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ED SPIEGEL Art for the youngest children




Foreword by child and youth psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens – 6

8 MIRROR WRITING Between man and image. Artistic practice of De Spiegel – 10 International perspective on De Spiegel – 26

30 MIRROR IMAGE What, why and above all: for whom? Flemish vision and social context – 32

De Spiegel worldwide – 44

46 MIRRORINGS The land behind the mirror. Ingredients of a creative process for the youngest child – 48

Thoughts from all around the world – 58


FOREWORD ‘Do they carry any of that around?’ When you talk about object installations for babies as of six weeks old, you are bound to be confronted with a question like this from time to time. Here is a wall that we still have to break down: the conviction that babies grow up by themselves, whether you do much or little with them, because whatever you do, they don’t remember. There is something tender in this thought, namely the dream that every child has every chance. But all human beings are different from birth, with different needs and different gifts. So any programme that can stimulate babies is consequently welcome. To convince every parent, it is useful to invite them to step into the De Spiegel laboratory. What happens there between children aged up to three, actors, musicians, dancers and parents, contributes to the acquisition of knowledge in baby and toddler development. We share a dream for every baby born. Moreover, we owe it to every child not to be left behind, to roll up our sleeves and let the best of the best blossom from the parent-child duo. The De Spiegel live theatre lab is like a mother plant that does everything necessary to nurture a good cutting. Here, parents learn to go along with and sway to the emotions in young bodies that are searching their way out and need time to get there. There is a lot of sniffing around for the nature of the beast here, where time is not stressed (‘I have no time’), but becomes a gift (‘Take your time to find your own strength, my child’).


De Spiegel avails itself of the recently developed complex knowledge about emotions. In babies, the emotion centre in the brain is already present, while wise thinking still has to be developed. What the youngest child experiences is stored in the emotional memory as being pleasant or painful. This experience will play a role throughout life. The creation process of De Spiegel performances teaches us to dwell on many delicate, small details of life and how they respond to the little developed intentions, emotions and behaviour of the small child. That small life exists in a constant interaction between baby, parents and other educators. Through play, children get a grip on the (social) world and learn to determine their place in it, on their way to becoming competent individuals with the ability to think, feel and act. Enjoy the experience of the experimental creations of De Spiegel, as I did as a grandfather, and how it found a refreshing way to take the young child by the hand along that developmental path. The working method of De Spiegel connects seamlessly to what developmental psychologists today advise based on the knowledge of the baby brain and baby psychology. The innovation of De Spiegel lies in the way in which it puts theory into practice – to measure for the baby and as measure for the parents.

PETER ADRIAENSSENS Child and youth psychiatrist




‘Man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from ready-made things, like his own mother and father.’ – Marcel Duchamp


‘What I learned from Karel as a creator is to work with material and with what the material can tell you in your work. It is best not to impose a preconceived idea on the material. How you as an artist can get to know a certain material from your own discipline is very liberating and also avoids repeating yourself as a creator.’– Stefan Wellens, composer

THINGS that are already there. Things that are poetic because of their form, colour, wear; because they are useful or useless. Such things are the bread and butter of De Spiegel. Artistic director Karel Van Ransbeeck started out as a puppeteer in his father Felix’s puppet theatre, which led to training as a puppeteer at the State School for Puppet Theatre in Budapest. From that experience, he still uses things and objects as a link between himself and his audience. They constitute a mirror that enables him to look at himself and his audience simultaneously. Karel Van Ransbeeck challenges artists to bring such things, objects and materials to life, to give them a place in their play, and take them into their world.


I N STA LL AT I O N S De Spiegel has built installations over the years: suggestive assemblages of things that could be a house (Caban) or a garden (LABOtanik). Pret a Porter goes a step further, whereby De Spiegel invites other artists to devise and produce new concepts and installations. These installations or modules constitute a connecting element between the spectators and the players. They invite both groups to explore and offer opportunities to ‘play’ in or around them and to meet each other. Each of these installation concepts is attuned to the sensory and motoric capabilities of a particular age group.


LABOtanik is a growth garden, suitable for children as of six weeks old. They can lie about on comfortable cushions of curly kale, between crocheted carrots and radishes and lush lampshade flowers. The assembly houses in Caban are interesting for all ages, but especially when the children can already crawl or walk. Under the name Pret a Porter, a number of artists create their own universe for the youngest children. The artists themselves decide on the idea, the material, to what extent it should be abstract or figurative, etc. They always work on one theme, however, which means that the various installations are related nonetheless. On the basis of these themes De Spiegel also attracts external partners (museums, libraries, architectural institutes, etc.) who can then share their expertise with the youngest children. The biggest limitation for the artists is the format: the end result of their little world must fit into a courier backpack. These installations can travel easily around on their own in this way. They can be a minimalist theatrical performance in children’s day-care centres, libraries, museums, schools or living rooms. It affords opportunities to make visual and performing arts accessible to every social and societal context in which the youngest children (and their parents or supervisors) move. It is also interesting to bring the backpack installations together in one space, so that they can interact with each other. Their coherence and mutual meaning changes through the players and the audience.


All these installations transform any venue (theatre hall, nursery, a former church, a classroom, exhibition hall, canteen, etc.) into a theatrical space. They open up an imagination which is fired anew each time.



