The Circus on the Edge project kicked off with a positive and productive start, all thanks to the focus and hard work of our first set of participants from the Hmong hill tribes on Phu Chi Fa mountain, northern Thailand. The Phu Chi Fa communities have opened their doors to tourism and offer accommodation on the mountainside for those eager to explore its beauty. Our purpose was to provide theatrical workshops and support the youths in devising a show that they hope to be a tool of education about the strength and plight of Hmong people for visitors and also as a source of income through audience donations.
The Makhampom team are comprised of Andrea- a Thai-speaking-German circus extraordinaire; Golf- Makhampom’s full time ball of energy and all round circus and theatre skills trainer; and Jessica- a theatrical bouncing bean, who pranced over from England to assist with and document the Circus on the Edge project. Put the three together and they are: a dedicated team with faith in a sustainable outcome for the participants, and also at times, a trio of clowns!
Put twenty sugars in your double shot coffee and that is the energy our Phu Chi Fa participants had for the duration of their Circus on the Edge project week. The participants, aged fifteen to twenty-six congregated in a community hall that was to be our rehearsal space and home for the week. They are from various Hmong villages up and down and over Phu Chi Fa mountain (over meaning they travelled from Laos). The group size ended up at about fifteen with newcomers arriving later in the week as word spread around the mountain about the project, but also as we lost participants due to external duties.
A few of the participants were on term break from school, but most of them work as farmers or in construction. Although we were under the impression that the youth had been permitted four days off to dedicate to the project, their days remained filled to the brim. Our workshops finished at 18:00, and then they had two hours of martial arts practice, followed by labour work late in to the night; understandably their dinner plates of rice were as high as Phu Chi Fa mountain. They intermittently had to return home to work on their family farm, or to look after their nine or so siblings, but they always came racing back as if no energy had been spent. The tea breaks and lengthier lunches that we implemented for them to recuperate went unused, for they continued to rehearse and practice new skills throughout. When I asked how they sustained unfaltering hard work and enthusiasm, one boy answered that the Hmong youth seize every chance to develop new skills with all their might. After finishing school they do not have many opportunities to advance past working in their community, but these youth have astounding physical and theatrical talent. They hope that they will gain the right to a nationality and the freedom to travel past the police check points at the bottom of the mountain, to share their skills and remarkable work ethic.
The boys all train twice a month with the martial arts school, Hmong Lerxgen; one of two in Thailand, and one of three in the world- the other being in Minnesota, USA. The mission of the training is to provide the tools for life; physical strength and mental balance. It is a system of advancing through belts and takes up to three years to complete. However, some participants must train with caution and discretion as there are higher powers that forbid activities that increase hill tribe people’s strength because it is regarded as a threat and intention to rebel
On the third day we had two girls join our group, who brought with them a new expanse of talents and support to the process. Their roles were very traditional, in that they offered dancing skills and helped with the cooking and cleaning. We learnt later that the girls are quite the celebrities within their own community, for they were the winner and runner up in the districts Hmong beauty pageant. An amusing moment came when we asked the girls to choreograph a routine for the performance that would showcase Hmong dancing. What we expected to be a traditional routine with graceful hand gestures and narrative movement was actually more akin to the dance movements Beyoncé shimmies out. But they sure gave Beyoncé a run for her money (no offense to her fans!) and it was great to see them enjoying the style they loved. Later personal research also indicates that traditional Hmong dance was restricted to men only anyway.
The project structure was: two days of workshops in new skills, two days of collaboratively devising a show and two performances in different villages.
The workshops were in…
The circus skills of: aerial silk, acrobatics, human pyramids, poi, juggling, skipping and hula hoop. These were chosen as a great addition to their already jaw-dropping feats of physical performance and also to suit their keen interest in anything with a layer of physical risk!
The participants excitedly immersed themselves in circus and Andrea and Golf had to do some fast edits to the project curriculum as they accelerated from basic to advanced skills. I cannot recall many moments when I saw the participants sitting down during the week, if they were not required in a scene then they were mastering a skill at the side.
2. Theatre skills including: clowning, mime, use of the voice and Image Theatre. Image Theatre is creating frozen physical pictures that explore in detail participants’ emotions and experiences, which are then fused together to create a narrative that has developed from the truth within. This is a useful technique especially for those with less drama experience for it relieves the pressure of improvising on the spot.
Theatre skills were specifically requested by the community in order for the youths to learn how to create dramatic physical narratives and detailed characters. As a result they can then fuse acting with their already fantastic martial arts skills to develop a high standard performance as part of their tourism industry. The physical performance can also educate visitors about their Hmong community in spite of any language barriers.
Using Image Theatre the youth explored two social issues they are currently facing; drug use and the treatment experienced from the police if they are caught, and the absence of a waste disposal system in their villages and its consequences. The youths moulded images including reasons behind these issues, methods of solution and what their dream outcome would be. The images were then fused in to scenes, which ultimately became part of the show. The youths commented on the liberation and productivity of being able to discuss and explore taboo issues in a safe workshop space. They are issues that are difficult to raise in their community but now having formed them in to a non-abrasive mode of communication they feel more comfortable to share them with their elders.
When the devising process began the participants well and truly took hold with an explosion of creative energy and clearly thrived off having ownership of the development of the scenes. The Makhampom team joked that we would leave them be and return the following night to watch their performance, but luckily our input was still required! Actually a balance of everyone’s input was encouraged as the youth found moments to showcase everyone’s skills, be it sword dance, kung fu, singing, or backflipping ten times in a row.
By the end of the devising process the participants had a forty-five minute show that journeyed through the history of the Hmong people, to the youth's lives and the issues they face today and a finale extravaganza celebrating the Hmong New Year- martial arts and circus style!
