For the people of Fes, strolling through the pleasant gardens of Jardin Jnin Sbil is a popular sunset pastime. And during this week of the Sacred Music Festival, more ambitious movements are afoot, as young performers from the Shemsy, the National Circus School of Morocco, roll and tumble, climb and clown through the park, training and performing against the shifting light. Gabe Monson reports
Based in Sale, near Rabat, Shemsy developed from a social project founded in 1999 when AMESIP, the Association Marocaine d’aide aux Enfants en Situation Precaire, added circus to the confidence-building skills such as horsemanship and photography they already offered disadvantaged youth.
In 2009, a National Circus School was founded to provide a pathway to professional circus for talented youth from any background. Shemsi means ‘my sun’- perhaps in homage to the French Canadian supergroup Cirque du Soleil who are known globally for both their high-end extravaganzas and their involvement in social circus training.
Students who pass Shemsy’s entry audition receive free training and accommodation, as well as being paid for their participation in shows during the years they work towards their qualification in Circus Arts.
Becoming a professional circus artist involves not only physical training, and learning to create shows - but also pleasing the public.
When asked how the Moroccan public connect with contemporary concepts of circus, the School’s Director General Alain Laeron (pictured above) laughed and said, ‘There is a strong tradition of gymnastics in Morocco. However it’s been associated with military activities- making human pyramids and leaping to scale walls. People often ask when we are going over the wall.’
‘However this is starting to change, and we are now being approached as a creative resource for festivals and events. At the Karacena festival in Sale the students created spectacles exploring tragic love in Isli d Tislit, and the pirate heritage of the town in Djinn Tonic.’
The structure of the Fes show develops throughout the performance week as the students get creative with their environment, with the assistance of their gymnastics coaches and a French choreographer.
As Alain Laeron explained, ‘The show began as a travelling spectacle, moving parkour-style around the parklands. Now, mid-season, the show has adapted to a circle stage format. They are proud and happy to come out of the school, where they train so hard indoors, to connect with audiences in this fresh environment.’
‘They are learning to locate the content of a show into specific spaces. For instance, here they explore the notion of verticality in response to the trees and walls around us. They are also challenged by working with different live musicians each night – from Egypt, Bhutan and the Basque region.’
The adaptability of the show is partly due to skilful use of a set of large, hollow wood blocks which are constantly moved and morphed by the performers to become walls, furniture, picture frames and magic spaces where performers appear and disappear.
As well as the ‘in process’ low-budget set, other aspects of the show reveal the group’s origins in social circus. Brief displays by solo performers emerge from ensemble work, in a context of mutual support and trust. Plain costumes allow performers to blend into the audience between acts.
However circus performers are not supposed to be too ‘normal’. Part of the appeal of all circus depends on the presence- or illusion of- risk; of pushing beyond the norm.
Without high rigging or animals , these performers depend on each other for that extra ‘edge’; shifting the bases, catching, carrying, throwing and challenging one another. For instance, the featured juggler, having proved his essential skills in 5 ball, bounce and pass juggling, was borne on his back out of the space, still juggling.
During the pole and aerials segments, the pyramid apparatus was sometimes held in place by the performers, sometimes tilted, sometimes collapsed and danced like a maypole, reassembled just in time for the next display.
Youness, performing on the straps, was ‘recaptured’ by fellow performers on his attempted exit and ritually placed back on the apparatus to extend his solo display of that excruciating art.
It’s common for social circus ensembles, working without elaborate sets or backdrops, to invent ongoing ‘business’ to fill and frame space and time. However, clowning, promenading, dancing and moving props throughout a show can be distracting, pulling focus from the audience-pleasing ‘ hard tricks’.
This show struck a nice balance between the ‘human body as circus animal’ and ‘body as decorative backdrop’ approaches. Some of the dancing was terrific, the boys strutting their stuff on top of the blocks, parkouring around them or incorporating their moves into the necessary business of setting up the next scene.
Music for the show was just right. A Moroccan urban streetscape of car horns and oud backed the opening gymnastics, electronic music provided rhythm to counterpoint the juggling, and a terrific vaudeville style number livened up the acrobatic/breakdance finale.
The show was never dull, and afterwards, the elated performers were delighted to be interviewed, collaborating to find English language responses to the question what do you get out of circus?
‘We are creating art, expressing ourselves, beyond the difficulties of living in capitalist society’ said one
‘It is about love’ said another, ‘we love circus and we can express that joy to other people’
‘And we are more than community, we have become brothers’ said performer Moustafa El Fakkak.
What about sisters?
‘Of course! There are four women training in the school.’
As if on cue, student Fatima Zahra Fanane arrived for the celebratory photo shoot that was going on around us.
So what of the future for these enthusiastic young performers, now in their second year of training?
As Alain explained, ‘The school will extend training beyond the minimum three years for a Diploma in Circus Performance, if we believe the person needs more time to be ready for the highly competitive global world of circus. The Circus School is so new that only two students have yet graduated. But those graduates are now working professionally in Europe.’
These students are inspiring. As well as the arduous training and intelligence that they commit to their art, these are learning to take a little, in terms of resources, and give a lot. Their work is original, relevant... and crowd pleasing.
They are worth supporting, and following into their future, which we hope will be as bright as their name.
Catch them on Friday 14 and Saturday 15 June at Jardin Jnin Sibl, near the Bab Bouloud.
Text and photographs: Gabe Monson
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