The fact that they are not afraid of a challenge is the least one can say about the mast acrobats from Collectif Sous le Manteau. The company is comprised of three women and four men from six different countries and six different circus schools. What binds them is their passion for Chinese pole and the shared challenge of collectively creating a new piece built around what is a normally very individual discipline. Add to that recipe seven masts and a musician and you get a vague idea of the scope of their ambitious project ‘Monstro’. The piece premiered on the 17th of January 2019 in the French Cirque-théâtre d’Elbeuf.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #57 – December 2018 // Author: Hanna Mampuys // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
CircusMagazine talked with two of the members of the collective with whom you are probably already familiar. Jesse Huygh (B), a thoroughbred from the corral of Ell Circo d’ell Fuego, went on to study at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque in Brussels and thereafter worked with companies like Cirque Éloise (CA), No Fit State (UK) and Circa (AUS). He’s joined by Benjamin Kuitenbrouwer (NL), ‘Monki’ to his friends and everyone else for that matter. Monki is a product of the former youth circus Elleboog (NL), and he went on to study at the Codarts circus school in Rotterdam, thereafter creating a solo performance and working for TENT Circustheater Productions. Their paths crossed at Codarts, where Jesse was Monki’s teacher, and now they have joined forces in the French collective Sous le Manteau.
How did the collective come to be?
Jesse Huygh: “At the Extreme Convention of 2016 the organisation gave me carte blanche to put together something that could be performed at the Atlas Festival. For quite a while I had been toying around with the idea of bringing together a bunch of mast acrobats to see what might happen, and that invitation from the festival seemed the perfect opportunity. Monki and Valia (Beauvieux, red.) offered to think along with me and help organise the project, so that was the first step. We started calling around and managed to round up nine more mast acrobats in Antwerp. After a week’s experimentation we presented a piece of 30 minutes. The work was well received and looking back I believe that it was also the first step towards the creation of Monstro. Of the twelve acrobats in that project five of them are now part of the present collective, and our musician Simon Toutain was also part of that initial project.”
Benjamin Kuitenbrouwer: “Shortly thereafter we received a similar invitation via Valia for a French festival. It gave us a chance to repeat the experiment with a new group of mast acrobats as well as to meet a few more of the people who would finally join us in the collective.”
What were the criteria for who you would finally invite into the collective?
Huygh: “We looked at technical ability on the mast, but also motivation, drive and the degree of commitment to the group and the project. You have to go on stage together but you also have to enjoy a beer together thereafter. The majority of our time isn’t spent in artistic collaboration, but in sharing the simple tasks and moments that make up every day. It is important to be aware of that and to pay active attention to that social side of things. You can’t just suddenly say: and now we will only think about the performance, no matter how much you would actually love to do that.” (laughs)
Kuitenbrouwer: “From the very beginning we were also looking for diversity among the performers. For us it was essential to put together a group of four men and four women, as well as strive for differences in style and for other possible contrasts. Once we had decided on the initial eight artists, we organised a group chat via Skype. For Valia, Jesse and myself we didn’t consider that to be the end of the process since we were still considering the possibility of expanding even further to ten or even twelve members. At that point we were still talking with other potential candidates. But in that first collective discussion it became clear that the group, or at least the majority of the group felt otherwise. We decided to continue with just the eight of us. For me that moment was the ‘birth of the collective’. The moment where the collective decided to be a collective and that it was no longer the three of us who were taking on a special role as founders or leaders. All the members became equal in this first – and by the way not unanimous – collective decision.”
Was it always your intention to work as a collective?
Huygh: “We always knew we wanted to form a group of equals. This experiment with the collective was also a big part of the creation process for Monstro. Mast acrobatics is usually a solo discipline so mast acrobats are accustomed to working alone. We were all curious about what it would be like to create things together, and equally unsure if we could actually do it. We really believe in the value of the collective: it creates all sorts of new possibilities on stage, as well as challenging the way that we look at our discipline. We are equally convinced that working together is a healthier way to approach things than crawling into your own hole. So this creation is our attempt to accept and deal with that challenge.”
Why did you specifically choose for a balance between the number of men and women in the group?
