[This article was published in CircusMagazine #52 – September 2017]
[Author: Evelyne Coussens – Translation: Craig Weston – Picture: Brecht Van Maele]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Six children, two circus artists (Michiel Deprez and Axel Guérin) and an actor (Griet Dobbelaere) dig down to the roots of our existence in the circus/dance performance ‘Family Trees’ of choreographer Janni van Goor. ‘I couldn’t care less whether a particular scene is circus or dance. Those are just words we stick onto things.’
(…) Parents are roofs. First one side falls away, then the other. Sometimes both at the same time. Then we are living out in the open, the wind blows up around us, a flurry of entangled breathing. So then we have to become the roof. (…)
When I show Janni Van Goor this citation from a poem by Bernard Dewulf it takes her breath away, how he captures in so few words what it is to be a parent, to be a child, to be part of a family: sometimes happily, sometimes unwillingly, always unavoidably. It is precisely that double-edged bond which lies at the heart of her new piece, ‘Family Trees’. In the play Van Goor searches for the significance of family ties but also for a movement vocabulary in which dance and circus meet, just as happily and just as unwillingly. She is working with one actress, two circus artists and six children from the ateliers of the KOPERGIETERY and Circusplaneet.
You prepared for this process by looking into the history of the old nomadic circus families. Do you have memories yourself of the circus performances you saw as a child?
Janni Van Goor: “Of course. In the village I grew up in there were two annual high points: the fun fair and the circus. We always went to the circus shows, but I think the quality was dubious, I mostly remember a few pitiful numbers with dogs jumping through hoops and I think that it was all a bit shabby. (laughs) Beyond that we would regularly watch German television, where every Sunday there was a program from Circus Krone. That was something else altogether, with clowns and trapeze artists and all the glamour one associates with that kind of big circus.”
A rather romantic notion of the nomadic circus.
“Yes, but I was enchanted. Even later, when I saw Fellini’s ‘La Strada’, where he lays bare the less romantic world and the hard life behind the spectacle, I remained fascinated by the atmosphere of freedom associated with the circus, as well as the craftsmanship involved, even if today the nomadic circuses are serious companies with serious machinery that they drag along with them.”
When was the first time you came across new circus?
“A few years ago Circuscentrum organised some workshops for circus artists around the idea of creating work with children, and I was one of the coaches. At that point I didn’t know much at all about new circus and I was surprised by the freedom with which those people would take on an artistic task, the energy with which they threw themselves at the work. My experience with dancers is that they are often more precise, that the context in which they are willing to work hinges on several precise preconditions, and only when those preconditions are met will they come on board. Whereas circus artists, they just go for it. And I realised that that’s also the reason I liked working so much with young people. They’re open, they are curious and hungry, and once you’ve gotten them hooked, they give themselves unconditionally.”
NO DECORATION PLEASE
With ‘Family Trees’ you combine the two, working with children and with circus artists. What led you to the choice for children in this process?
“The children are not professionally trained, but each of the six has something in their physique that makes them interesting performers. One is very agile, another flexible, a third just gives off something beautiful and another has a wild kind of ‘look’… They don’t yet carry with them the ballast of having been trained in something, so there is nothing they have to ‘un-learn’: for them being on stage is something very organic. What’s great about kids is that you can get a lot out of them, but that they also manage to come up with all kinds of things themselves. That’s inspiring.”
I can also imagine that there are limits to what you can create with them.
“Of course, although I don’t feel many limitations with the material I want to develop at the moment – at any rate I start with what comes from them, not with things I’ve thought up myself ahead of time, and I am not particularly interested in virtuosity. I do feel the need to adapt my way of working, because with a shorter attention span the children can only remain concentrated for a certain amount of time. Unlike working with adult dancers, you can’t just endlessly go on searching and trying things. I do find that they can go for quite a while, but working with them does imply keeping an eye on the clock.”
You say you’re not interested in virtuosity for its own sake, but what does that mean for the circus artists?
“Certainly, for them virtuosity is a big issue. For example, how do you involve a juggler in an artistic story if all of the attention isn’t going towards the juggling? How can you take the art of the circus performers beyond the realm of ‘tricks’? That tension is perhaps the biggest artistic challenge we face in ‘Family Trees’. Michiel Deprez, a juggler (who recently won the TAZ-KBC -Young theatre prize, nvdr), is a very shy, finely tuned individual, with an open regard towards the circus. He’s personally very involved in a search for how to bring his art to the stage, and he carries with him a kind of secret when he is performing that really appeals to me. On the other hand Axel Guérin is a ground acrobat with enormous flexibility and a big generous energy. Both artists are of course very open to this search we’re on together, and which isn’t over yet.”
Is it conceivable that ‘Family Trees’ becomes a performance in which Michiel doesn’t juggle and Axel doesn’t do any acrobatics?
“It’s conceivable, yes.”
ABSTRACT AND CONCRETE
How do the roles of the circus artists compare to that of actress Griet Dobbelaere and to that of the children?
“They are equally important – I don’t want a play in which the circus artists do spectacular tricks while Griet and the children just sort of wander about. In the beginning of this process I worked alone with Michiel and Axel, and some fantastic things happened, but I soon realised that if I wanted to keep things in balance, I needed to have the whole group together. There has to be a synergy between the adults and the children, the children aren’t just there for decoration, heh! I also didn’t want the predictability of adults playing the adults and children playing the children in all the moments based on the family. We’re not just out to illustrate. As far as I am concerned the children can also play the parents, the boys can play girls, there are no classic characters or role patterns.”