The first performance was in the evening of just the second devising day in the Phu Chi Fa “upstairs” village, on a very beautiful, archaic and large outside stage. The youth with instruments in hand, chorused around the village calling people to come and watch their show and the village megaphone announced "there’s even ladies from Germany and England". Alas, that was not appealing enough to coax everyone! As the show was about to begin, we noticed that many cast members were not in position- a quick glance around revealed them to be looking in the mirrors of mopeds styling their hair and taking selfies in their costumes.
The audience averaged at about thirty villagers, with a line of excitable little ones at the front and some slightly jeering but curious teenagers watching from their mopeds much further back. As soon as the first performer flipped through the air though, a gasp of awe sounded throughout the audience and the participants had well and truly claimed themselves as very cool and incredibly talented young adults.
The following evening we descended through the clouds (true fact) to Phu Chi Fa “downstairs” village for the second show on the school field. This village is larger and a very supportive, cheering audience of about 100 came to watch in spite of the rain. The participants once again proved their worth as the audience jaws dropped at the youths’ extreme physical skills and they laughed at the comic characterisations. The youths did especially well considering there was a rapid adaption of the performance that day- one of the elders had requested that some of the scenes were changed as he was not comfortable for characters of the police and army to be shown. The youths commented how this was a common problem for them; they are torn between wanting the freedom to show the new ideas and culture of their generation but also having a lot of respect for their elders and not wanting to cause them upset.
I would describe the youth's rehearsal ethic, and in fact personal life ethic as, Unity. Every element of the project was carried out as a team and you could guarantee that if you started to lift a box or sweep the floor, within a flash someone was by your side to help. There was probably also an element of gender roles in this; I think it seemed a bit peculiar to the boys for Andrea and I to get stuck in building the stage space. On the first morning the Makhampom team took a leisurely pace to breakfast at 08:00, but arrived to the participants sitting with rice bowls on their laps waiting for us to start. Therefore, the next day we were first to arrive at 07:30 not wanting to keep them waiting, however, the day after the youths were ahead of us again, now at 07:15. It was a sweet progression of ensuring that no one was ever kept in hunger.
The deep rooted bond between the youth is very visible and endearing. The girls stood holding hands when not rehearsing and the boys cuddled up to each other. They were encouraging of each other’s training and eagerly shared tricks and techniques. It appears that amidst the wider and internal social issues the Hmong communities face, the youth have formed a supportive and development network of their own.
Outcomes of the Week following a Group Evaluation
-The youths enjoyed having a safe space to highlight and explore and discuss possible solutions to the issues they face as hill tribe and Hmong people through Image Theatre.
-The circus skills and theatrical skills they learnt were invaluable to continuing their performance development. The majority expressed that they hope their performance skills will be a route in to the Hmong movie industry that has filtered over from America. This could award them with not just money, but nationality. If they were to be granted status as a citizen of Thailand they would have access out of their community and be able to show other provinces the positive things they have to offer.
- Their show can continue to be developed by themselves with the devising tools they learnt, so that when the season of tourism begins again in Phu Chi Fa they can perform and educate visitors about Hmong history, culture, people and current oppression. It could also be a source of needed income- which would mean even more than its monetary value because it would be earnt from an appreciation of their identity as artists.
Charming Highlights of the Week
- One morning at 05:30 there was a knocking on our door. In a panic we all thought that we must have overslept, but actually it was the youth leader waking us to go to the top of the mountain for sunrise. He was eager to show us the famous 'cloud blanket' and also how when atop the mountain you can see Laos one side and then a spin in the other direction shows you Thailand; simply amazing.
-On our last breakfast we were invited to the youth leader’s home with the students who had yet to return home. As we all sat tightly packed together he commented how his home was symbolic of Hmong people: “Narrow homes, but not narrow hearts.”
-When clearing the rehearsal space at the end of the project we found a scrap of paper with some doodles and writing on by a participant. They had written “Better to have a dog as a friend, then a friend who is a dog.” A thought droplet there...
For your Interest…a Glimpse of Hmong History (not necessarily accurate!)
I have spent much time scratching my head over how to summarise the Hmong people’s history in to a brief paragraph. I have finally reached a decision to say that it is rich and varies from source to source and therefore no facts can be written. There are many explanations on the internet and in books, however, having heard a range of oral historical accounts, legends and spiritual beliefs of the Hmong people’s origin and migration from Hmong people themselves within just a small village it left me sitting flummoxed at the laptop. I shall provide you with a brief overview of a more widely agreed written history post 1800’s. Hmong people were living in southern China but begun migrating south from the 18th Century to the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar (where their population remains in descending order), as a result of oppressive ruling and persecution in China. Fast forward to the 1960’s and 70’s, Laotian Hmong were secretly recruited by the United States CIA to fight against communist forces during the Vietnam War. In 1975 the communist takeover in Laos ordered the persecution, torture and death of all those who fought against communism, and with America having removed its forces from Vietnam, Hmong people had to flee to refugee camps and the mountains of Laos and Thailand. This is where many remain today, unable to move without nationality status, although there is also a population of Hmong in America from refugee movements.
The Phu Chi Fa participants were a delight and a privilege to work with. The commitment and energy they gave throughout the whole week was exceptional; their thirst to learn is so apparent. The physical skills these youth have is of such an advanced level and their work ethic is mature and comes from the heart. The performance developed during Circus on The Edge we hope and believe can prove to be a sustainable beneficial outcome for them. They train very hard around their intense work in the community and they deserve to be acknowledged as more than hill tribe people but as the phenomenal and professional artists they are.
Thank you for reading.
JUST A SMALL TREAT OF A SNIPPET OF THE PARTICIPANTS SUPERB STRENGTH...
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