The following interview has been recorded in November 2016 when Stephan Thilo came to teach at our Bothmer Course weekend in Trpoměchy.
Whenever we mention Bothmer gymnastics people think it’s about these particular exercises, but on our course we have learnt and experienced that thereś so much more. Last summer at the BMI Summer Intensive you run a circus skills workshop so can we say that even this is part of what we call Bothmer Movement?
The founder of Bothmer Gymnastics, Fritz von Bothmer was a PE teacher in the first Waldorf School where he was asked to come up with movement education following the principles of the Waldorf Education. Bothmer gymnastics is not only about the exercises, it is about the understanding of the movement development of a child in different ages. Bothmer had also done a lot of different sports, games and gymnastics, but then he tried to integrate these different developmental steps into whole series of gymnastic exercises. So we know that at this age this is an important principle which can be summarised in such and such movement exercise which then enhances certain quality that helps children and youngsters to get through a certain stage or period of their development.
And these principles can be also used for other activities, right?
Well, if you look nowadays at the sport lessons, there is a huge variety of games and activities but all that has to be taught appropriately to a particular age and therefore we need a deeper understanding of what are the development steps of a child. An experienced PE teacher meets a child and immediately sees which activities, which games and exercises are adequate for that age and which skills should be developed at this particular a stage.
And I suppose the same applies to doing circus skills…
It’s just the same. It’s usually not part of the lessons, it’s voluntarily as part of after school activities, so they come because they want to do it. They choose different skills they are attracted to and then they build up their aims – what they have to do to learn a particular skill. They put a lot of effort in because they have the aim and they know what they want to reach. Of course they also watch YouTube and see what other people are doing with diabolo, or juggling, so the aim can be infinitely away but they have to pass through all those steps.
And what is the benefit they get out of it?
One thing is that they gain skills, playful skills. But it’s not about competition, working against each other or matching up to someone else, I always emphasise cooperation. For me personally the most interesting thing is the acrobatics, partner acrobatics, because they have to learn to trust each other in order to build up a balance out of more then just one person – so it is an interaction in movement and they learn a lot. It’s not just about where I stand and you stand over there, but we can both together stand at one point, we just have to make an appointment. We have to find a way how we do this – there are activities and there are reactions to what the other person is doing so there is a lot of social interplay and they develop a lot of social skills. Also when you work with different partners in acrobatics, you learn that everyone is doing something different, some are very good at this and some are very good at that, and you start to get flexible not only in what you do, or what you want to do, but always in what is needed between people.
And I suppose that brings about confidence, satisfaction and joy, right?
Yes, it has always to do with joy. You don’t go there with an attitude “Oh, I have to do circus”, but you want to do circus! Circus is imbued with rich imagery – of a circus tent, of horses and lions, and acrobats and clowns, it is a very rich world of pictures. And besides the skills there is always a story. It’s a bit like theatre where we are lead by a story – so all these different things like the unicycles, the rope jumping, the acrobatics, the balancing, everything becomes part of this story.
Do you mean an underlying story like in a performance piece or do you mean that there is a story for each activity?
It’s there for the performance. I usually tell them quite shortly before the performance when I have organised everything that fits in and then I create the story around it. So when the story comes they dive into it. It’s not that they have to practise a lot to fit into it. I work with what’s already there and I shape the story around their skills and abilities because they aren’t acrobats they aren’t professional circus people.
So the story is there that it’s not just one single act after another but a part of a whole and they feel being part of the story which carries them through.
Well if you do just a juggling performance then you need skills, but if there is a story that leads through then may be one can just throw one ball and catch it and if that’s put in the right place in the right context then it becomes meaningful. So you can have sometimes funny situations where three people are juggling with and passing lots of balls, but one is maybe able just to throw and catch one ball so at the end when all the balls finally fall down on the floor he picks one up and tosses it up and gets the biggest applause (8:05)
So it’s also using the imagination and the choreography of the spectators to create a certain picture, right?
You can make it to fit every need. There is not a given form you have to fulfil, it is always a creative process. There are of course some things in acrobatics, certain techniques, which you have to control and teach them, but they are also free to improvise and make new things up.
And is there a certain age when it’s good to start with circus?