‘As a player, you have a totally different relationship with your audience and the other players than in an ordinary performance. I had the feeling that it had to come from far deeper.’ – Tchi-ann Liu, dancer

Musicians, actors, sculptors and dancers move and improvise between those modules. The installations are the common ground on which the players and the audience can create something together. It is pure, experimental creation and has nothing of the classical theatre code where the audience watch the players act. Both the players and the audience play. The player acts in a vulnerable way: there is no scenario, no set course, no certainty that it will work. He has to trust what the spectators provide, what he will create therewith hereand-now, and who he is as an artist.


The spectators, too, open up, express their expectations, dare to receive what is handed to them, react or observe. The YOUNGEST CHILDREN are a dream audience for this. They do not stick to customs or codes. They constantly adjust their frame of reference. They watch and listen attentively, but also react in a very straightforward manner. ‘There can be no performance without the children. The players and the children alike can take an initiative or invite the other, who may accept. The players and the audience are therefore of equal value. This requires you, as an artist, to come with a fair amount of baggage. You have to know what your tools are, what your instrument is, and you have to be able to improvise, react and participate at the same time. You have to be able to connect with the child while taking everything else into account: the other actors, the tempo of the performance and the moment in the performance in which you find yourself.’ – Ine Ubben, theatre-maker ‘I felt I had to keep the interaction with the children “pure”, because they would react to the slightest deviation. The energy was very fragile. You can see it immediately when you lose their attention.’ – Cornelia Zambila, violinist


The live experience is essential to the theatre: everything happens here and now and arises anew with each performance, in the moment itself and in a dialogue with the audience. De Spiegel creates channels to explore this essence to the full. In addition to objects and materials, MUSIC is a basic element in the work of De Spiegel. Music communicates very directly and at the same time very openly. It is a language that transcends meaning. That is why it speaks to children and adults alike, on a sensory level. Moreover, for small children, sounds and noises (and the silences in between) are often stimuli that primarily attract and hold their attention.

‘A major difference between children and adults is that things usually move step by step with the youngest children, in my view. They put one thing after the other, and not everything on top of each other. We adults try to see everything together in layers, in condensed form. We look horizontally (panoramically) and try to grasp everything that is there. Children, on the other hand, look vertically, pick out one thing from the whole and are then really focused on that. They look, listen and react not only with their head, but with their whole body’. – Karel Van Ransbeeck, artistic director


‘It struck me ever so soon how polite little children really are. They really wait until you have finished playing. In the beginning I found that confusing, because I had expected interaction to occur much sooner. But you see that their attention actually lasts very long and that you can tell a big story.’ – Stijn Saveniers, cellist

‘When you perform for the youngest children, it is crucial that you are “really” there, at that moment, with them. If you are not there, they will walk away, they won’t be there either. For me, that is the essence of theatre in general. We perform in the here and now’. – Karel Van Ransbeeck, artistic director

‘As far as music is concerned, I have noticed that you can easily offer very complex music to the youngest children. The more layers, the better. You might think that you have to make easy tunes, but it has to be good music. The genre doesn’t matter, even the most atonal contemporary music will do. As a musician, you really have to say something with your instrument and with that music. And then everyone is on board, big and small.’ – Astrid Bossuyt, violinist


S PAC E A N D T I M E The space in which the music is played also contributes to the meaning of what emerges. Large or small, light or dark, crowded or sober, it all determines how an audience behaves, – certainly with small children – and how a player occupies that space. Each new space also determines the arrangement of the installations. This makes it possible to play and to be viewed in a new way every time. Finally, time is an important factor also. As young children often need some time to process and react to different impressions, a Caban or LABOtanik session often lasts at least one hour, sometimes two. However, the children and parents are free to leave the room whenever they feel the need. So a group of spectators and players have that time span to evolve together, to form a real group organically.

P E R FO R M A N C E S De Spiegel creates performances from these improvisation sessions. The creation does not start from nothing, but from what arose in and around the installations. A nest made of wood and plush was the starting point for the performance entitled Nest (2013), from a sleeve tunnel came the performance entitled Mouw [Sleeve] (2014), and a see-through bed led to the performance entitled Nocturama (2018). But an interaction between two actors or a reaction from someone in the audience can also inspire a new production.


‘The performance Niet drummen [Beat the Drum!], for instance, came about after percussionist Joeri Wens and saxophonist Nicolas Ankoudinoff clicked during the Caban sessions. They were already in tune with each other and knew what they wanted to say together. Then you are already well on your way when you start to create.’ – Karel Van Ransbeeck, artistic director


De Spiegel continues to seek contact with the public during the creation process of a performance. They go to day-care centres with (parts of) the set and (some of) the players to try out ideas or fragments of a performance, but also to keep the players in touch with the youngest children. After all, actors and makers are adults, with adult frames of reference and expectations. It is important to test every aspect of a performance at the eye level of the children.


‘I used to produce performances for adults, but I reached them much less than I do today. They are much more open to what we create nowadays because they take the time to look at their child. They experience something through that child, which they would not have experienced otherwise. So the child is actually an intermediary also. – Karel Van Ransbeeck, artistic director

Development is not something where you can put the end result already down on paper, but something that creates and nurtures the circumstances in which the people involved can grow and develop to create a common organic whole that could not be thought of beforehand.’ – Stefan Wellens, composer


Adults should not be ignored, however; quite contrary: the parents and supervisors are essential to the audience. They are a mirror for their children: if they feel at ease, so will their child. If they are curious, stimulated, surprised or moved, so will their child. De Spiegel pursues artistic quality and innovation by focusing on development through experimentation.

