Let me be your guide: contemporary performing arts for young audiences in Flanders

Flanders Arts Institute invited cultural journalist Evelyne Coussens to share some ideas on contemporary performing arts for young audiences in Flanders today. Read about Evelyne’s observations in her article below.

Youth theatre is dead – long live youth theatre!

Notes on performing arts for young audiences in Flanders

It could be a cause for concern, but in fact the death of youth theatre is good news – on condition of course that we are talking about the term, the definition and perception of a specific practice within the performing arts which, fortunately, is still alive and kicking: the creation of new stage shows for young audiences. The limitations which constricted this practice historically – age limits, moral and disciplinary boundaries – have been fought successfully in Flanders since the 1970s already and certainly since the mid 1990s by different generations of (performing) artists with a clear objective in mind: the emancipation of this creation for young audiences and its development into a practice that is equal in all respects to stage shows for adult audiences. But with this assertion we have already put our foot in it, since even this distinction – between ‘young’ and ‘adult’ audiences – is regularly challenged, most recently (and literally) by KID (2017) by the Flemish-Dutch collective BOG, which performed one and the same show for two age groups (8+ and 18+). Flemish theatres, companies and makers recommend at most a lower limit for their shows, very rarely (baby theatre is an exception) an upper limit, or else it is the jocular van 7 tot 77 (literally, from age 7 to age 77). The fact that children are first and foremost fully fledged people – with a corresponding emotional and mental world – is the guiding principle for young audiences in the Flemish performing arts.

In that sense it is important, when looking into the developments of the Flemish practice of performing arts for young audiences, to point out the indissoluble connection with the performing arts sector as a whole: these are not ‘different’ sectors, they are both subject to the same impulses that find their source in public policy and in society. Their history and evolution largely unfold in parallel, especially since, in line with what has just been said, there are fewer and fewer ‘exclusive’ makers for young audiences: many performing artists in Flanders see the act of creating for young audiences at some point in their careers as an opportunity or as a challenge, without tying themselves down to that. They create their show out of the same sense of necessity and out of the same artistic idiom which they normally use – the only difference is their awareness of the age group with which they are engaging in dialogue in their show. When it comes to dealing with some current trends, youth theatre is in fact in the vanguard: an engagement with the changing demography of Flemish cities, which means that more and more young children do not master Dutch as their mother tongue, was first perceptible in creations for young audiences. Other more intrinsic-formal developments, such as the use of greater abstraction, make their way into shows for young audiences more slowly.

horses, kabinet k (c) Kurt Van der Elst

When it comes to dealing with some current trends, youth theatre is in fact in the vanguard: an engagement with the changing demography of Flemish cities, which means that more and more young children do not master Dutch as their mother tongue, was first perceptible in creations for young audiences.

Whoever observes the different trends from a distance could distinguish a phenomenon that occurs in creations for young audiences as well as in the entire performing arts sector and in the arts field as a whole: the longing for greater involvement (of performers, the audience and society) and greater inclusivity (of different age groups, target groups, audiences). This is a political issue: since the turn of the millennium and the rise of European populism, the arts in Flanders too have been jolted out of their lethargy and have come down from their alleged ‘ivory tower’. But it would be naive to think that the longing for involvement and inclusivity is not in part also commercially motivated by questions of customer relations and market growth. In Flanders, luckily, it seems to be the social motivation that is prevailing: so far the longing to ‘broaden’ and ‘deepen’ both the artistic practice and the connection with the audience has not led to bite-size entertainment, but to out-of-the-box thinking in the set up, presentation and framing of new shows. For instance, the newly formed company Ballet Dommage went door to door through neighbourhoods of Ghent with VOLK – Fragment 1 (2013), a contemporary pageant. The short performance which the surprised residents got to see when they opened their doors was a far cry from cheap entertainment.