Huygh: “There are far fewer women than men doing mast. From the very beginning we thought it was important to have women in the cast, so rather than just accept there were more men than women, we decided to actively search out women for the project.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “We wanted exactly the same number of women as men: four and four. When we had finally assembled the group one of the women dropped out. Funnily enough it was the remaining three women who tried to persuade us not to go looking for a replacement. Re-establishing the equilibrium of the group with a fourth woman became especially important to the men in the group, implying it was the men who would have to create a place for the women, as if they couldn’t do that themselves. But that insistence on a fourth woman began to feel unnatural, so we decided that it was the initial intention that counted, and we kept it to three women and four men. You wouldn’t believe how many people just assume that Sous le Manteau is a collective of seven men. That fact in itself makes our choice an important statement.”
Where does the name come from, ‘Sous le Manteau’?
Kuitenbrouwer: “During one of our first residencies we held a brainstorm session with the audience after a try-out. We brought a whiteboard up on stage and said: shout out whatever comes to mind! One of the names I wrote down was ‘Sous le Manteau’. Probably because in that try-out we had worked with an overcoat. At the time I didn’t even know what sous le manteau meant. To be honest it sounded quite perverse to me.”
Huygh: “‘Sous le Manteau’ literally translates as ‘under the coat’, but means something to the effect of ‘under the table’ or ‘under the counter’: clandestine, slightly against the rules. Not actually illegal but not the way you are expected to behave. Our initial criteria for a name – not too French, immediately understandable, international sounding – got thrown overboard and yeah, that became our name.”
The company is based in France. Is that a practical or tactical choice?
Huygh: “Both. A good share of the company studied in France and stayed on after their studies were finished. They found work and then gained the French status of ‘intermittent du spectacle’ (comparable to the Flemish artist’s statute, red.) which gave them the right to unemployment. For them it was the obvious choice to stay in France.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “Since a large part of the group had connections in France it was also easier to find partners and support. In Europe, France is still the land to be in when it comes to the financial support available for circus, and it’s as well the front-runner when it comes to organisation and infrastructure.”
Huygh: “In Belgium there are more and more possibilities, but you still quickly reach the limits of what is possible, and with only one Belgian in the company the idea of settling here made little sense.”
Are there also disadvantages to being a French company?
Kuitenbrouwer: “Sometimes the fact that everything is so well organised is a disadvantage. You can’t easily do things ‘sous le manteau’. Because we are a French ‘association’ (comparable to a Belgian vzw or a stichting in the Netherlands, red.) there are a lot of people examining what you do. You can’t just decide at the last moment to stay on somewhere three days longer for rehearsals, because then you are no longer insured.”
Huygh: “And you are only allowed to train six days out of seven! Another insurance stipulation.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “In the Netherlands and Belgium we don’t even think about that sort of thing. If we get hurt during the creation process, yeah, that’s tough luck. Whereas in France we can declare it as a work injury and then receive compensation from the insurance. Those strict rules are certainly to our advantage, but it does take away a bit of our freedom.”
Can you tell us what Monstro is about?
Huygh: “The performance is actually a mirror of our experiences while creating the piece. What you see on stage is born out of our thoughts and experiences as a group and as individuals. The monster we refer to can take on many forms and be interpreted in many different ways. There are monsters in each of us and there are monsters in every group and every society. We realised that the biggest, and most powerful monster is the ego. The biggest monster for a group is the individual whereas for the individual it’s the group that presents the biggest threat. And yet we consciously strive for the collective experience. Proof that a monster can also be something positive. Just how we can also present that ‘positive’ aspect on stage is at the moment an important question.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “A monster is something that surpasses you. It is monstrous, bigger than you are and so it feels like a threat. You cannot completely control it. It’s something ‘super-human’ but also has something inhuman because it surpasses you. To give an example: the ego becomes terrifying at the moment that it presents itself as a counterweight to the collective and demands to be taken into account. The moment you think: ‘if I don’t completely throw my ego into this battle then I am done for’. I know that it’s no longer rational, but my ego takes over to such a degree that I’m no longer in control.”
And how do you translate those thoughts to the stage?
Kuitenbrouwer: “We came upon the theme of the play when in the initial phases of research we continually found ourselves creating monsters comprised of our different bodies. By placing ourselves above, beside or behind each other we created these sort of superhuman creatures. So we’ve put these monsters in a slightly surreal, rather dark universe in which they attain their full impact. And we have followed that line of thought, creating other metaphoric monsters, for example that of the ‘mass’: masses of human beings void of thought, repeating one and the same action, a sort of monstrous representation of a system, of a society.”
Huygh: “The pressure you feel every day to keep going, to continue to follow. That’s the monstrous ‘everyday’ that swallows us up and over which we seem to have little control.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “Often on stage we place the monster up against the humane, one of us or a few of us represent that human counterweight. Because if you don’t have man on stage as counterweight to the monsters, then those creatures are nothing more than…”
Kuitenbrouwer: “Yeah, on our off-days. (laughs) By putting man against the monster you accentuate the contrast and amplify that which is monstrous.”
Huygh: “During a feedback moment after a try-out one of the children in the audience said that a monster is only a monster for the person who sees it. That was an inspiring idea, and it’s also true. If you don’t experience it as monstrous, there is no monster.”
You have systematically asked your audience for feedback during the creation process. Why is that?
Huygh: “The things we are saying on stage are so inspired by our own experiences that there is always a danger that it all becomes too personal or specific. Sharing our process with the audience can open things up. For instance, we have asked people to tell us about their own monsters, and how they experience the confrontation.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “We also have Olivier Letellier (among other things artistic director of Le Phare, red.) who follows our creative process from the outside. Olivier combines circus as well as other media in his work as theatre maker and story-teller. Olivier usually comes for four days or so during a residence to quiz us on the big dramaturgical lines we are laying out, as well as sharpening up the material that we already have. But the final decisions are always left to the collective.”
How do you make decisions?
Huygh: “In short, with a whole lot of talk.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “To avoid that endless discussion, we sometimes assign someone as temporary director of a particular scene. Everyone else just has to shut up and do what that person asks of them. It’s a way of testing out new ideas without others competing for equal time with their own ideas. After a while the direction shifts back into the hands of the entire group, quite organically.”
In the meantime you are in the last phases of your creation process, heading for the premiere. Does something change in your way of working in that final phase?
Huygh: “We have a lot of material and now comes the point where we have to decide which material makes it into the play and in what form. We have to keep thinking and putting together the puzzle until we feel like it’s right. Hopefully we will have the answers to those questions at least a few weeks before the premiere, but there is always a chance that we will be dealing with those choices right up until the premiere and that that process remains a hard nut to crack.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “You can feel the interaction between us changing. Everyone is aware that there’s a premiere on the horizon. Up until now we have always been kind and respectful to one another, sometimes to the point that it has kept us from going forward. I predict that we will enter a conflictual period now, but I am also looking forward to that. It’s about time to demand more from ourselves. Now you have to put your foot down if you want something to be in the performance or not. This is the period that counts and it will be very important towards the final product.”
You went after the budget for your decor via crowdfunding. How did that go?
Kuitenbrouwer: “That crowdfunding is nerve-wracking but really valuable. By going beyond the official organisations for financial support you open up your network. In our case it was a good way to involve our families and friends back home in the project. A way to let them know that something is going to happen and that they can be part of it.”
Huygh: “The money we raised means we can go on tour and reach the people who supported us. We bought our own floor which means we can play in almost any room where we can put up our seven masts. For us it’s essential, because there are few theatres with the sixteen anchor-points we need for Chinese mast.”
How does the future look for Sous le Manteau?
Kuitenbrouwer: “To begin with, the playlist for Monstro in and around France is wonderfully full for the next two years. We also really hope to play in all of our native countries. But after Monstro? I have to admit that I am already looking forward to a next step, perhaps even another creation together.”
Huygh: “I actually only consider our initial goal, creating a collective with mast acrobats, to have to have been reached if we go on to make another production together after this one. It would mean that the collective has become a company that stays together for more than one project.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “In a new creation, I would be interested in starting with a given that we’ve decided on ahead of time. A theme that we want to develop and around which we already share some ideas from the outset. With Monstro the content grew during the creative process, but I think that the other way around might lead us to an even richer result.”
Huygh: “The desire is there and the people are there. People who – in spite of everything – want to work together.”
Kuitenbrouwer: “Perhaps not everyone will want to continue and that’s just fine. It’s a discussion for after the premiere. At any rate by then we will know more about what we are getting ourselves into. Because with this creation we had no idea.”