I N T E R N AT I O N A L Meanwhile, international interest in De Spiegel’s method continues to grow. Caban was first performed at the Scènes d’Europe festival in Reims and has been touring Flanders and Europe since 2012. In 2017 Karel Van Ransbeeck travelled with set designer Wim Van de Vyver to Cape Town in South Africa to build a new version of Caban together with local artists. They made new installations based on local materials, customs and rituals. A whole new Caban universe came into being by letting local artists and musicians perform. In the same way, De Spiegel produced another version of Caban in 2019 during the Ricca Festa – International Theatre Festival OKINAWA for Young Audiences in Japan. During the 2019-20 season, De Spiegel also started the first edition of Pret a Porter, where three Flemish and three Canadian artists developed concepts around children’s and pop-up books for new installations in backpack format. This method has since been adopted by companies in Hungary, Germany, Finland, Norway and Luxembourg.


‘A fantastically beautiful world, not just for the little ones!’

‘Tremendous! A shared enjoyment! A sequel, please! 3-month old ❤ clarinet.’

‘Magnificent set, stimulating without exaggerated colours, surprising choice of music. It was the first time that our Stan actually stayed mesmerized watching and listening the entire time.’

INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE ON DE SPIEGEL ‘Le regard lucide de Karel Van Ransbeeck rejoint celui de la petite enfance. Son plan de travail n’est pas celui de descendre ou surmonter une rivière mais de se placer à la source même, là où la petite enfance boit à grandes gorgés et devient source de la vieille mémoire de l’humanité. Il ne s’agit pas de jouer de la musique pour l’écouter mais de vibrer avec elle et devenir la musique même. Il ne s’agit pas de créer un très bel espace plastique pour l’admirer, mais de rentrer dedans et devenir les sons et les résonances géométriques de cet espace, devenir jeu géométrique vivant. Il ne s’agit pas de faire semblant ou de demander aux comédiens de jouer un rôle mais d’être des personnes, au sens étymologique du terme. [...] Au Spiegel le théâtre s’échappe ainsi de la notion de spectacle et devient rituel païen vivant.’

‘Karel Van Ransbeeck’s clear-sighted gaze meets that of early childhood. His work plan is not to go down or over a river but to place himself at the very source, where infancy drinks in big gulps and becomes the source of the old memory of humanity. It is not a matter of playing music to listen to it, but of vibrating with it, and becoming the music itself. It is not a matter of creating a beautiful plastic space to admire it, but of entering into it and becoming the sounds and geometric resonances of this space, becoming a living geometric game. It is not a matter of pretending or asking the actors to play a role but of being persons, in the etymological sense of the word. [...] In De Spiegel the theatre thus escapes from the notion of spectacle and becomes a living pagan ritual.’ – Carlos Laredo, theatremaker for young audience, Spain and Brazil


‘De Spiegel’s sensitive and textured work for very young audiences brings a unique combination of earthy connection to real objects in beautifully defined and designed spaces together with the complex, more abstract dialects of music, rhythm, and tonality. Care is always taken to explore ideas through multi-sensory pathways and to spend time experiencing the varieties of contact possible between artists and spectators, with a finely tuned interplay between improvisation and preparation, immersion, provocation and meeting. And always there is a highly attuned care given to the exploration process of the artists – with a sense of invitation, to play, to discover, to find new ways of being together in arts.’

– Yvette Hardie, theatre-maker, author, journalist, former president of Assitej International, South Africa.



‘De Spiegel tritt den Beweis an, dass ein Theater, das vor allem auf die Sprachen, Musik, Bild und Bewegung setzt, für junges Publikum noch viel spannender sein kann als das klassische Sprechtheater – was ja immer noch die Szene im Kindertheater beherrscht. Als experimentelles Theater geht De Spiegel formal neue Wege und betreibt bei seinen Stückentwicklungen die ästhetische Forschungsarbeit mit dem Zielpublikum besonders sorgfältig. So erfindet De Spiegel das Theater für junges Publikum neu und erreicht sein junges Publikum mit erfrischend unkonventionellen Spielweisen und komplexen Inhalten. Und schließlich gelingt es der Gruppe, auch die Erwachsenen, die die Kinder ins Theater begleiten, mit ihrer Kunst zu überraschen und zu begeistern. Der Fokus liegt dabei auf der gegenseitigen Wahrnehmung und der künstlerischen Wahrhaftigkeit in der Begegnung. Das hat uns enorm inspiriert und weitergeholfen.’

De Spiegel proves that theatre that focuses on language, music, image and movement can be much more exciting for young audiences than classical spoken theatre - which still dominates the children’s theatre scene. As an experimental theatre, De Spiegel breaks new ground and carries out its aesthetic research with the target audience very carefully when developing its plays. In this way, De Spiegel reinvents theatre for young audiences and reaches them with refreshingly unconventional acting methods and complex content. And in the end, the group also succeeds in surprising and enthusing the adults who accompany the children to the theatre with their art. The focus is on mutual observation and artistic sincerity in their dealings. That was very inspiring and constructive for us. – Andrea Gronemeyer, Director of SCHAUBURG, Theater für junges Publikum [Theatre for Young Audiences], Munich





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‘Very beautiful and soothing. Tibe’s attention to sound and light, to instruments and musicians is the finest gift for us as parents. All three of us enjoyed it.’