Arts sectors evolve gradually. Many of the trends that are evoked below are therefore not ‘new’, but were planted several years ago already and have now matured. The best ‘sample’ is obtained through the season programmes of the Flemish theatre production companies that develop stage creations for young audiences, because they are not being led (or not exclusively) by a strong artistic figure with a specific story, but rely on a wide range of makers and artistic media. Thanks to their close connection with the education sector (through shows in schools), it is also in the production companies that artistic developments which are the result of specific social changes appear most clearly. The three large ‘city theatres’ that work for young audiences are BRONKS (Brussels), KOPERGIETERY (Ghent) and hetpaleis (Antwerp). In Ghent there is also the production company 4Hoog (which specialises in toddler theatre) and in Antwerp there is the multidisciplinary arts centre Villanella. The production company fABULEUS in Leuven is a strong player for setting up theatre and dance shows for young audiences, while object theatre DE MAAN in Mechelen has recently reinvented itself as an ‘image foundry’. A quick browse through their season programmes yields some findings.

The hybridisation process continues

That Flemish theatre has gladly let itself be ‘contaminated’ since the 1980s by dance, visual art, music and more is well known, and that hybridisation process of traditional ‘drama’ that led to a multidisciplinary practice continues to this day. Perhaps the oldest exponents of this process are the puppet and object theatres such as Theater FroeFroeDE MAAN and Ultima Thule, which rely on a combination of puppets, objects and often also video or scenography to tell their stories to young and adult audiences. A relative newcomer is Tuning People, which is also the most radical when it comes to abstracting the ‘story’ and creating a visual landscape of objects and sounds. The seven ladies of Compagnie Barbarie have managed to build up, in the space of a couple of years, an entirely personal and irresistible world, somewhere between Jacques Tati and David Lynch. Another relatively recent addition is Zonzo Compagnie, which combines music-theatre involving ‘difficult’ composers (John Cage, Luciano Berio) with a multimedia approach and which has scored well internationally. Every year Zonzo Compagnie organises the Big Bang festival, which now takes place in no fewer than ten European cities and is praised as an example of challenging music-theatre for young children. These hybrid shows generally still retain the linguistic component, but it is no longer the only or the most significant signifier.

It is important to emphasise once more that the development of these hybrid artistic idioms is part of the artists’ autonomous research. In other words, it is the artistic research that lies at the source of the shows for young audiences, not a specific didactic assignment. This may be the main reason why Flemish performing arts for young audiences are often seen abroad as daring and adventurous.

New or dressed up as something new: dance and circus for young audiences

While visual art and music have made their way into stage shows for young audiences for some time – if only through the illustrative use of ‘decor’ or ‘soundtrack’ – dance for young spectators, however, seemed to be a bridge too far until a decade ago. Over the past decade, however, resistance to this medium seems to have faded away: pioneers such as kabinet k (Joke Laureyns and Kwint Manshoven) and fABULEUS have placed dance for young audiences resolutely on the map as a more intuitive but certainly not ‘more difficult’ form of communication with an audience. In 2011 Joke Laureyns even delivered a first ‘State of Youth Dance’. And in the slipstream of the Flemish circus’s wrestling with artistic maturity – in an attempt to go beyond the performance of ‘tricks’, which long defined the nomadic circus – there are now the first full-fledged artistic circus shows for young audiences: for instance, family trees (2017) by Janni van Goor.

It is the artistic research that lies at the source of the shows for young audiences, not a specific didactic assignment. This may be the main reason why Flemish performing arts for young audiences are often seen abroad as daring and adventurous.

It is a striking reversal of history, because the artistic circus first had to be stripped of its label ‘for children only’ (a struggle that object theatre is also still fighting, for that matter) before it could return to that audience now in an interesting manner. The rise of both disciplines is not only to do with their intrinsic artistic development. As mentioned, the Flemish performing arts as a whole are seeking ways to meet the growing multilingualism of (young) audiences – dance, like circus, makes use in that respect of a universally accessible code, and quite some production companies have consciously entered into partnerships in recent years with choreographers or circus performers.

