How Coexistence works under the Big Top

Article by Imtiyaz Delawala

The Israel Circus School uses juggling, acrobatics and theater to bring Muslim, Druze, Christian and Jewish children together.

At the Israel Circus School 's training center in Kfar Yehoshua balls, clubs and rings fly through the air as children practice their juggling, while others totter about on stilts and unicycles, or work on acrobatics and movement skills on mats and trampolines.

The center, which opened its doors last fall, is home to the new Children's Circus, a project aimed at bringing circus performance skills to the children of northern Israel - Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze alike.

Australian-born David Berry is the co-founder and artistic director of the Israel Circus School (ICS), which offers full-time training in circus and physical theater performance to young adults, as well as classes for children by age group and level.

The Children's Circus is the latest effort, bringing together 20 Jewish and Arab youngsters ranging from 9 to 15 years of age from the Kiryat Tivon area and surrounding villages to learn "circus arts."

"The idea is to create a joint learning experience between Jewish and Arab children, using the environment of the circus to create an atmosphere where they can learn to be together, to play together, to work together, in a context that's very challenging, but noncompetitive," says Graham Jackson, a native of England and the chairman of the Association for the Development of Circus Arts in Israel, a nonprofit group Berry founded in 2002 to expand circus-related activities in the country.

The Children's Circus participants meet twice a week after school - for training sessions focusing on acrobatics on Tuesdays, and for learning skills such as acting, juggling and walking on stilts on Fridays.

But Berry and Jackson say the goal of the program is clearly not just teaching circus skills, but also fostering relationships between young people of different backgrounds through the neutral backdrop of circus performance.

"It's very important to see kids working together," Berry says. "The Jewish children face their fears about Arabs, and the Arab children see that Jewish people are not monsters."

Jackson adds that the Children's Circus helps foster trust between the groups, and also helps them to gain confidence in their own abilities and the abilities of those around them, as they practice together and perform in front of audiences.

"When you build a human pyramid, you have to learn to rely on the people on your team. Everyone relies on each other," Jackson says. "If they all succeed, they all succeed together. If they fall down, they have to figure out how to get back up together."

"[We are] putting the kids in situations with difficult things to do," Berry adds. "They have to develop a lot of concentration and skill. At first they can't do it, and then they can do it, which helps build their confidence."

International support

Berry - also known as "Dharma the Clown" - moved to Israel in 1989 from Australia, where he had trained and performed as a dancer in the Australian Ballet, and had also worked with children and the disabled. Using his skills in dance and performance, Berry began working with young people in Kiryat Tivon.

Soon, with the help of his wife, he created the MIMOS Street Theater Group for Youth in 1993, in which children aged 7-17 learned skills in acrobatics, dance, stilt-walking and juggling. The group performed throughout Israel, as well as once in Germany in 2000.

Jackson emigrated to Israel from England in 1977, and currently teaches marketing and business management at the Technion - Israel Institute for Technology. He has previously served as a local coordinator for Peace Now as well as a member of its national secretariat, and also served on Kiryat Tivon's local council and headed its cultural committee. He became involved in the circus field through his daughter, who had participated in the MIMOS program.

As the MIMOS group expanded in the late 1990s, it attracted new teachers with extensive experience in circus performance, such as Russian immigrant Roman Linkov, a top acrobat who had performed for years with the Moscow State Circus.

He and Berry decided to branch out to create the ICS in 2000, beginning with training young adults interested in professional circus performance and teaching, while continuing to offer the MIMOS classes for children. The school now has several instructors in various performance areas, and moved last year from Kiryat Tivon to a newly renovated facility in Kfar Yehoshua, now the home of the Israel Circus Center.

The ICS is sponsored by the World Clown Association, which has donated equipment and costumes, and enjoys the active support of its current president, British-born Arthur Pedlar, who visited Israel in 2002 and helped raise funds abroad for the group in order to renovate its new facilities.

Pedlar was named the ICS' honorary president for his efforts and continued support. In addition, the Children's Circus received a grant from the European Union this August to help cover teaching and travel expenses for the year.

"If we didn't have international support, we wouldn't survive," Berry says. "That's why we've stayed afloat."

While the MIMOS program and the training of young adults are the central activities of the ICS, it is hoped that the new Children's Circus will become a focal point for promoting the school's goals in Israel and the region.

Students and teachers at the ICS have already been giving classes on circus skills at the community center in the Christian and Druze village of Mughar in the Galilee, as well as offering various lectures and workshops throughout the country.

After getting under way in August, and concentrating on balancing skills, acrobatics, clowning, juggling and acting, the Children's Circus performed at the Acco Festival in October, drawing large numbers of Jews and Arabs alike.

"When the audiences are mixed - just them being shoulder to shoulder - that's part of the work, too," Berry explains.

The focus of the Children's Circus' activities over the next several months will be rehearsing for a theatrical-circus performance created by Berry and entitled, "The Lion and the Leopard," which the group says is a "symbolic representation of two cultural streams, both fighting for the right to dominate a shared cultural heritage."

The debut is scheduled to take place next April at the first International Circus Convention in the "Free-Dome" circus tent in Binyamina, where they will be joined by Pedlar and members of the World Clown Association.

The group will then travel to Cyprus for a week to perform and run workshops for children in the city of Nicosia.

Berry calls the upcoming performance "apolitical-political," with its humorous approach to issues of coexistence and communication. "I don't have strong political views, since I think there are problems on both sides," he says. "I see kids as kids, not ethnic groups."

The ICS is seeking further sponsorship in order to organize a regional circus convention in the future for performers from various Middle Eastern, North African and European countries. Berry hopes the members of the Children's Circus will be able to stay together for several years, continuing to learn and perform together.

While Jackson notes that there are many efforts to bring Jews and Arabs together in northern Israel, with its many neighboring Jewish and Arab villages, he says the Children's Circus is a unique phenomenon that goes beyond discussions and debates.

"It's all activity in the field. We're not talking about peace, or politics or Geneva agreements," he says. "This is what we mean by coexistence."

To write to the Israel Circus school:
P.O.Box 2101 Kiryat Haroshet,
Tivon 36091 ISRAEL