‘Is life possible without yearning? Without love? Without pleasure? Without sharing? Is life possible without aesthetic emotion? Aesthetic emotions are not exclusive to an erudite and cultured elite, they are part of being human. They arise in the encounter with all forms of art and, of course, in the contact with nature, whenever we let our “soul” breathe. Artists offer us forms and languages to start conversations with ourselves. By interpreting works of art to make them our own, we recreate them. They live on through our gaze. The ecstasy of these encounters makes us want to go further, we become more curious, and less timid. Our tastes become more diverse.’

From: Isabelle Chavepeyer and Charlotte Fallon,

Kunstmusea. Ook voor de allerkleinsten. Manifest. Brussels: Faro, 2016


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SOCIAL CONTEXT What vision has the Flemish cultural policy set out in recent years when it comes to art for the youngest children? And how do stakeholders from different segments of society view the work of De Spiegel? Because when you make art for the youngest children (up to 4 years old), you step outside the boundaries of the cultural sector. It is essential to work together with organisations such as Kind en Gezin, the Flemish Department of Welfare, Public Health and Family and the various childcare networks. They will all have their say in this chapter.


States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.


States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity. Article 31 of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child has the right to cultural life and the arts.


‘De Spiegel has been organizing tests and try-outs of its performances here for years. I think it is very important for our target audience to come into contact with this from an early age. Moreover, the children enjoy a free offer this way. We have a very diverse audience: many different cultures, often families with few financial means or with more difficult living conditions. As a result, they are often people who have little or no contact with the general cultural offering.’


Cindy Le Bourlier, Kinderopvang Knuffel [Cuddly Childcare Centre], Antwerp, Luchtbal



From the vision document on art and culture for the youngest children of the Department of Culture, Youth and the Media, Kind & Gezin and the VVSG [Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities]

‘Babies and toddlers are fully-fledged participants who have a right to quality art and culture just like everyone else. When introduced to a wide range of cultural experiences, not limited to the commercial offer and/or entertainment, young children can develop their preferences and own interests and we also enable them to make real choices.’


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‘Children have the right to grow up in a rich environment and art can only enrich this environment further – not because it would be good for their development or because it would encourage them to go to museums later on, but because of the fine experience in the here and now. The arts can certainly add something, because they strongly stimulate wonder and curiosity. There is no need to learn anything.’ Annelies Roelandt, educational staff member of the Vormingscentrum en Kinderopvang (VCOK) [Training Centre for Upbringing and Childcare], Ghent

‘We offer this young target group a different experience without the explicit objective of learning something. From an artistic content perspective, we introduce other languages that have nothing to do with that “learning” language, with that 0 or 1, with right or wrong. We focus much more on the many nuances that lie in between. Incidentally: you learn something with every experience, don’t you? It makes no difference whether you are a child or an adult.’ Karel Van Ransbeeck, artistic director


By bringing art and culture into children’s lives from a very early age, we increase their cultural competence and create a breeding ground for cultural participation.1 Research has shown that the younger you get involved with culture, the greater the impact this has on later cultural participation.2 It is therefore important to introduce every child to art and culture as early as possible. Investing in early cultural experiences can also have a strong influence on, and promote, the development of young children on several fronts.3 A few proven effects: working with images – artistic or otherwise – stimulates the development of aesthetic preferences, geometric and spatial reasoning and conversational skills in the young child; the performing arts have a positive impact on later verbal skills; being actively involved in listening to and making music has a positive effect on the child’s cognitive development as well as on empathic thinking and prosocial behaviour; early exposure to a rich literacy environment and growing up in a sustainable reading culture result in higher literary pays off later in life. In other words, participating in arts and cultural activities from an early age has positive effects on the child’s cognitive, motor and social and emotional development. Although not every effect can be proven empirically, the experience in the here and now is at least as important as the longterm effects. Experiencing pleasure and emotions together with peers and trusted adults is extremely valuable.

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1. John Lievens and Hans Waeghe, Participatie in Vlaanderen. Basisgegevens van de participatiesurvey 2009, Leuven: Accod-Academic, 2011 2. Ibid. 3. Lode Vermeersch, Lucas Pissens, Nele Havermans, Jessy Slongers, John Lievens and Steven Groenez, Jong geleerd, jong gedaan. Onderzoek naar cultuureducatie en -participatie bij de allerkleinsten (0-6 jaar), Leuven: KULeuven – HIVA Onderzoeksinstituut voor Arbeid en Samenleving, 2018.


‘Wow. Not only the ears were pampered, but the little baby’s entire body!’ – Marcel’s dad ‘Wonderful musical exploration. We enjoyed seeing our little darling enjoying herself. Well done!’ – Ada’s mum and dad

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‘What artists do fits in very well with how young children see the world: they are very curious, very surprised and are constantly discovering. It makes for a very good match between art and the youngest children.’ Annelies Roelandt, educational staff

member of the Vormingscentrum en Kinderopvang (VCOK) [Training Centre for

Upbringing and Childcare], Ghent


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Babies and toddlers always experience culture together with a (grand) parent or carer, which creates opportunities for meeting and bonding. Taking part in cultural activities provide valuable moments for families. Parents and their young children, but often also grandparents with their grandchildren, can enjoy themselves together, be amazed, discover and invent new worlds ... For (grand)parents, these are often beautiful moments, during which they get to know their (grand)child in a different way, as they offer a context in which another interaction or new dynamics arise between the (grand)parent and the (grand)child. The shared experience strengthens their bond.