Beyond the walls of the theatre

Site-specific theatre is not a new phenomenon: there have always been performing artists who have been inspired by the specificity of a particular context to create their work. That was and still is the case for Studio ORKA, at present perhaps the most popular theatre company of Flanders and the most prominent example of site-specific theatre. (The fact that ORKA consists, not of two theatre-makers, but of two designers says a lot about the hybridisation process mentioned above.) Philippe Van de Velde and Martine Decroos let their shows grow out of carefully chosen locations and wild scenographic ideas: a living house, a pond with an underwater world, a shed on the bank of a river. In ORKA’s shows, the context determines the dramatic development and that yields visually surprising gems. However, the surge in site-specific shows in recent years is also motivated by both artistic necessity and social concern. As outlined in the introduction, over the past 15 years there has been greater awareness of the possible ‘thresholds’ blocking access to the theatre venue. New strategies have been developed in relation to young people in particular to bring the theatre closer to its (potential) audience. The Antwerp-based company Laika, for instance, not only presents shows both in the theatre and at site-specific locations, but also creates theatre that is even performed in class (Potato Soup, 2017). In recent years Theater FroeFroe developed mobile one-man shows (Nino, Carpetland) which can be shown on every street corner. Working with artist Judith Nab, hetpaleis converted a bus into a mobile theatre which toured neighbourhoods of Antwerp to present The Great Voyage (2007). Needless to say, the need to reach new, different or larger audiences has an influence on the form that a show assumes.

Over the past 15 years there has been greater awareness of the possible ‘thresholds’ blocking access to the theatre venue. New strategies have been developed in relation to young people to bring the theatre closer to its (potential) audience.

Children and youths as co-creators

It seems like the ultimate dream of inclusivity: the fusion of performers and audience, the abolition of the distinction between makers and spectators, the ideal final piece also in the emancipatory process through which the child or youth has evolved from passive recipient to active co-creator. It would be a nice interpretation of the observation that more and more children and youths themselves are taking to the stage, but also something of an embellishment of the situation. It is certainly so that performing artists have in recent years discovered children as fully fledged performers who contribute a number of specific denotations. In dance especially, the focus on authenticity is responsible for this interest: instead of virtuosity and technical ability, artlessness, imperfection and fallibility are seen as the key to artistic expressiveness. Flemish performing artists who engage in an artistic process with children or youths do so with sensitivity and respect for their performers and see their contribution as essential to the development of the show – but the adult ultimately retains the authority in terms of the process and the decision-making.

That this power imbalance continues to exist has led abroad especially to what are at times shocked reactions in which the ‘use’ of children is condemned: this was the case for, among others, Pubers bestaan niet (2008) and Teenage Riot (2010) by Ontroerend Goed and KOPERGIETERY. A second sensitive point in neighbouring countries is the association with ‘sexuality’ or ‘physicality’ which was the explicit subject of The Hamilton Complex (2015) by Lies Pauwels and hetpaleis, for instance, and which is interpreted as such in many dance shows, as in raw (2014) by kabinet k.

While the taboos surrounding themes such as death and sexuality, the supposedly ‘difficult’ themes for children, have largely been broken since the 1990s, a young generation of performing artists is today setting to work with innovative forms mainly, since those prickly subjects were often addressed in the past through classic, linear stories.

Although performing artists seek to work on stage with children or youths for artistic reasons – they need the young performers to convey what they want to convey – ‘representativity’ in the context of the quest for involvement is a nice added bonus. It is obvious that energetic, explosive youth shows such as Declaration of Love (2015) by fABULEUS can set a room full of teenagers on fire. A sense of identification with peers on stage creates an immediate connection.

A careful diversification of the repertoire

The Flemish performing arts, including those aimed at young audiences, constitute an export product that is relatively in demand, even though the cuts in subsidies over the past few years have somewhat curtailed international ambitions. Conversely, the inflow of international influences on Flemish youth theatre has been rather limited. Some festivals have made a point of this: a pioneer such as the Krokusfestival in Hasselt has been looking over borders for more than 20 years; the EXPORT/IMPORT festival of BRONKS focuses on multilingualism; and with the brand-new festival Mind the World, hetpaleis wants to bring stage shows for young audiences from around the world to Antwerp. But what is slowly emerging is an evolution towards more diversity, in the sense that artists set to work with themes or theatre and music forms that do not belong to their ‘own’, Western repertoire, but tie in with the cultural background of a varied audience. The music-theatre show UMM (2014) by De Kolonie MT, for instance, takes the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum as its starting point, while Dahlia Pessemiers-Benamar’s MozaIK (2015) is a show about a child that is born in Belgium as the daughter of a Moroccan father and a Flemish mother and DE MAAN’s Futur Simple (2017) drew piercing portraits of a number of Congolese youths. Theatre-maker Inne Goris works in a primary school in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek with children of very diverse origins. These are exceptions, however, and there is work to be done in terms of the broadening and internationalisation of the repertoire, if the new Flemish stage shows for young audiences – despite all their qualities – do not want to lapse into white complacency.

