Jean-Marie Akkerman describes Cirque Nova's latest training programme
Stellar Is the name of the project, and stars of the disabled circus/street arts is what I dream of creating, but things don't come easy in the funded arts. This dream was born as a set of coincidences which let me to want to teach disabled volunteers to do the kind of work that I have thrived on over 25 years. it began when I was invited to the official opening of the Cultural Olympiad at the South Bank Centre in London on 21 June 2007. For some reason I received an invitation to attend this event amongst the biggest of the big directors of Arts Organisations of the Capital. I wondered why I was there, why had I been invited? Nevertheless it got my creative juices flowing.
The next day I saw a show at the Greenwich Festival performed by able-bodied artists, which made me think that those performers weren't doing anything much. I was sure I could get disabled people to do better than that... After all, I had already trained three disabled people in my last creation, so why not train five people this time?
Based on what I had seen I would create a show that would use the same techniques of Aerial skills with five people, but I wanted to try to improve on it, give it my own style, to convert it onto something appealing in its own right, I decided that it would need to include floor circus skills (juggling, stilt walking, etc.). These are visual, so in combination with aerial work, it would make the performance richer and appealing to festivals and events.
This meant ten people to learn circus skills, five for aerial skills and five for floor skills! That meant more costs and difficulties, but I felt up for it.
To teach ten disabled people to become part of our group of an "inclusive" performance, at the same time to give them the skills that they would be able to use in their own right, to create their own work, to empower them to be part of a world that people don't associate disable people with, to me seemed like a great idea that could only be welcomed and supported, or so I though...
The Cultural Olympiad for 2012 was still bugging me, I though that actually, as far as I knew, never had I seen an opening or closing ceremony of the Paralympics in which I saw disabled Aerialists and stilt-walkers be part of the show, so that was it, if I could train a first group of people to create our own show, then show case it to the Cultural Olympiad to prove that we could do it, this could then provide with the footprint to train 10 people a year to offer at least 40 performers ready to be employed by the Cultural Olympiad. That would be an achievement that I supposed would appeal to the volunteers as much as the directors of the Cultural Olympiad.
I spoke to one of these directors at a youth circus conference at the Camden Round House, the man showed a lot of interest in the work and offered to help if I managed to find the volunteers.
So there I was ready to take on this challenge. I had been away from the performing arts due to ill health for a couple of years but this gave me the motivation to start again.
I set to ball rolling, putting adds in disability websites and contacting disability arts organisations, begun the bureaucratic process of starting up a Non-For Profit Company and developing the idea, looking for collaboration with old colleagues of the circus world, other arts organisation that work with segregated groups of society, filling fundraising forms (not my strong point to start with as am not native English, I'm half French/half Dutch, my English fundraising language skills aren't up to scratch!), creating a website, TV productions companies approached us wanting to make a documentary on the project, I found people to work with me and support me.
My confidence grew, I felt good about myself again after 3 years of ill health, and sadness due to the separation from my performing/creative world, it felt as the project was going to finally allow me to bloom.
I started the selection process, to my surprise many disabled female volunteers offered to take part, whilst I though the testosterone filled males would want to be hanging from cranes and working their muscles up to learn to do aerial tricks, this was a surprise! Regrettably some people would not be able to do the training due to technical matters or health issues; but soon enough I had completed a group of people willing and able to take the challenge.
As you may know all creative people tend to be passionate and sensitive, for myself I can get high on a heavy work load, I thrive on creating, sharing and being out there, but when it fails, I easily fall rock bottom in despair, some people call it self pity, I call it self-doubt, so when by December the Fund raising failed because the project seemed too ambitious, too expensive, too demanding; I felt that I had failed the volunteers and myself, I felt ready to abandon, as somehow it felt that all those people who were previously so supportive and positive, willing to collaborate were all backing off and distancing themselves from me.
Somehow a core group of people, my co-directors, the volunteers and a few fund giving organisations such as the organiser of the Lee Valley Festival for the North London Cultural Olympiad and Colin Hambrook gave me positive feedback and encouragement, which caused me to bounce back in place, so I apologised to all concerned, started work again and now we are 2 weeks away from starting the training.
Some of the volunteers have had to pull out, not all the funding is in place, my self-doubt still keeps on showing up, struggle is constant, but I do believe that this project will enhance the lives of the people taking part, the audiences that will see the show and who knows, maybe even the 2012 Cultural Olympiad people may accept us and take us on board.
So for the next 6 months I will be updating this blog, telling you about the goings on, the struggles and the joys, the fears and the accomplishments, I will hope to get feedback from you the readers, so that I may be able to grow, better and change the perceptions of this work, that you will come to see our work and support us morally. If you out there want to learn some circus skills, please do get in touch, as we still (yet again) need more volunteers to learn and experience this project with us.