Our 11-month-old daughter had a great time. So did we, because our little girl followed us every time we crawled from one musical instrument in the room to the next. Now that I have noticed that my child enjoys playing more when I move around at the same height as her, I do the same thing more at home and get some great laughs in return.’ – From a review of Kortjakje by Christof Willocx in the Gazet van Antwerpen, 7 May 2019


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‘De Spiegel is very inspiring for us also. The fascination for music that we saw in our children has prompted us to offer more music in our daily work. De Spiegel moreover uses surprising and unexpected materials. That helps us to try it ourselves or to imitate it on a small scale.’ Cindy Le Bourlier Kinderopvang Knuffel

[Cuddly Childcare Centre], Antwerp, Luchtbal

In that early phase of life, children have a very open, inquisitive and curious mind. It makes them very receptive. They surrender to artistic and cultural stimuli with wide-open eyes, sharp senses and full of wonder. They react spontaneously – from their gut feeling – which creates an interactive dialogue or game between the young child and the artist or cultural mediator. That is precisely why the age of babies and toddlers is ideal for getting acquainted with art and culture.

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‘De Spiegel is the most logical partner to work with because it is one of the few players in the field that has built up enormous expertise in turning the musical experience into a production for very young children. De Spiegel starts from the child’s logic, from their world of perception and experience. Our structural cooperation with De Spiegel has nothing to do with reaching a new target audience or planting a young seed for later, and everything to do with programming simply a good performance. De Spiegel is interesting because it pays a great deal of attention to the total experience. This is often lacking in other children’s performances: there is always a discrepancy between the narrative aspect and the musical experience. De Spiegel dares to let go of that and give all the space to the musical and non-narrative dimension, so that the play, the figures, the forms, the atmosphere, and the experience are shown to their best advantage. It is more of a sensory form of musicality than an extended vision of music in a tight timeframe.’ Tom Janssens, artistic coordinator Muziekcentrum De Bijloke, Ghent

‘Despite the artistic emancipation of the productions, creating for a young audience still has certain production and practical requirements, whereby the following rule applies: the younger the audience, the greater the importance of the right context. Baby theatre (3-12 months) is today the de facto monopoly of one company in Flanders: the Antwerp music and theatre company De Spiegel, which has excelled here under the direction of Karel Van Ransbeeck. From an introduction to the Flemish performing arts for a young audience, by Evelyne Coussens, commissioned by Kunstenpunt




Cultural activities for the youngest children are increasing, but they focus mainly on toddlers older than three. Furthermore, cultural organizations are still very reluctant to hold cultural activities for babies and toddlers (lack of appreciation/legitimization, high organization costs and low financial return, lack of knowledge about the young target group, etc.). At the same time, the demand is greater than the supply at this time. The encounter and cooperation between cultural partners and professionals working with children and families should be further stimulated and intensified.









229 FIGURES FOR THE L A ST 5 Y E A R S (2015 to 2019):

1854 performances, of which 507 abroad and 120 in nurseries De Spiegel reaches more than 10 000 families per year and introduced more than 50 artists to the work for the youngest children



























The belief that you should not pay any attention to the young child prevailed for a long time in Western Europe. The uniqueness and personality of toddlers and pre-schoolers were ignored until the children could walk and talk. They then entered the conscious world, the world of the adults – a miniature version of it, yet nonetheless.1 The importance of educating the young child was considered structurally only as of the Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century: According to the enlightened pedagogues, the first years of life are of vital importance for the development of the child’s – and the later adult’s – personality. In their view, it was best for children to be brought up by their parents alone and not to come into contact with ‘anything foreign’. After all, there was a chance that impressions that were too intense would become strongly imprinted in their young memory, and would therefore be disruptive for development and life. It was only from the age of seven to eight that the child entered a new, ‘reasonable’ phase, where reason took over from emotion and could also be shaped externally through education, among other things.2

T H E YO U N G E ST C H I L D A N D A RT Despite the fact that such narrow-minded perceptions have been refuted numerous times, very little attention is still paid to the very young child in numerous sectors, including in art and culture. There is no lack of supply nowadays, at least when culture is interpreted in very broad terms. Things are different in the subsidized art and heritage institutions, however. Apart from the limited supply, the

1 Philippe Ariès, L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime, Paris: Plon, 1960. 2 Rokus Verwoerd, ‘Kindbeeld en pedagogiek in de Nederlandse Verlichting,’ in: Comenius, 23 (1986), pp. 318-341.


