The church of circus

Matthias Vermael was just 15 when he had an encounter that would change the course of his life. “I saw two guys juggling in the park, and that’s how it started,” he explains. He watched the impossible quantity of balls arcing smoothly through the air, the deft rhythms of the jugglers and the easy manner in which they scooped up the balls and began again every time the edifice collapsed.

In no time at all he had balls of his own, though he found them more reluctant to express for him the elegance that he had seen them capable of in the park.

It was this enthusiasm that led him to Circusplaneet, a cultural and educational youth organisation in Ghent where people can practice the circus arts – everything from juggling and hula-hoop to headstands and trapeze (though lion-taming is not on the bill).

When Vermael joined in 2006, the organisation was already seven years old, and it was growing fast. It was a place where he could hang out after school, practice his skills and make new friends in a close-knit community. “Nowadays we have about 1,000 people following courses every week,” he relates.

We also dreamt of a building of our own.
— Matthias Vermael

One of Circusplaneet’s acts features 10 people piled up inside a five-person family car with smoke pouring out from under the hood.

As the numbers of participants grew, it became clear that this would be a good metaphor for the entire organisation unless they found a bigger space to train. “We needed a bigger building,” Vermael remembers, “we also dreamt of a building of our own.”

But where could they find a building that would work for the variable scales needed by different acts, a place that could accommodate flocks of people juggling, unicycling or springing up high into the heavens?

The building of their dreams would need to have a wide floor area that gathered up into a high peak, just like a circus tent. Then they found it: the church.

Cirque du city

Woman suspended upside down beteen two ropes of red silk
Woman suspended upside down between two ropes of red silk

Once they had the building that they wanted in their sights, they had to think of a way to get it. One thing they knew for sure was that no amount of getting down on their knees to pray was going to pay the purchase price. Luckily, says Vermael, it turns out they had a fairy godmother waiting in the wings: “Our city was the first to support us.”

As soon as the organisation announced that they were looking for a building, the city helped them search, and now that they had finally found it, Ghent’s local authority was ready to step in again: “They gave the first financial support, which was at the time €100,000 to make it possible to get the building.”

This way Circuskerk (literally ‘circus church’) was born. With the new building came a renewed mission: they wanted to get tightly integrated into the community, becoming a pillar of the society, just as the church had been in its day. “The church is based in an economically underdeveloped area with 90% social housing, so we thought it was important to be there as well for the kids of the neighbourhood, the youth of the neighbourhood and to contribute to the cultural life,” Vermael explains.

The mission of Circusplaneet did not change, but the way of implementing it did, according to Vermael. “Circusplaneet has always dreamt of a better world and cultural diversity, but since we have the church, we also work very strategically towards that goal.” That strategy means doing a lot of work to bring on board “all possible groups, kids and societies,” says Vermael.

The lofty building came with lofty ambitions, but on purchase, it was still a long way from begin able to safely and comfortably host the burgeoning circus community. They still needed money for some serious renovation work. Here, Vermael remembers, “The city supported a lot to find funding,” not directly by supplying more money, but with connections and expertise.

A lot of people working in the city have a lot of knowledge in things we are rookies in.
— Matthias Vermael

City officials helped the circus-people to apply for regional funding from Flanders, as well as European funding. “They also supported us through the whole process of buying and renovating with knowledge, and a lot of people working in the city have a lot of knowledge in things we are rookies in.” Crowdfunding was also important to the development of the site, with 123 local people giving between €100 and €3,000 to help raise €45,000 in just six weeks.

Refurbishing the church was no mean feat. Circusplaneet was concerned to make the building more suitable for the worship of circus while preserving the memory of what had gone before, creating a space tailored to members’ needs (for example, adding a little insulation to keep warm) without destroying the architectural heritage. The sensitive renovation included new windows, a glass door at the entrance and evening a new opening in the front of the building to hammer home the message: we don’t want any barriers here, everyone is welcome inside.

Church and state city

The ‘Circuskerk’, circus church in Ghent.

The organisation of Circusplaneet isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the last two decades. Vermael sees a big change in the way the city has approached cultural organisations. “I have seen a change where 15 years ago the city was organising a lot itself, not always listening very well to what was happening around them. Now they invite a lot of organisations into these projects and try to work with them in a facilitating way.” This has been a great boon for the circus artists, who benefit from an annual €60,000.

This is a two-way street, however. “We are working with city services. For example, we work with the educational service to make sure it’s possible for every kid to do something after school time. The cultural service of the city is our first point of contact where we discuss together cultural youth work in the neighbourhood.”

The work we do is never finished.
— Matthias Vermael

Through Ghent’s culture department, Circusplaneet also meets regularly with other cultural organisations so that they can coordinate their plans for the development of the neighbourhood and the city towards the shared goal of cultural participation for everyone in Ghent. “The collaboration is still going on,” says Vermael, “the work we do is never finished.” When the city released its new strategic plan, he was flattered to see that Circuskerk was named several times as a good example. It’s an example that Circusplaneet itself is now trying to follow up on. “We’re now active in three different neighbourhoods of the city,” Vermael boasts.

Ghent’s pride in Circuskerk extends even beyond that. The city nominated the church as a Europe-wide best practice for the EU-funded Cultural Heritage in Action, led by Eurocities, where it now sits among 32 of the top examples of local heritage interventions.

With the size of this organisation, an approach to how it is run that brings everybody on board is essential to function smoothly. “We work with a very clear strategic plan, with very clear goals, very clear actions, which makes it possible to be very transparent and at the same time very organised. We make these plans together with all the people, working in a very democratic way, and we try to invite everybody in the design of these plans.”

Vermael feels that there is an affinity between the way his organisation and Ghent’s local administration are run. “If I look at the city of Ghent, what I see is that they’re working in a very horizontal way, and they seem to take rather a facilitating role where they invite other organisations’ people to step up and they try to facilitate them in they want to organise.”

A local legacy

It wasn’t just the city administration or people in the organisation that Circusplaneet wanted to involve in the new church. They also want to ensure that the community had their say. Throughout the renovation of the building, the locals were invited to a series of events and exhibitions that gave them a picture of what was planned for the space, and the opportunity to share their own feedback and ideas.

The community has received its new neighbours with great enthusiasm, and more and more local kids (and adults) are flocking through the doors every week, both to learn and to help out through volunteering. One of the volunteers who works as a handyman, putting up plaster walls and doing little fixes is a retiree from the community who comes in three times a week. He is a very useful man to have on the job because in his youth he spent his working years as the handyman in the church when it was still run as a Catholic site of worship. His involvement and his ‘seal of approval’ for the new use means a lot to Vermael, as it demonstrates how invested the community are in what is happening there. “That is why we are doing it,” Vermael emphasises.

As the General Coordinator for Circuskerk, Vermael has to work to keep a lot of balls in the air at once, but does he still practice juggling? “I was not really a circus artist but an amateur,” he says, “and I soon discovered that I had more talent for organising than for circus, let’s put it like that.” However, he then gestures out the window in his office, which overlooks the central area of the church.

When I am working at my desk, I can see her hanging there on the fabric.
— Matthias Vermael

Down from a metal rig that towers up into the roof joists of the old church, long plumes of silklike fabric hang to the floor in swathes of purple and green and red, a veritable rainbow spilling from the heavens. A swarm of young girls scurry up this fabric almost to the top, brace their bodies against it and spin, twirl and twist in a mesmerising, gravity-defying manner. Vermael looks proudly on, “Now my daughter is 11 years old,” he says, “and she is doing ariel acrobatics. When I am working at my desk, I can see her hanging there on the fabric, so it’s a new motivation for me to do the work.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer