Red Haired Men, the new performance from Alexander Vantournhout, lends its title from a bizarre poem. Together with three other – not so red-haired – men he has created an equally absurd performance, derived in the spirit of the Russian writer Daniil Kharms.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #56 – September 2018 // Author: Liv Laveyne // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears.
Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.
He couldn’t speak, since he didn’t have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose.
He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all!
Therefore there’s no knowing whom we are even talking about.
In fact it’s better that we don’t say any more about him.
(Red Haired Man, Daniil Kharms)
The least one can say about Kharms (1905-1942) is that he was a rather eccentric figure. Poet, novelist, playwright and one of the leading members of the Russian avant-garde in the 1920’s, he could often be seen strolling down the streets of Saint Petersburg dressed as Sherlock Holmes, complete with pipe and houndstooth coat. But under the increasingly repressive regime of Stalin, Kharms was labeled as subversive, which led to a ban on publishing any of his works. When as a last resort he started writing children’s books, even they were eventually included in the censorship. He was finally arrested, declared to be legally insane and died a horrible death in a prison cell in Leningrad. Kharms’ wife, who by then had fled to America, later saw a photo taken in prison of an emaciated Kharms, his eyes completely rolled back to show only the whites of his eyes. She burst out laughing and recounted that rolling his eyes back into their sockets was one of his favourite party tricks. Even on the verge of death Kharms managed to mock his captors.
“While at first glance to be no more than an amusing children’s rhyme, ‘Red Haired Man’ resonates at a much deeper and darker level, talking about the complete loss of identity that Kharms was forced to endure,” according to Alexander Vantournhout. It was during a theatre workshop with the actor Nico Sturm, during his studies at P.A.R.T.S., that Vantournhout first came in contact with the work of Daniil Kharms. Once seeing the performance H, an incident from Kris Verdonck, also inspired by Kharms, Vantournhout’s fascination with Kharms was complete. For Ruben Mardulier as well, who performs together with Winston Reynolds, Axel Guerin and Vantournhout, Kharms was a revelation. “I really love poetry and I collect volumes of it, but I had never come across Kharms. I love the surreal nature of his writing: conventional in form, experimental in content. Even if he was writing in the 1930’s, his work rings fresh and contemporary today. A poem about someone who loses his identity like ‘Red Haired Man’ can be placed in the context of Russian politics at the time, or even today, but you can just as easily interpret it in the light of today’s Facebook, virtual reality or gender fluidity.”
Red Haired Men makes the same subtile references. To disappear is the central theme of the performance. “Many of Kharms’ stories end abruptly with a strange punchline, and with a central character that simply vanishes, inexplicably, and the cryptic warning that it would be better if we no longer speak of him,” says Vantournout. “It is Kharms’ way of referring to the many arrests and ‘sudden’ disappearances of his friends, but it is also a concrete link to circus. Not only is one of his children’s collections entitled ‘Circus Sjardam’, Kharms would as well organise magic shows in which he would drive the audience to distraction with tricks that teased the expectations of the audience, while often not resolving things for them in the end.” ‘To be or not to be’, even this Shakespearian question had to bend to the rules. With the literary movement OBERIU (of which the painter Kurt Malevitch was also a member, red.) Kharms would give ‘simultaneous poetry readings’. “His readings were often so successful that they would soon be sold out, so he would get an actor to go outside of the theatre and simultaneously read his poetry to those who couldn’t get into the venue,” Vantournhout recounts. “During a tryout in arts centre Vooruit we tried something similar. Though it didn’t become part of our final piece, I still think it’s interesting to continue to look for ways to bridge the gap between the theatre and the street.”
When Kharms would come to a junction in the road, he was known for lying down on the ground, on his back, with his feet facing in the same direction from which the side road came. For Mardulier it was a freaky, almost mystical experience of kinship when he read about that strange habit. “It sounds crazy, but I have done that as well, long before I heard that it was one of Kharms’ habits. It is strange to feel so connected with someone. That was a recurring feeling during our research together. One of the most striking characteristics of the ‘movement’ in the performance, we use it as the image on our poster, is that during the play we seldom look at one another when performing our acrobatics, which is normally the case, but rather look to the audience with our heads tipped way back, so our faces appear upside down to the audience. I had already experimented with this idea during my studies at ACaPA (Academy for Circus and Performance Arts in Tilburg, red.) and at that time Alexander already said ‘we will do something with that one day’. Strangely enough there is a short story in one of Kharm’s collections entitled ‘Today I wrote nothing’, in which while two men are arguing with one another, one’s head tips further and further back until finally his neck snaps off entirely, his head falls from his body, and he dies before the eyes of the other, while his antagonist continues to shout at the headless man how ugly he is. When we read that story, we realised we were on the right track!”
Word as a projectile
Kharms may have offered them a mystical kinship, but his language brought with it a particular challenge for the four circus artists: words. Yes, the performers speak in this piece, and in different languages at that. Text fragments in English, French, German, Dutch as well as some things in the local language whenever they can, which demands a bit of practice. “Almost everyone in the circus world advised us against this,” laughs Vantournhout, who didn’t let it get to him. “Look, when I decided to perform naked in ANECKXANDER, a lot of people also thought that was a very bad idea. I believe as an artist you have to follow your instincts. But I understand the apprehension: we are all trained dancers and circus performers, but we’re not actors. So we had to learn how to speak. Actor Jan Steen (head of the drama department of KASK in Ghent and also actor in the performance of Kris Verdonck, red.) did a fantastic job in coaching us for that.”
Mardulier still remembers vividly the lessons with Steen. “The first thing you have to do, is to get to know your own voice. I noticed I tended to speak at a very high pitch. At that point you are faced with two possibilities: either you fight against it or you embrace it as part of who you are. Luckily my voice seemed to match that of Winston’s, because in the performance we react together as a sort of brother duo. To speak well and understandably, we did all sorts of exercises. Just as if you are throwing a ball to one another, you throw your words to your fellow players, and then further on to the audience. You have to make sure the ball gets there and doesn’t fall to the ground five meters before its target. That is the most important lesson I learned from Jan: just as you tell things with your body, speaking words is also a physical act. For someone like myself, primarily a physical performer, that was a really comforting thought.”
Just like Kharms, Vantournhout and company developed characters for the stage. “Axel functions as a sort of androgynous figure: he is the ‘servant’, the slave of the performance. He is the only one who doesn’t speak and all the action is projected onto him. For a stretch of more than ten minutes he literally carries all the other performers. Winston and Ruben act as a sort of Jommeke and Filiberke (the main characters from a famous children’s comic called ‘Jommeke’, red.), but also as agents of the Gestapo.” That was a physical challenge where Mardulier’s experience as puppeteer came in handy. As a proficient puppeteer and as one of the few performers in the Western world trained in the Japanese playing style bunraku, he performed in the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’ from De Munt/La Monnaie, the very first opera in which the principal character was a puppet. “That puppet was manipulated by three players, given the task to move head and limbs in perfect harmony. It demanded an incredible decisiveness, knowing that together with the two others it was essential to form one body. It’s a skill that I also draw on in Red Haired Men, where Winston and I play together as one. Because you speak and move together in a sort of strange partner-dance, in which you morph into one being.”
That explains why Vantournhout chose these three performers as ‘Russian comrades’ for this production. “I met them all when I was teaching at ACaPA. What fascinated me, is their versatility: they are all trained acrobats, but also worked with choreographers and theatre makers like Florentina Holzinger, Mor Shani and Ulrik Quade. They have a hybrid profile so you’re not faced with the necessity of performing typical acro-porté numbers or saddled up with an artist who is disappointed if they cannot show off their virtuosity.”
Appearing together on stage with the three other performers is also a departure for Vantournhout, after his previous solo performances ANECKXANDER and Raphaël. “This is much more ‘Gesamtkunst’ (total art, red.). There is no hierarchy. I set out the rules of play before we began, but once we were in the studio I became co-interpreter and we were all confronted with the same rules and limits.” Mardulier agrees: “We would ‘sketch’ together and then afterwards Alexander would filter the material together with our ‘outside eyes’, dramaturge Kristof Van Baarle and choreographer Anneleen Keppens. Of course sometimes that was frustrating, but killing your darlings has always been part of a good working process. For example, when we were in Lyon we gathered together a week and a half of material, and finally we threw it all in the waste-bin: it was great stuff, but in the end it didn’t seem to be Red Haired Men material. And just what is that precisely, Red Haired Men-material? Kharms suggests that true absurdity is close to reality, and has to keep its feet on the ground. It’s interesting to observe normal life and people and discover the strangeness in both. How do you transform the normal into something which is suddenly interesting, theatrically and choreographically, by tweaking it ever so slightly?”