difference with the artistic world of adults still lies in the quality and the vision from which this supply is developed and expanded. The question of why we need to bring toddlers in contact with art and culture is all too often answered with the adage “what’s learnt in the cradle lasts till the tomb,” which in addition to the developmental, psychological and pedagogical value, entails a negation also: it reduces the child’s activity to a kind of ‘appetizer’: what you do, get, see, hear, experience, eat, etc. now ... is good for later, for ‘real’ life. As if the here and now of the four-year-old is imperfect and therefore of less value. At the same time, this proposal must also comply with the laws of the children’s menu in the restaurant: no overly complicated flavours and unfamiliar products, but clear unit portions as per what the kid purportedly asks for, which can compete with a more customer-oriented commercial feel-good offer. What is striking about this is that it is not the child but the anxious parent who prefers to have such certainties on the menu. For complexity requires a leap into the unknown. It requires thought and time, and perhaps vision and courage also. In my opinion, the currently artistic product on offer for the young child often suffers from the afore-described described ‘safety’ factor – well made, reproducible, manageable and consumable for a wide audience. Isn’t this good for the youngest children? Of course it is. There is nothing wrong at all with safety and recognizability – quite the contrary. A safe (learning) environment is one of the basic conditions within which everyone can and wants to learn or develop. But in order to develop, more is needed than the safe environment. It requires a broad palette, but also other choices, which fortunately are made consciously by cross-thinkers: makers who think up performances that go against the grain and who nestle in a landscape like clover in a perfectly mown lawn. They feel strange, but also bring much-needed diversity. They do not oppose the landscape, but seek their own place in it, occasionally raising their heads just above ground level. One of those players is De Spiegel, which has been carving out a different path for some years now, one that has changed from ‘theatre for’ to ‘performing arts with and from young children’. Central to the vision of De Spiegel is performing together with the youngest children and stimulating the curiosity, astonishment and


imagination of children and adults alike.3 This vision has an artistic dimension and consequence for the makers and at the same time fits seamlessly in with developments in pupil-centred teaching and pedagogy for the youngest child. The way in which De Spiegel makes propositions and projects today is one that starts from not knowing, from the risk and from the attention for – and especially from – the young child and the inclusive position that the adult has therein. De Spiegel uses a number of basic principles, which we can call a Mirror Sensitivity of sorts. To describe this as a ‘method’ would be to dishonour its searching and constantly evolving character and would be at odds with the principles thereof. There is no mirror formula, but there are ingredients.

RESEARCH The analysis of the approach used by the makers at De Spiegel starts with the search for the reason why they want to bring the youngest children into contact with the performing arts. As already mentioned, curiosity, wonder and fantasy are key concepts here, which opt resolutely for and start from the autonomous and as yet undetermined experience of the child. These concepts are based on the definition that a child is an inquisitive person. This means that it follows more or less the same path as the artist-researcher. There are differences, of course, not least in the degree and possibility of becoming aware and conscious. However, child and maker alike are searching for a language that will express what the experience of the world means or can mean to them. This searching construction, in which different “languages” are tried out, is what connects the players/makers at De Spiegel with young children. It is a vision that is strongly connected to the insights of the Italian education theorist Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994) among others. He starts from one core idea: children are powerful beings



and born researchers. They want to discover the world around them, understand it, and build up their own knowledge. They are also extremely communicative and socially aware and they express themselves in a hundred languages. The task of adults, says Malaguzzi, is to watch and listen to children first and foremost. Toddlers and pre-schoolers express themselves not only through words, but also through singing, moving, playing, etc. and they do so interchangeably, without any distinction of importance. The child chooses the form of expression depending on the moment and on what it wants to achieve or explore. Preferably by trial and error.4 Based on discovery, this inquisitive attitude is characteristic of every creative process at De Spiegel. For the director, musician, player and composer alike, the challenge lies in allowing the not-knowing: playing with known artistic conventions, discovering new ways of working with classical patterns, set-ups and even instruments. This game seems childishly playful and reckless, but in fact demands a high degree of expertise and awareness from the makers.

OPENNESS A second striking element in the creations of De Spiegel is the already mentioned use of space and materials. Children and their parents experience the performances by sitting close to and often among the artists. This perspective makes the term ‘audience’ in the conventional sense disappear. Children and their parents become “emancipated spectators” as it were, co-players in the live creation that the performing arts are par excellence. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière indicates the importance of such a shift from a conventional, passive to an active role of the spectator as follows: ‘The distance that the ignorant person has to bridge is not the gap between his ignorance and the knowledge of the master. It is simply the path that runs from what he already knows to what he does not know yet, but can learn as he has learned everything else – not to take the place of the scholar, but to become proficient in the art of translation, to put his experiences into words and his words to a test, to translate his

4 Loris Malaguzzi, De honderd talen van kinderen, Amsterdam: SWP Uitgeverij, 1995.


intellectual adventures for others and to translate back the translations they offer him of their own adventures.5 Although the cognitive ability of the young child is still limited in terms of converting its experiences into abstract notions such as words or concepts, this translation is physically and non-verbally powerful. The importance of playing with the conventions of spatial experience and the use of tactile materials, for instance, is also underscored by Malaguzzi. He speaks of three ‘educators’ that help the child grow: the self (the child itself and its peers), the adult and finally space and material. The latter can encourage children to interact or rest, make them curious and help them develop symbolic play. That play is the act that enables children express themselves from their own development and to (learn to) give meaning to the world around them. It includes the world of the arts, which at that moment is not perceived as strange but as challenging, inviting and supportive. This can be from concrete narrative situations, but also from the abstraction of musical sounds for instance. After all, children are challenged to create meaning for themselves, whereby the open attitude and eye contact with players, other children and adults has a stimulating, confirming and life-enhancing effect. You are among the arts, not outside them.

COMMON MOMENT The arrangement of and openness to this dialogue with each other, where there is no dividing line between performer and spectator, creates a reversible learning climate during the performances. De Spiegel creates an open setting in its performances through the open attitude: a positive relationship that offers everyone the opportunity to learn from each other in a social process, determined by the contours of the performance. This possibility refers to the social constructivism of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky in particular, which states that everyone gives meaning to his or her environment through social processes.6 There is no attempt to find the right thing, the definition or, in this case, the meaning of the performance.

