Nothing but the best

I’ve often heard that high artistic standards are unattainable, or even unimportant in socially engaged work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two experiences during my visit to Lisbon last week reminded me why.

ChapitôChapitô - 1 is a circus theatre school established over 30 years ago by Teresa Ricou, better known as the clown, Tété. It now occupies a former prison and orphanage, close to Lisbon castle and has 120 students who complete their high school education while learning circus skills. Chapitô’s remarkable story will be a case study in due course, but for now it’s their commitment to high standards I want to highlight. Some of teenagers at the circus school have had a very difficult start in life. Chaotic family lives, drugs and crime have all taken their toll. In such circumstances, it’s natural to make allowances, to have some flexibility in how you work with people trying to overcome huge struggles.

But that’s not the same thing as lowering your artistic standards. The fact is that it’s not possible to learn aerialism or acrobatics without discipline. It is physically and intellectually demanding: carelessness might lead to injuries or worse. Clowning may not be dangerous, but it only works when it is beautifully and rigorously performed: anything less and it can be a bit embarrassing. Whatever troubles affect a young person’s life, circus training demands the highest concentration and commitment. Chapitô’s success lies in inspiring young people with a desire to learn that is strong enough to help them find – in themselves –the commitment to be the best. The discipline of circus becomes a self-discipline. The social change that has transformed the lives of so many students here is inseparable from the demands and excitements of great circus performance.

Next day, I met with members of the Gulbenkian Music Department and orchestra to talk about community engagement. Among other things, I heard about a rehearsal concert given by a string quartet in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Lisbon. It was a new departure for musicians and audience alike and there understandable nervousness. In this uncertain atmosphere, the leader instinctively felt the need to break some concert hall conventions by inviting each musicians to introduce themselves and talk about what they were offering before they began playing. This small, human, but respectful, gesture was enough to lay a foundation of trust. It opened a space for a performance of Borodin and Tchaikovsky. And far from vanishing during the hour as the musicians had feared, the audience stayed and talked enthusiastically with them afterwards.

Gulbenkian Orchestra - 1

A three year professional training for teenagers and a short performance by a string quartet might seem to have little in common. It’s true that, in approach and duration. they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of socially engaged arts. And yet they share a commitment to the highest standards of art in their very different forms. On one level, that should go without saying. After all, if you believe in the value of art, why would you offer a second or third rate version to people who have little or no access to it?

The people you’re working with may face huge everyday challenges. They may have no experience of the art that is your life’s work and expertise. It doesn’t follow that they can only cope with some watered-down version, like children learning to have wine at table. All community and participatory art depends on relationship – and a relationship that is based on inequality has no future. To decide on their behalf and without their knowledge that another person can only manage second-best is patronising. An artist who thinks like that is unconsciously raising themselves above the people they hope to involve by believing that they know best when, of course, they just know some different things. The person they are working with knows different things too. Relationship, trust, co-creation, art, change – these things happen only when there is a level space in which people can meet.

We respect each other when we offer the best we have, not some insipid version that is all we think someone can manage. But it also lies in understanding that, in offering our best, we must also be willing to receive another person’s best and that means listening – really listening – to who they are.

Chapitô - 2