[This article was published in CircusMagazine #46 – March 2016]
[Author: Brecht Hermans – Translation: Craig Weston – Pictures: Bart Grietens]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
The Dutch have a remarkable weakness for all things Belgian. Dutch cafes carry a wide assortment of Belgian beers, their festivals are packed with Belgian performances and in 2015 the Belgian Jan Daems was chosen as the new director of Codarts, the circus university in Rotterdam. The appointment seemed to be written in the stars, just as Jan’s entire career an organic succession of “right place – right time” episodes. After initially studying mime, he took to the stage as an actor, later moved more towards coaching and directing, and studied circus pedagogy at the Ecole de Cirque in Brussels. He ended up with Cirque du Monde in Mexico, and then came back to the Circuscentrum in Gent. When the opening came in Rotterdam, Jan applied, and got the job.
Was it difficult as Belgian to come into the established structure of a Dutch arts university?
Jan Daems: “No, actually not, but it was very rigorous. I spent the first six months watching and listening. I am not the kind of person who walks in and proclaims that everything immediately has to change. I first wanted to see what there already was, who did what, and how they did it. Then I started to add my own accents, working together closely with the administrative director Anna Beentjes. We decide things together. I take her wallet into account, while she gives the same attention to my artistic vision. The art is in creating an Open House together, as Lou Reed and John Cale describe it in one of their songs.”
Do you feel like you missed something in your own education?
“Had I followed a circus school myself, perhaps I would sooner have taken more definitive action, with stronger opinions about techniques and specializations. Of course I am familiar with the technique, but as a coach or director one’s attention tends to go more towards the bigger picture, rather than to the individual technique. The advantage in this case was that the delay gave me a real chance to see the teachers doing their own thing.”
At the end of this introductory phase, are there things you specifically would like to change in the course?
“I want to concentrate on the long-term training and the development of the artistic identity of each student. I also want to decide which techniques we will specialize in. That’s a choice that we’ll make together with the ACaPA (Tilburg) and ESAC (Brussels), so that we can refer the students accordingly. It makes no sense for all three of us to invest in the same structure and teachers. The fact that we are so close to each other geographically means we can tune ourselves to one another and look collectively at the best place for each student.”
Is that collaboration already happening?
“To some degree, with room to go further. For example, there are agreements which make it possible for a student to temporarily follow classes in another school, or for schools to share a teacher. Still, each school has their own program. It’s impossible for the same teacher to be in two schools at the same time. One of the things that stands in the way of further collaboration is simply the time. Everyone is so so so busy, just like society in general. Maybe we have to read our emails less often, and spend a bit more time on what we’re all about.”
FREE AND APPLIED CIRCUS
In CircusMagazine recently there was a big discussion about the circus schools. The fact that there is a real lack of circus-creators graduating from those schools. What’s your opinion?
“What I found unfortunate in that discussion was that the three schools, situated in the same square meter so to speak, were inadvertently being compared to one another. If we were looking at a list of say ten schools, that would be a different story. That said, the fact that the discussion has been in initiated is a good thing. It’s constructive if you can get people to say what they think, rather than mumbling about what they’re not happy about. Say it! Which is of course the function of a circus magazine.”
Do you agree that there are not enough circus-makers?
“When we do auditions at Codarts, we go for the people who we can see want to be on stage. To my mind that desire already plays an important part in authorship. But some people are, above all, just good performers. It’s like in the graphic arts, where you have free graphics and applied graphics. I want to continue to offer some of my students the chance to solely work as a performer in service of a director. If people feel good in that role and they do it well, then that should remain a possibility.
But if we shift our attention to those with the profile of a maker, an author, then I agree that the circus world is still a pretty thin sandwich. There are not enough layers in our field, too little foundation in research and analysis. We remain quickly content with the first idea. Thinking up a weak little story as an excuse to slip in your technique is a practice we should get rid of. It is much more honest to perform a good circus act in a classic show than to pretend that you have discovered a new form.
Actually, I think everyone should be sent back to the history books. Much of the material from the old circus got thrown away at the moment clowns were looked down upon as ‘passé’. Circus was going to re-invent and take itself seriously, and the ugly wigs and big shoes were the first things that had to go. But it’s not about that. There were for instance great Russian clowns and comics like Buster Keaton. If circus were to draw once again from that source, it would by definition become a more interesting place to be. If your only goal is to be taken seriously, then go to an actors’ school. And even then, it’s possible you’ve been cursed with a mug that’s always going to make people laugh.” (laughs)
Has circus gone too far with the idea that it must be art?
“Each generation is convinced they have found something new, and takes that very seriously. But you can only get some real perspective once you’ve gotten a generation further yourself. Twenty-five years ago there weren’t many people who were still interested in circus. In the past twenty years there was a big re-discovery, and a movement to raised circus to art, with a capital A. I have nothing against that, but if you are not at that level yet as a maker, you have to accept that. You can try to be Picasso, but don’t fight against something you’re not..
In those days everyone looked up to the first attempts in France, where a text from Molière would get strangled in a silk number. Luckily we have moved on from that copy-paste way of working. Experiments will still happen, and Dadaism will make an appearance at some point, but we have to go further.”