5 Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer, Amsterdam: Octavio Publicaties, 2008. 6 Lev S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society. The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.


There is not one story, there are several storylines, which are evoked and shared from everyone’s imagination. It is a difficult exercise, but in a world that often focuses on the self, on the ego, and with the discussions that lead to what a ‘self’ in ‘our’ society should be, De Spiegel deploys this way of working to search for the common element that connects us. This creative process offers an answer to the postmodern notion that a performance derives its meaning from the specific ethnic-cultural origin and traditional background of its maker(s). The emphasis on that background can lead to excessive cultural relativism, which makes a constructive appreciation and a new experience of works of art difficult. De Spiegel, on the other hand, seems to fit more into an altermodern way of making and of educating: its work, for instance, is not about the diverse life worlds of children in the city and their translation into a common goal or characteristic. The work arises out of this world, is part of it and is given a place in it7 – anew with each performance. That makes the performance fragile, breakable but also rhizomatically interwoven with the time, the place, and the people who are experiencing it.

M U LT I L I N G UA L I S M Language, and more specifically visual language, music, sound, movement and words, are the building blocks of each performance by De Spiegel. They form patterns that unfold before an audience in a playful manner. The makers (actors and directors) deliberately start with the fascination and openness of children. As already mentioned, performances are not created for, but from and through the world of children. They literally respond to the impulses and languages that children bring to the stage. This creates interaction, which makes each performance unique in and of itself. Patterns and agreements constitute a leitmotiv, but each player is free to go along to a certain extent with what the child or the adult indicates. This interplay creates and stimulates multilingualism. For the creator, for the tastemaker. What the player/musician indicates is a challenging trigger for the child to engage in dialogue.

7 Robert Klatser, Flip & Flap en de alter-moderniteit. Kunsteducatie in een altermoderne wereld. Amsterdam: Amsterdamse Hogeschool voor de Kunsten, Lectoraat, 2010.


A RT I ST I C AU T H E N T I C I T Y At the same time, the child also presents a challenge of following and being followed for the maker. This requires a specific effort and attitude from players and makers, comparable to what the Polish education theorist and author Janusz Korczak stated: ‘Get to know yourself first before you venture to get to know children. See what you can do yourself first, before you start delineating the rights and duties of children. You yourself are the child among all those children that you must get to know, educate and train first of all. It is one of the most serious mistakes to think that pedagogy is a science that concerns the child and not the human being.’8 At De Spiegel, the player and the maker enter a world which is not theirs, but that of the child but also of the parents. What ensues is not a matter of putting oneself in both worlds, but rather of making a connection between these worlds based on one’s own experience and one’s own artistic world – music, movement, images, words, etc. For the maker/player, the quality and the uniqueness of the connection lies in the quality of the artistic performance. It is each person’s duty to communicate/play as clearly, clearly, emotionally, meaningfully... as possible. This quality explains the choice of working with professionals for each element in the performance. Young or experienced. A second-rate performance does not work. The artistic impulse must be excellent precisely because it concerns children with their parents.

8 Janusz Korczak, Het recht van het kind op respect (vertaling en bewerking René Görtzen), Amsterdam: Uitgeverij SWP, 2007 (1929).


C O N C R E T E A B ST R ACT I O N Finally, the abstraction that De Spiegel dares to put into its performances is met with astonishment at times. The music used and compiled is linear in its narrative form, but can just as well be based on modularity and abstraction. Yet the audience has an ear for both. For one because the music is always supported by objects and materials - an element which is in the makers’ DNA, and also because the music is not presented as “difficult”. In their direct and close contact, the players accompany child and adult in the score. Music becomes tactile and therefore concrete. Children and adults may experience it for a moment as disturbing or strange, but they are invited and challenged to look for their own new system and meaning within the context of the performance. The afore described elements of the proposal provide sufficient context, invitation and points of contact, but also space to wander off and construct something of their own, just like blank lines in a poem. The Finnish psychologist Yrjö Engeström, relying on the Russian learning psychologists Alexei N. Leontiev and Alexander Luria, described such activity as expansive learning: participants in a collective activity take the initiative themselves to reshape a system in the face of difficulties.9 Reciprocity, exchange and socialization are the basic pillars for arriving at such a new meaning or construction. In other words, the complexity of music is not reduced to a one-dimensional, simple fact; embraced, absorbed and questioned, it acquires a new meaning that is specific to the here and now of the performance. The structure of the production allows for this: there is no linear narrative to follow, the child and the adult are allowed to meander through thoughts, feelings and structures. In 1986, poet Ted van Lieshout wrote in his collection Van verdriet kun je grappige hoedjes vouwen (You Can Fold Funny Hats from Sorrow):

9 Yrjö Engeström, From Teams to Knots. Activity-theoretical Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.


‘At first, the word art only made me think of paintings, silently caught in frames on the wall. I thought that was pathetic and I wanted to liberate a painting, but hey, I wasn’t even allowed to touch it. ... Now, when I hear the word art, I think of home and stories stored in a closed book. I can get lost in it with my finger and my eyes and sometimes find a caress in it when I am looking for one.’10 What De Spiegel does with its performance is to make this sensitivity tangible from a strong artistic discourse, walking together with the child and its parents along a path that lasts only a short time, but can continue to glow long thereafter.

