“We need a brave volunteer,” the acrobat says as he scans the crowd of middle school students in the auditorium. One kid hops up on stage, eager to learn a juggling trick. She quickly learns that her participation will involve balance, focus, and confidence. The acrobat tells her to keep as still as possible and asks, “Do you trust me?” She nods her head tentatively. As soon as the two shake hands, the acrobat’s caring smile puts her at ease. A grin appears on the student's face as she gets ready for a trick called the “two man high.” She climbs on the acrobats hip and then his shoulders as he provides support, holding onto each hand. The students watching are silent in anticipation. Steadily the girl on stage lets go of the acrobats hands, raising her own above her head and the class cheers for their peer.
"Did we know each other before? Did we use our words during the tricks?” the acrobat asked.
“No!” the students answered in unison.
"Did you guys feel something? Is it right to say we were communicating without using language?” he asked.
One student added, “once she trusted you, you could go on to do amazing things.”
Communities Built on Trust
Two acrobats and a journalist flew to Wheeling, Illinois in the first week of May, 2016 to bring to life a documentary about friendship and opportunity in the form of two circus troupes, Circus Without Borders. The film, directed by Susan Gray and produced by filmmaker, Boston Globe feature writer, and Pulitzer Center grantee Linda Matchan, was shown to hundreds of students in the auditoriums of three middle schools in Wheeling School District. In the days that followed, the acrobatic duo engaged with 2000 students across the district, shaping communities of trust in each assembly hour they had with the middle schoolers.
High school students at Northside College Prep High School in Chicago also had the opportunity to engage with with the three Circus Without Borders visitors. Sylwia Balata, a student on the school newspaper, captured the excitement and inspiring moments exchanged between the students and the presenters that day. Read her article, here.
A safe and creative space was made to provide the kids an opportunity to express themselves and teach one another. The acrobatic trick garnered the attention of the students, pausing for a moment the raucous din of middle schoolers shuffling around their seats and vying for attention. However, the gymnastic feat was not about shock and awe, but instead a clear example of the power of trust and concentration.
Circus Without Borders follows Guillaume Saladin and Yamoussa Bangoura, best friends and world-class acrobats from remote corners of the globe who share the same dream: to bring hope and change to their struggling communities through circus. Their dream unfolds in the Canadian Arctic and Guinea, West Africa, where they help Inuit and Guinean youth confronting suicide, poverty and despair achieve unimaginable success. Both troupes use art and the power of dreams to transform themselves and their communities. Seven years in the making, this tale of two circuses—Artcirq and Kalabante—is a culture-crossing performance piece that offers a portal into two remote communities and an inspiring story of resilience and joy.
During each of the school visits, Linda Matchan spoke about how she wanted to share the story of a circus helping heal a community weighed down by depression. She expressed the importance of taking the time to earn the trust of the Artcirq leader Saladin in order to tell the important story through documentary.
The Film is Brought to Life
To the students' surprise, Saladin appeared on stage from behind the screen. The acrobat the students recognized from the film asked them to name contrasting elements they found between the two communities represented in the documentary.
“Different temperatures…houses…religions…ways to get food…languages…lifestyles…modes of transportation…music," they called out.
“There are lots of different things about where we grew up and yet we were able to meet each other and trust each other and become very good friends and travel the world to meet you guys," Saladin said. "We often try to go with what looks like us and think 'if they are different maybe they are not my friends.' If you find a way to express yourself without using your mouth, that is universal language and you can feel close with different people by sharing that and that can change your life.”
Bangoura flipped across the stage behind Saladin, to the delight and surprise of the students. They laughed and leaned forward, wondering what would happen next. Saladin asked the students to name other ways they communicate without using vocal language.
The students called out: "Music, writing, dance, sign language, actions, pictures, Morse code, computer code, expressions on your face, poetry, acrobatics, computer stuff…”
"Express what you are going through in life. We are shy, scared to say what our opinions are, scared of being judged. It’s important to know that we're all going through the same thing, we all have fears in our life. Fear is always there. If someone is bullying you, the worst thing to do is keep your feelings for yourself. We all have friends, friends are there also for when we don't feel so good. They are also going through ups and downs and it makes you feel better. And tomorrow will be another day,” Saladin said.
Face Your Fears
“In the circus, you cannot cheat. With acrobatics, you have no choice but to face your fears,” he said, as Bangoura tumbled behind him. “Yamoussa would not be able to complete those flips if he let his fear lead him."