In search of the unserved audience

Despite the artistic emancipation of the shows, creation for young audiences still faces specific productional and practical demands, among which: the younger the spectators, the greater the importance of the suitable context. For instance, baby theatre (3-12 months) is today the de facto monopoly of a single company: the Antwerp-based music-theatre company Theater De Spiegel under the direction of Karel Van Ransbeeck, which has excelled at this for 20 years already. De Spiegel makes multidisciplinary shows and installations in which babies are acquainted, in a safe environment and alongside adults, with image, sound, colour and form. Companies such as PantaloneSprookjes en zo and Nat Gras also work with smaller children, but rarely target babies. In recent years, however, baby shows and happenings have occurred surprisingly often at festivals and events: there seems to be a clear demand for such productions, not least under the influence of the commercial sector, which now sees even the youngest of the young as consumers. The expertise required for this type of theatre is so specific, however, that these one-shot events rarely achieve the artistic quality or necessary contextualisation necessary for tiny tots.

The somewhat older target groups have by now also been discovered as a fully fledged audience segment: while the Ghent-based 4Hoog was a pioneer and for a long time the only company with expertise for toddlers, more recent companies such as Tuning People now regularly create for that age group. A final age category (perhaps the most difficult of all) which has come into the spotlight in recent years again are teens: that busy and fickle band of adolescents with whom KOPERGIETERY, the Antwerp-based Villanella and the Leuven-based fABULEUS mainly set to work. But hetpaleis also seems to have (re)discovered young people in recent years. For instance, director Simon De Vos made the Shakespeare adaptations Romea en Julia (2013) and King Lear (2017) for an audience of teenagers, and Koen De Graeve even tried his hand at a Wagner adaptation with Zwanemans (2016). And so it appears today that, starting from a desire not to ‘ignore’ a single young spectator, the entire age spectrum from age 0 to 18 seems to have been taken care of.

Daring under pressure

One last trend seems to consist of two contrary movements. In Flanders the history of the performing arts has a long tradition of formal innovation – undoubtedly made possible thanks to a system of subsidies that also supports difficult, less readable work. While the taboos surrounding themes such as death and sexuality, the supposedly ‘difficult’ themes for children, have largely been broken since the 1990s, a young generation of performing artists is today setting to work with innovative forms mainly, since those prickly subjects were often addressed in the past through classic, linear stories. Young companies such as Het KwartierBallet Dommage and De Nwe Tijd no longer see abstraction, absurdity or silence as taboos. Take, for instance, Klutserkrakkekilililokatastrof (2016) by Ballet Dommage: a Fellini-like show in different languages and with an associative form. With the De schaar van de tsaar (2017), the young director Freek Mariën created a universe full of incomprehensible rituals. More than ever, performing artists dare to bet on abstraction, beyond the need for a literal ‘reading’.

Artistic trends are not independent of the context in which they emerge, however, and in Flanders too – as in neighbouring countries – non-utilitarian creation, i.e. creation without any direct pedagogical, financial or social-moral objective, is under pressure. A formally and thematically challenging show such as Niets (2017) by De Nwe Tijd and hetpaleis only sold with difficulty. And even with regard to themes that have long been ‘liberated’, such as sex, the old taboos seem to be sneaking back in: Football on stilettos (2015) by KOPERGIETERY, in which choreographer Randi De Vlieghe evoked the sensitive theme of gender in an explosive manner, triggered angry and shocked reactions from adults, mainly teachers. The ‘freedom’ that new creation for young audiences has won over the past decades does not seem to have been achieved permanently, but absorbed in a pendulum movement that currently follows a form of social restoration that is tangible in Flanders. The penchant of both schools – the main consumers of performing arts for young audiences – and cultural-centre programmers for something safe, familiar, accessible and entertaining weighs on both production companies and ensembles. It is a question of not giving in. Because the old youth theatre as a distinct category, with its educational, entertaining and moral-pedagogical objectives is dead. Long live ‘adult’ performing arts for young audiences!