Is it not asking too much of a circus school to deliver us authors? Doesn’t a potential maker, fresh from school, need some time to develop as an artist?
“A school is only one element in the process of becoming an author. Of course we hope that the student has gotten as far as possible by the end of their time with us, but as a school you know that you can only take things so far, and will not necessarily reap the final rewards. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: we offer tools to the student and it is up to them to do something with them. If they aren’t willing to do that, then we have to grant them the opportunity to fall flat on their face.”
CIRCUS IN A TWISTED WORLD
Apart from discussions about education, is there something you miss in today’s circus?
“I miss punk in the circus. We’re too well behaved. We have to be brave enough to kick some shins. Dare to do things that an audience may perhaps not like immediately. There’s too little courage to really make a mess.”
Is there a group that does manage to do that in your opinion?
(Thinks for a bit) “The Australian Acrobat is an example. I didn’t think everything they did was good, but they always did their own thing — bam — in the here and now. And I still love to watch Danny Ronaldo. He keeps searching, with respect for the past. Is that contemporary circus? At any rate, right now today in 2016, I’m pleasantly surprised. He touches me. And something completely different: the performance ‘Azimut’ from Compagnie 111. To put circus at the service of plastic choreography to such an extent that people wonder if you can still call it circus. Whenever art raises questions I think we are in a good place.”
Can we contend that the searching itself is more interesting than the delivery of a perfect final product?
“Yes, perhaps that is a key: if you want to be a circus maker, shift down a few gears. Don’t try to get to the top too quickly. It’s the hard knocks, the blow-ups and the lower depths that give you the strength to climb up higher. I think we need to respect the rhythm and timing of clowns. We are just people. Try, and work as hard as you can, but also admit it when things are not happening, or when you’re just having a lazy day.”
A slower growing process for young makers, that’s music to the ears of any art form…
“But in the circus world it is particularly difficult. To begin with you are dealing with age. Young people want to push their technical prowess as far as they can. They want to push their limits because they realize they only have so much time. In that sense circus is top-sport: there comes a moment when your time is up, when you have to stop. So you feel like you have to do with what you can learn in those four years of school. It’s hard then to convince young students of the importance of the process.
The actual time one has in this kind of training is incredibly limited. In circus you have the physical aspect, you have the risk factor, and you have the appropriate rhythm between those two. You are constantly working on different things at the same time. It is like braiding: you have to know how many strands you have, how you have to braid them, and where to find the knot in case you have to take the whole thing apart again. It’s a process of permanent renewal. Just as it is with every performance.”
After school, are there enough possibilities for young circus artists to continue to work on their skills as circus-makers?
“In the Netherlands there are still fewer possibilities than in France or Belgium. That said, things are changing fast. The interest in programming circus is growing, though still not enough to keep the circus makers in the country. Most of the work is to be found with foreign companies. In Belgium it’s a similar story: the market is too small. In France there is still a lot of support, but for me it gets claustrophobic when I see local politicians who want to be involved in the cultural planning, and who close down festivals or forbid theatres to program things that they don’t consider ‘suitable’.
We desperately need more resources for circus. I am afraid that if circus has to go it solely with what is earned at the box office, the tickets will soon become very very expensive. While circus, of all the art forms, has to remain available to all levels of society.”
Does society need circus?
“We need to be able to laugh at ourselves. To observe ourselves and marvel at how poetic and powerful we can be. We live in a system where everything has to generate money. Selfishness is a virtue. We’ve thrown away all our spirituality. If there are no more churches, then why not go to the circus?! Does that mean that the biggest masterpieces have to come from the circus? No. But we have to experience it together. On all levels.”
Is the social aspect then for you the most important attribute of circus?
“No. Whatever you offer has to have quality. But that quality can be measured in the humanity of the work. Circus is just one of the different cultural experiences we have on hand. Art is important, and circus is one of its branches. The question remaining is how much a society is willing to invest in the arts, for the sake of its own survival. What qualifies something as a work of art is another discussion altogether.”
Should creators even concern themselves with the question of what qualifies as art? Shouldn’t they maintain the freedom to try everything?
“In our school we stimulate the students to leave their comfort zones. To come up with something which makes them wonder themselves if they should be doing it. That to me is a very important challenge: dare to do something that even you think goes too far. I think that in the long run more good comes from that approach than from self-censure, or not just trying things out.
Art must maintain its freedom?
“And art is the safeguard of that freedom. Art has to make people think. It has to provoke. If you see an artist like Koen Van Mechelen in the museum, the first time you ask yourself: what are these chickens doing here? But by putting a chicken in a museum, the whole world starts talking about all the subjects related to that: if you go for the same variety, you get incest, and that is unhealthy. The statement that he’s making, I miss that in the circus. Yes, please, box us in the ears. You don’t have to go agit-prop, but do rile us up a bit. Art may entertain, but if you reduce it solely to entertainment, then you are just manufacturing products. We need to continue to experiment, and we need to invest in that. There are so many experiments carried out with weapons, and with things that are not essential to our survival. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to continue to invest in experiments in the arts?”