"Much of my life I was trying the easy way, cheating through life, when I started the circus I learned you cannot cheat with acrobatics. Circus is not about strength. It's about technique. We are dealing with human life all of the time with balance. You need hours and hours of practice doing the same thing. Practice a million times before you can be confident in front of people,” Saladin said.
He continued painting the picture: "I wanted to be a drummer, I was thinking ‘oh, but if I would have learned years ago, I would be good now.' I wanted to do karate. I was looking at people who were already good at karate and thought ‘if I only learned this years ago, I would be good now.’ I was afraid to fail. I was like that all of my teenage years. I never started nothing. When I went to the circus school I changed my mind and realized that all of those people who were very good at their talents had practiced by taking that first step and by making mistakes first. We can't be good right away, we have to try—that's why school is here.
"If I wake up and say, 'I want to do my best today,' instead of thinking 'I have to change the world all at once,’ then my goal is to respect my dreams and goals and to share that. In the long run those are the changes that have been happening. For 18 years we are sharing arts together in the circus. I had no idea that it was going to be that big when I started,” Saladin shared.
Rich and Poor
"What is poor?” Saladin asked.
“You don't have enough money. You can't provide for yourself or people you live with. You can't afford everything you want,” students stood up and said aloud.
One sixth grader said, “You can be poor in resources but rich in courage.” In the back of the auditorium, we could hear teachers sigh with pride.
Saladin’s eyes smiled with the revelation that the students understood the lessons his troupe strives to teach. “You are right. There are different ways to be poor. If you don't love yourself, you are poor too. Us in the Arctic, we have money but inside we are empty. That is why we wanted to use circus to trust each other, be proud of ourselves and give each other strength.
Bangoura added “In Africa, people are strong and there are stars in the eyes and we are rich in soul. We have family, and with the little things we have, we learn to share and be together and trust each other. When you don't have all this technology you have time to talk and learn deeply about people."
When asked what languages he speaks, Bangoura responded, "Sunni, French, English, kora…circus and friendship," pointing at Saladin.
Practice Makes Perfect
Bangoura’s flips captured the attention of students—cheers and laughter echoed through the auditorium.
"To be able to do that safely, you need to take classes with masters. For 12 years I've played this instrument, the kora. For two years, while I was injured and not being able to do what I used to do, but with that time I learned to play the kora. Now I can combine them in performance. We can be inspired by people but you all have your own technique and your own feelings. I put my feeling in my playing. That's why I love circus. You can be big or small, strong or fast, smart or have good balance."
A student asked Bangoura, “Have you or the other performers ever felt mad enough to fight someone?”
Without hesitation, Bangoura replied, “No, I never fight, never be violent,” to which the student emotionally nodded, the power of the statement weighing on him in that moment.
"Whenever you are going through something hard, know that it will pass. When we were starting in our own projects, people didn't believe in us. But we believed in ourselves and 20 years later we are still sharing the circus with you. Giving up is not an option, so believe in yourself. Even doing this for 20 years, we are still nervous before each show. What you need to do is try your best. Accept to make mistakes, and try again, and people are going to be very happy when they see you succeed. It takes time for everything,” he told them.
Bangoura told the students that in Africa, everyone participates, and asked them if they wanted to sing an African song with him.
"The song is about working hard every day. Anything you believe in, keep working on it and one day you will succeed,” he said.
"I feel confidence after seeing your presentation,” a young girl said aloud.
Beaming with a grand smile, Saladin responded, “you have to discover yourself, and show yourself and you will keeping shining. We are all going to inspire each other. It's a mistake to be like somebody else, an empty way of being. Of course it can be scary and sad sometimes but you are unique just like everybody else."
This Is Just the Beginning
Not only were students moved by meeting Matchan and Saladin and Bangoura, but teachers in the Wheeling School District school district were also inspired. Each time the two acrobats entered an auditorium full of hundreds of students, within minutes they created a unique mood that felt like a one-on-one conversation with a friend. Students began sharing their personal feelings about coping with stress in front of their peers. This kind of engagement, paired with Matchan’s reportage on the global context, made teachers excited to bring this interactive learning into their own classrooms. Tracy Crowley, a curriculum coordinator for District 21, continues to implement Pulitzer Center programming as global education resources for the schools' teachers. Seeing more of the teachers drawn to the auditorium to watch these meaningful conversations unfold, Crowley said, "Once they see the possibilities that interactive learning can bring to educating their students, they don't go back to teaching the traditional way."
This is just one example of programming that builds a presence of global and interactive learning in a district that will then ripple out to even more students once the acrobats pack up their juggling clubs and musical instruments and move on to the next city.