We start with the circus in the fourth class and we usually run two groups – one from class 4 to 7, and then from class to upper school. And when we meet, we always have the older ones first and then there is an overlap of usually fifteen minutes when the small ones come already in to warm up and they see the older ones finishing their work and see what they can aspire to when they get older, so it is inspiring – they’ve got somebody to look up to. And out of the older group we always get few helpers or trainers for certain things, like for the unicycle which I never tried myself.
So as a teacher you also don’t have to be mastering all those skills but should be somehow able to facilitate them…
When they start doing it on their own you don’t always have to show them, they can look up other people doing it, like on You Tube, and they know what they want to reach and if you can just give them a helpful hand and come up with an advice like “Hey, you can do this and that…, there is certain technique you can use…”, that’s great. It just needs some experience in managing their skills but you don’t have to do or be able to do everything yourself, you just need to have a good eye to see how to help the others to move forward.
We also do a lot of juggling and ball skills practice and exercises in our Bothmer training. What is the purpose of that being part of it, what does it do or what does it help to develop?
Well I like to use the ball because it always needs rhythm. If you throw a ball up it will always fall down, this is certain a law. When throw things up they fall down. But if you want to change this law of gravitation, you have to handle it in a certain way, you have to adapt to what is happening there. It’s not just doing what you want, but it’s adapting your movement ability to these laws of throwing and falling to all those forces of space. And if there is more than one ball, immediately there is rhythm and rhythm is one of the most important things in movement. When there is rhythm, the movement becomes alive and that also brings flexibility and joy.
And you also develop a certain dexterity of your hands, develop them as this sense organ of movement…
Yes, the normal throwing and catching nearly everyone can do, but to master the ball in a fluent movement and to adapt your movement organism to that flow, you have to soften your knees and surround the ball with your hands instead of grabbing it. It’s about fine adjustments of your body or your body movements, adjustment of your movement ability and the object. And when you are doing it in pairs, there is also this social aspect – it’s like using it as means of communication between people, using this quality of giving and receiving. And it’s not just some neutral thing, you follow the ball and you enter the same rhythm and the same movement space with your partner, so it has a strong social aspect. You feel it immediately, when you do something with a ball with a partner and the other one takes the ball out of the fluent movement your breathing starts to seize up.
So it has also a lot to do with breathing?
Breathing is part of our rhythm organism, the same like the heartbeat and also the movement of our arms, which are part of the middle realm of our movement organism. The legs are always involved with gravity, they hold us upright, but the arms are free for social interactivity.
And do you always have this aim of a performance at the end?
Yes, it’s very important to have a performance. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, it can be just a small presentation in school for 10 to 15 minutes, just to show few skills, but that there should be an aim for the work. So performance or presentation aspect is important and they also want to show what they have learnt and what they can do. And it always involves other people, there are costumes, maybe some lights, somebody prepares food and drinks, and so it becomes a production where other people participate and there is this strong feeling we are the circus group. It creates this whole social atmosphere and it also attracts other children.
Like that circus we saw in Lübeck during the Summer Intensive the Circus Ubuntu.
Well, that’s a semi-professional circus. Children go there almost every weekend and then in summer they travel around a lot. But it’s a great thing, if you have done something like that in your life, you’ll never forget it. It’s a fundament for all the other things you do in life. It’s a strong social experience – you have to cooperate, you have to trust, you know exactly what your role is within the group and what your tasks are.
Is it something they do every year? Like they put up a production and tour with it.
Yes, usually they stay with the group until they are eighteen. It would be good to have another project for those young adults but it depends on the circumstances and the possibilities you have. They don’t get much financial support so it involves a lot of voluntary work from parents and from teachers to make it viable. But it’s a great project and it’s worth it when you see what happens between them, how they get to know each other, also between boys and girls, it’s so natural and there is a lot of bonding and connection. A lot of problems we have with our children nowadays is that they don’t get enough possibilities to try things out. We should offer them more opportunities where they can experience their borders and learn what they have to do to overcome those. But with circus it’s not that somebody just tells them what to do and how to go about it, they have to find it out for themselves when they learn the circus skills.
To find out more about a forthcoming one-day workshop with Stephan Thilo in Prague (24th Februray) go to: https://otevrenyprostor.cz/en/udalosti/circus-skills-workshop-with-stephan-thilo/