Do you find it difficult to avoid illustration?
“I find it more difficult to avoid in circus than in dance. For instance, we have one scene in which Michiel juggles with socks, and that quickly becomes a sort of literal image of a housewife managing to juggle all the household duties together the all the children… Somehow circus is more concrete than dance, I think that has something to do with the objects that are used. Dance has a greater potential to speak to the imagination through abstraction, with the inherent danger that that minimalism becomes ‘holy’. Actually it’s somewhere between those two extremes that I am constantly trying to navigate with ‘Family Trees’.”
Will ‘Family Trees’ be presented as a circus or as a dance performance?
“As a circus/dance performance. I played it safe.” (laughs)
Are you at all concerned about the expectations of a respective dance or circus audience?
“I try not to think about that. I’m someone who works intuitively, I can’t necessarily tell you ahead of time what kind of choices I will make, they come out of the work process and certain images seem to sneak into the play all on their own. Like the juggling scene with the wash, that is a ‘circus scene’ which for me is all about the theme of the family, the home, a mother, care… But whether you say the scene belongs to the ‘dance’ or the ‘circus’ side of things is a question that doesn’t really interest me. Those are just words you stick onto something that already exists”.
Maybe it’s time to talk for a moment about your theme. What is it you find so fascinating about ‘the family’?
“The fact that your family determines so much about the rest of your life. Even if you never see your family, or never again, they’ve put their stamp on you and you remain a part of that family, whether you like it or not. You may now be on your own, all the better, but your family still draws the blueprint of who you are. I see it in my own family: put us together and you will be amazed how easily we all slide into the old patterns of behaviour that we thought we had gotten rid of long ago.”
In that sense the family has a dubious role: protective yet potentially suffocating.
“Yes, in that sense there is a link for me between the romantic image of the circus family we were talking about and my own youth in the village, a small community where everyone knows everything about everybody, and where family ties are much more dominant than in a city. I still see it today in the life my mother leads: she is alone, but she has a tight network of brothers around her, who all come by every Wednesday. For my mother, those in her family are also her friends. She’s eighty so that’s great, but I always found that village life incredibly claustrophobic, something like a corset. Maybe along the way we have lost something – it was once self-evident that we had to be there for each other – but I for one am happy that we no longer live in a time where women are just expected to marry within the community and to have children. I don’t feel the least bit of nostalgia for that mapped-out way of life, and being able to break away from all of that was definitely liberating for me.”
Being in the family can feel familiar and strange at the same time. To get at that uncanny contradiction, you drew inspiration from the American photographer Gregory Crewdson. His photos portray hyper-realistic, domestic settings which contain seemingly everyday events: a mother and a daughter together on a couch, a housewife staring with melancholic gaze through the kitchen window. Everything appears to be normal, and yet something’s not quite right.
“Yes, for me, the alienation in those photographs is incredibly powerful, and recognisable, since everyone knows the feeling, that moment you look at your family and think to yourself: Is this my mother? Is this my sister? Is this really where I come from? I lived alone with my mother for four years, just before she met her second husband. I have some half-brothers and sisters, who I am very fond of, but who all the same remain ‘strange’ to me – the blood ties between us are not complete. Because I have a different father I will always be an outsider, the strange bird in the nest.”
The power of the photos seems to be hidden in the silence – in these families it’s obvious that no one’s talking to each other, things are only expressed on a physical level.
“The photographer explicitly offers images of moments which cannot be expressed in words. The first time I saw his work I had to think of a play by Johan Simons that I had seen, back when he was working with theatre group Hollandia. ‘Stallerhof’ (a production from 1991, nvdr). It’s a play by Kroetz, a horrific story about a farming family with a mentally handicapped daughter who is mistreated in all sorts of ways – the play really broke my heart. The helplessness of the characters, their inability to express their love for each other, to express themselves in any way for that matter, that really hit me. I see it often today in the school where I teach (Van Goor teaches at the Municipal Art Institute on the Ottogracht in Ghent, nvdr). Families fall apart, but nobody talks to each other, and the children get lost somewhere in that mix… it’s really sad.”
So in the end we are not so willing to get rid of our families completely, however domineering they may be. When we lose the roof, as Bernard Dewulf writes, it’s very painful.
“Yes, but that poem is about more than broken families: one day we will all lose our parents, definitively, which moves us up a place in the line of generations. We tend to think that old people were always old, but that’s not the case, they too were young – that’s an insight that only comes once you get a bit older yourself. That changeover of generations is also a subject that’s found its way into ‘Family Trees’.”
Does that changeover of generations frighten you?
“At any rate it’s something that I think about a lot these days. I am a mother, but also still a child, because my mother is still living, yet I know the time will come when she’ll no longer be here. I’m painfully aware of that each time I see her waving goodbye from the porch as I drive away from a visit. It brings me back to the idea that as a human being, you are always alone, even if you love your child more than anything and even if your own mother loves you more than anything. In that sense I would have liked to add an older person to the cast of ‘Family Trees’. Perhaps I still will. An old woman on stage, who just is. She has to be the roof, no more than that.”