10 Ted van Lieshout, Van verdriet kun je grappige hoedjes vouwen, The Hague: Leopold, 1986.



‘The creative processes of artmaking are in general compatible with the idea of collective creation. Theatre is never a work by one artist or one art discipline. There will always be a space and an audience. Artforms merge and play together, not only in the making, but also in the performance events. Materials are affected by human hands and feet and the bodies are in turn touched by the materials. The materiality of singing and drumming affects the musicians’ bodily actions in the performance space, and the vibrations make the children audience dance. All the art disciplines of theatre (scenography, music, acting) affect each other, and are able to connect in the present moment, in different and mutual ways. The sensuous worlds of children, will be guiding the art.’ – Lise Hovik, associate professor in drama and theatre at Queen Maud University College of Early Child Education, and artistic director of Teater Fot, Trondheim, Norway (from: ‘Thinking with Theatre. The Sympoiesis of Theatre for Early Years’, in Assitej Magazine (2019), pp. 42–45)


‘If we think of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) as an ecosystem, we need to consider: Ecosystems are complex, interconnected, hugely diverse systems combining all living and non-living things; they are balanced, they need an energy source; they contain producers, consumers and decomposers; they are essential to life; and they need to adapt to survive. [...] Strength in nature is not about rigidity, but about flexibility. Trees break open concrete; water weathers rock. Within all natural things there is an intrinsic energy, a desire for fulfilment, a reaching towards ... [...] And what should this sense of direction be when the future is so uncertain? In my view it is our audience, which distinguishes our network from any other. We need to reach towards, listen to, embrace and explore with our audience in order to find our true potential in the expressive medium of live performance.’ – Yvette Hardie, theatre-maker, author, journalist, former president of Assitej International, South Africa



‘Sensory Performance Practice is intrinsically political. By valuing embodied, intuitive knowledge as much as intellectual knowledge, sensory theatre gives audiences of different abilities equal opportunity to engage and contribute. It strips back to what is human, what is shared. [...] Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.’ – Margaret Atwood, author

‘Good sensory work guides you out of your head and into your body, inviting you to be fully present in the moment. In sensory performance work, each person in the room is seen, acknowledged and listened to. [...] The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed – to be seen and heard exactly as it is.’ – Parker J. Palmer, author, educator ‘We are radically curious about their different perspectives and we re-learn the world through their gaze. In this way the work is an exchange rather than a gift. [...] I now define collaboration simply as a practice that is informed by more than one person, remove one person and a different work exists ... 50/50 is neither a relevant nor necessary concept!’ – Janis Parker, Scottish dance artist From: ‘Sensory Perfomance Practice: A UK Perspective’ by Ellie Griffiths. Griffiths is a theatre-maker at Oily Cart, a Scottish theatre company which makes sensory performances for young audience and children with special needs.



Peter Adriaenssens, Zita Epenge, Jan Staes, Ine Ubben, Tchi-ann Liu, Stefan Wellens, Astrid Bossuyt, Cornelia Zambila, Stijn Saveniers, Carlos Laredo, Yvette Hardie, Andrea Gronemeyer, Ellen Hanssens, Tine Rommens, Cindy Le Bourlier, Annelies Roelandt, Tom Janssens, Evelyne Coussens, Wouter Hillaert, Lise Hovik, Annemie Morbee, Ellie Griffiths, Flemish Department of CJM, De Studio, De Veerman, Small Size Network and Assitej Belgium TEXT & COORDINATION

Isabel Voets Annemie Morbee Jan Staes TRANSLATIONS

Martine Bom (French) Alison Mouthaan & Milt Papatheofanis (English) Roland Lousberg (German)


De Spiegel Marialei 27 2018 Antwerp Belgium +32 471 913 178 REGISTERED OFFICE

Theatre De Spiegel vzw Mutsaardstraat 9 2000 Antwerp Belgium BE 0431 031 079 WHO IS WHO?


©Marion Kahane ©Senne van Loock ©Koen Broos ©Sofie Wanten ©François Caels ©Silke Devos ©Michael Meyborg ©Kristof Vrancken

Artistic management and international relations: Karel Van Ransbeeck Set and workshop: Wim Van de Vyver Planning & tour coordination: Ina Verhaeghen Technique & production manager: Zoë Bossuyt Business coordination: Phaedra Van Soom Former business manager: Zita Epenge

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be


reproduced or published without the prior consent of

Leen Depooter – quod. voor de vorm.

the publisher.


Karel Van Ransbeeck, Mutsaardstraat 9, 2000 Antwerp DISTRIBUTION IN FLANDERS


Theatre De Spiegel vzw is supported by the Flemish Community

“Director Karel Van Ransbeeck turns the most banal things into ambiguous things, with a will of their own, a direction, a secret connection. Their ubiquitous circular form is not there for the untrained, but for the detached gaze. It is the gaze of Picasso and Mondriaan, who once again demanded attention to colour, light and form. To things as they are, not to what they want to say. To looking like a toddler.

During 45 minutes of Beat the drum!, one only stares into the light box, another one jumps up and down to the music and a third one mainly wants to fathom the back of everything. De Spiegel allows it all, in a performance that turns out to be an open space full of experiences. Toddler theatre simple? It is, above all, multiple. As you would expect from all theatre.” – Wouter Hillaert, from ‘The all of a red ball’, a review of Beat the

drum!, in De Standaard

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