Social Circus

Social Circus and the Art of Collectivity

Conducted over five years across both Quebec and Ecuador, this research examined how the growing movement of “social circus” (the use of interdisciplinary circus arts with youth or others living in precarious situations and/or whose life trajectories have been marginalized) is altering processes of social integration, social inclusion and social engagement. This project examined pedagogical and structural processes of various programs as well as their social impacts. It explored the complementarity, as well as the acute tensions between interventions created with and by marginalized communities functioning with support from corporate funds, governmental institutions and NGOs, and those explicitly challenging governmental policies.

Beginning with an intensive six-month study as an embedded researcher with Montreal’s Cirque Hors Piste Program the research drew on critical and performance ethnography including techniques of performative inquiry; analysis of program materials and teaching methods; semi-structured interviews with trainers, instructors, participants and community leaders; and analysis of social and cultural implications of the social circus performance creation processes analyzed in light of changing aesthetics of circus and the ethics they embed.

The project further looked at how different program structures and cultural climates affect participant experience, comparing experiences in Quebec to those in Ecuador where, in 2011, the Government of Ecuador launched the largest state-funded social circus program in Latin America (and one of the largest worldwide), as part of what the government called it’s “Citizens Revolution”. Unlike the small-scale individual programs common in Quebec, funded largely as Cirque du Monde sites by Cirque du Soleil, Ecuador’s program was initially intended as an implementation of the much politicized concept of Buen Vivir, a Spanish language adaptation of the Kichwan Sumak Kawsay, that has been translated into English as “good living”. At its core, like so many such programs around the world, is a striving toward creative collectivity in the service of positive transformation. In situating and analyzing these various programs the research asks: Are these projects embodying and promoting the values they set out to promote? And what are the social and cultural impacts of what is being set in motion though these interventions?

The research aimed to contribute both to scholarship and practice. As such, a series of workshops and presentations were offered to practitioners and scholars in Montreal, in Ecuador, and at national and international conferences across Canada and around the world. Reports on survey results (for example, see Studying Social Circus as well as this report) are now available and several academic articles have been published including on the politics of cultural transformation in social circus (TDR: The Drama Review. 60(4): 5-67, 2016. web link), and on social circus and community development (in Community Development Journal. May 2016 web link),with several others forthcoming in a variety of journals. A short  (35 minute) documentary detailing and analyzing impacts, pedagogical models and partnership strategies utilized in social circus in Quebec, featuring participants, instructors, community workers and funders is scheduled for release in fall of 2017. Finally a book, tentatively entitled The Art of Collectivity: Social transformation, Buen Vivir and Ecuador’s social circus in global context, will be published by McGill-Queens University Press, and another Circo Social Ecuador: Políticas sociales, artes para el cambio social y salud colectiva will be published by Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, in Ecuador. The two books both analyze how a sense of ‘togetherness’ is created, and the social policies, pedagogy and cultural politics in this unprecedented national program, walking a fine balance of goals at the micro and macro levels, navigating a range of complex local, national and international supports and pressures.

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