Roll up! Circus tricks can break down pupils' language inhibitions, reveals Bernard Adams
Since Wednesday this week two groups of pupils, one English, the other French, have been rehearsing tricks together at a circus school in the French city of Amiens. They have had to communicate effectively, otherwise somebody might get hurt when they perform together this weekend at the biggest open-air festival in Picardy.
The 13 English pupils, aged 11 to 15, all come from schools in the Brighton area. They belong to Short Circuit, a group which learns circus and performing skills as an after-school activity.
Seventeen students from the Amiens circus school performed at the Brighton Festival last month in the first part of the exchange. The partnership was brokered by Zap Productions, a national arts development agency, which helped the two groups apply for funding from INTERREG, an EU initiative which supports cultural exchanges.
The Brighton trainees are from a wide variety of social backgrounds and schools: behind the facade of the lively, raffish resort is one of the highest concentrations of youth unemployment, social deprivation and homelessness in the UK.
At the regular Tuesday classes in Brighton, held in the exciting space of the Pavilion theatre, Richard "Tat" Thomson is in charge. He is tall and lively, a professional circus performer - and a maths teacher on supply, when the financial need arises. His female assistant, Nicky Lucas, also tutors the children.
Tat believes that learning the skills needed to perform tricks increases self-esteem and confidence - useful for those whose lack of it may put them at risk from bullies, or lead them into anti-social behaviour. The Department for Education and Employment evidently thinks so too - and has funded workshops which Tat gives at local schools to recruit likely candidates for his classes.
Tat Thomson's great ambition is to start a full-scale circus school in Brighton like the ones some French cities have. But the skills his 23 pupils have already learned in weekly two-hour sessions are remarkable. (There is also a smaller, primary group which meets earlier on the same day.) During the sessions the pupils mostly teach themselves, or each other. Tat plays an overseeing role: helping a boy with trouble over the diabolo; or encouraging the would-be unicyclist learning on what looks like a tiny, unstable pedal-car; or just by telling his students about where they can go and see and learn from other performers. Thirteen-year-old Sam Stephenson, from Hove, is still struggling to learn the unicycle, but he has now performed "staffing" (throwing a stick high in the air and catching it with a flourish), and even fire-staffing (the stick is flaming at both ends).
"We choose what we want to learn - there are no rules in the class. I've found that I can learn new tricks and that I enjoy performing," Sam sys. If that sounds a bit anarchic, you should see and hear Tat's class. It would be an exaggeration to says you can hear a pin drop, but if a diabolo reel falls the sound comes as quite a shock.
As pupil Chrissie Byard walks backwards along a tightrope two feet above the ground, Tat talks about what the Amiens connection has done for his students. "When the French came, the English pupils mobbed the tutors, even the ones who couldn't speak English. It's terrible how embarrassed we are about speaking foreign languages, but they wanted to learn from the visitors, so they made an effort."
In Amiens, the Short Circuit team will be there with other Brighton artists and a host of performers from all over Europe. Pippa Smith, the director of the education unit of the Brighton Dome, which helped Short Circuit on to its feet, is going too. They will all be staying at the cultural centre in Amiens, which, she says, "is bound to be enlightening".
She has high hopes for the trip. "I don't believe in instant bonding. But we are counting on our performers to behave like professionals and to be able to work effectively with young people from a different culture. If Pascal Dupont and John Smith can collaborate across a language barrier, perhaps our children can begin to feel a bit more part of Europe. But this trip is not about ending up with a pen-pal - it's about professional communication, even without adequate language."
Because the visit is happening in term time, the schools had to give permission for pupils to attend, and language learning is seen as a key aspect of the trip. Pippa Smith says: "We are insisting on a daily journal - illustrated with photos - and there will be structured French classes every night. We'll try to extend the trip culturally and go to Amiens cathedral, but we want to maintain the focus. Tourism and sight-seeing are very much in second place." Pupils will take their diaries back to school, and language skills acquired will be reinforced through follow-up work.
One of Short Circuit's strongest supporters is the director of education for Brighton and Hove, David Harker. "Some of the young people come from estates where people don't go much further than Brighton and have some stereotypical attitudes which we'd like to break down," he says. "The interchange is going to be tremendously valuable. If they can develop more language and cultural awareness that's all to the good. I would love to build the arrangement into a full language programme."
When the Amiens pupils were in Brighton, Mr Harker was greatly impressed with their dazzling acrobatic skills: "They have many more years of experience than our groups: circus is taken much more seriously as an art-form in France."
It seems a fair bet that by Sunday evening in Amiens the Brighton learning curve will be so steep it might even reach as high as a trapeze - un trapeze.