years later, Berry and Hendelman created the Association for the Development of Circus Arts in Israel, a non-profit, charitable organization, with the goal of turning the Israel Circus School into a professionally run training center. They moved to a renovated village hall in Kefar Yehoshua in 2002 and won the ongoing patronage of Arthur Vercoe Pedlar, former World Clown Association president.

For the past six years, the association has participated, along with Circus Maghar and a circus school in Nablus, in summer circus workshops held at Berlin's Circus Shake. "It's sad that we need to travel all the way to Berlin to work with our colleagues in Nablus," Hendelman comments.

Two years ago, the three of them became inaugural members of a new European-Middle East federation of youth circuses, which will have its second annual convention and show, Comedy Shake, later this summer. Participants are also coming from Finland, England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Morocco and Egypt.

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