From the top to the bottom
Red Haired Men is Vantournhout’s first production for large venues. “Too often I had the feeling that I was performing my earlier productions for a niche audience. I wanted to create something that was more open, and could work in different contexts, something that wasn’t always the case with ANECKXANDER or Raphaël.” Vantournhout and circus dramaturge Bauke Lievens created a term: catabatics. It’s a companion to what we know as acrobatics. “Acrobatics (from the Greek akros: top, peak, red.) is based on extremities: balancing on the cliffs, climbing to the top, man/acrobat as superman/woman, sailing through the air as gods on the Acropolis. Catabatics (from the Greek kata: low, below, red.) begins with performers who do not want to be heroes, but reveal their humanity, less virtuosic, grounded and mortal (from which as well ‘catacomb’, red.). We also applied that to our formal research, in which we especially sought a connection with the ‘pratiques minoritaires’. Red Haired Men is an ode to the ‘baser art forms’, far too rare on our Belgian stages: puppet theatre, magic, slight of hand, contortionism, illusionism and yes, still on that list… the circus. It is in the field of tension between art and entertainment, between provocation and entertainment, that we roam.”
It’s also no accident that the coaching came from the most diverse directions. “For the magic we could count on the expertise of magicians like Tim Oelbrandt and Gili and our own head technician Rinus Samyn who knows all the tricks of the trade after years of touring with Gili. On the other hand we also invited Kristof Van Baarle (dramaturge of Kris Verdonck, red.) and Anneleen Keppens (choreographer and dancer with Danial Linehan, among others, red.) to accompany us on this journey.”
“Since we perform our movements throughout the entire piece without looking at one another, but only to the audience, there is an earthly, grounded restriction we’ve put upon ourselves. A bit like Cunningham did in his dance. But whereas in dance that limitation remains artificial, in circus it is a real one. And to a large degree that’s my definition of circus: placing limitations upon yourself and trying to overcome them. It demands a vigilance, a constant attentiveness, watchfulness. That’s a theme that Kharms keeps coming back to – for him it had to do with political danger, for us it has to do with a physical translation.”
Mardulier agrees with the idea of catabatics, but is less inclined to apply it to his own work. “What Alexander calls catabatics, is something that has been researched in capoeira and many forms of sport. I feel no need to find a definition or anti-definition for acrobatics, just as there is no need to redefine verbs like painting, walking or sun-bathing. For me those are just words you can work with.” Vantournout disagrees. “What I find to be a pity in much of contemporary circus is that the trick so seldom gets ‘re-discovered’, something I did for example with the ‘quick change’ (changing of costume in the wink of an eye, in this case his birthday suit, red.) in ANECKXANDER. I find it essential to redefine conceptions, to be rigorous with the words that we use, it’s the only way that we and the circus vocabulary can grow. Continuing to juggle clubs and balls is like continuing to rediscover warm water. What if we juggle atypical objects like bowling balls, more or less the same weight as a human head, and then continue to research the amplitude, or how you send it in a horizontal rather than vertical trajectory, to keep the weight of a human head in balance… or double it? Or perform acrobatics with crampons or BMX bikes?”
Learning while playing
It’s a continuing research into movement that is obviously close to Vantournhout’s heart and that he wants to continue to explore in his next production, the site specific project Screws. He is also toying with the idea of starting a movement school. Maybe even in his own studio, The Wood Cube in Roeselare. “It may be for a little ways down the line. Perhaps in three years I will stop performing altogether, maybe I’ll continue until I am eighty, but it’s true: I would like to start a movement school that goes beyond particular disciplines. I am already coaching athletics for people in top sport. In the research that happens, sport is in many ways far more creative and inventive than the arts. How can you apply choreographic principals to something like volleyball? I examined the question together with a local team. And I am giving lessons to physiotherapists. A physiotherapist can revalidate a damaged knee to perfection, but doesn’t consider how to get the patient to walk better in the first place. They are taught to treat symptoms, but not to think in alternatives for the source of the problem.”
He also continues to think about circus: “I find it problematic that circus education programs are at the same time very specific and much too general in the disciplines they combine. Jugglers, acrobats, clowns and trapeze artists all get their training at the same circus school and each year they get thrown together for an end presentation. I am convinced that a juggler would learn to juggle better in a juggling school, or a dance school, than in a circus school.”
Of note: with Red Haired Men Vantournhout is playing school performances for the first time. A daring choice. “I know it’s not obvious to play for schools, but I find it a must. How better to further social and cultural integration than by doing school performances? As a kid I wasn’t the least bit interested in the performing arts – I wanted to become a football player – until I saw some very good productions, and they opened up a whole new world to me: Acrobat, Cie 111, Dimitri Leue, Lisbeth Gruwez, … it’s thanks to them that I am doing what I do today,” recounts Vantournhout. Mardulier agrees. “Playing for kids is so valuable, I appreciate the openness that young people and especially children still possess. Two years ago, when we did one of our very first tryouts, there was a child who was totally fascinated by Axel’s penis, which had been pulled back and fastened with tape: was he a boy, a girl, something in between? The child came up afterwards for some kind of explanation, and we showed him ‘the trick’. It was great to be able to broach the subject of gender fluidity with him in such a simple and concrete way.”