They are just out of school and already with both feet (or rather eight feet) on the ground in the professional world. Josse De Broeck, Petra Steindl, Hendrik Van Maele and Felix Zech graduated as an acro-quartet from the Fontys Academy of Circus and Performance Art in Tilburg (NL), have taken on the name ‘Familiar Faces’, and are out to conquer the circus world. CircusMagazine listened with fascination as they rattled off their definitions of art, and mused about their schooldays past and cautious plans for the future.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #54 – March 2018]
[Author: Hanna Mampuys // Translation: Craig Weston // Picture: Tom Van Mele – all rights reserved]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
What brought you to form a quartet?
Petra Steindl: “The school wanted to put together a big acrobatics collective. They asked the four of us and five others if we wanted to work together. Seven of us said yes and we started the first year with that group. One of the group decided after a few weeks to study another technique, then we were six. After two projects with the big group we wanted to split up and continue as three separate duos. Hendrik and Josse were going to audition again at ESAC (Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque, red.), and if they were accepted, Felix and I would continue as a duo, while the flyer from the third couple didn’t want to continue together if it wasn’t going to be a big group.”
Josse De Broeck: “But then Hendrik and I decided to stay at ACaPA after all…”
Steindl: “…because they felt good with us. So after a great talk we decided to continue as a quartet.”
Felix Zech: “In the meantime we wanted to change our discipline to Russian bar (a long flexible bar with which two bases can launch a flyer into the air, red.). That was all the rage at the time! We tried it at the Extreme Convention and we were immediately sold on the idea. At school they were less enthusiastic. In the end they accepted our decision to continue working as a quartet, under the condition that it was with partner acrobatics and not with the Russian bar.”
Hendrik Van Maele: “So the quartet only began in our second year. The school wasn’t very comfortable with the idea, but we managed to convince everyone with our first personal project that it was going to work out just fine.”
How has the step from school life to ‘real life’ been for all of you?
Zech: “Our transition time was pretty much non-existent. Immediately after graduating we started doing research at TENT Circustheater Productions and while continuing to work on our own material.”
Steindl: “During our last year we had different projects going on outside of school, the gradual transition from student to professional had already begun, so the shock wasn’t that big.”
De Broeck: “But a lot has changed when you compare our lives now to the predictable, structured life of a student. To begin with we faced the decision of where we wanted to base the company. Do we choose for one place, as a company? Or do we each look for our own place to live and get together in one place for the work?”
Van Maele: “Josse and Felix live in Rotterdam. I don’t have a permanent residence. It didn’t seem necessary to rent a place because I could always land with friends or my parents or wherever we were in residence.”
Steindl: “I bought a bus together with my boyfriend and we’ve converted it into our home.”
Zech: “The company will be based in Belgium, as a vzw, (non-profit organisation, red.).”
Steindl: “Because the majority of the group is Belgian.” (laughs)
De Broeck: “In Flanders the climate is conducive to circus, with the Circus decree and the support from Circuscentrum. We have an extensive network, partly since Hendrik and I have been in a youth circus since we were kids (with Circolito and Cirkus in Beweging, red.). In the Netherlands we also have contacts, but those are more recent. Petra and Felix’s home countries, Austria and Germany, were never an option.”
Steindl: “But I do want to perform in Austria one day!”
What is the most surprising thing you have learned since graduating?
Steindl: “How to build a working sink in a van.”
Zech: “How much there is to do outside of training and performing: writing dossiers, answering e-mails, making administrative decisions. These days the four of us even have ‘business meetings’ together to discuss that side of things.”
Steindl: “And then we always answer mails too late.”
Van Maele: “I’ve realised that you don’t graduate as a fully-fledged circus artist. A circus education is very focused on the practice, but how far you will go after you graduate is entirely up to you. The technical foundation is good, but making your own work includes so many other aspects than one’s technical ability.”
Zech: “In school we made acts of ten minutes and were supported in each project.”
De Broeck: “In school you are in a sort of bubble and not really aware of what you are actually doing.”
Steindl: “We could as well have auditioned after graduation for other companies with more experience and started to work as performing artists, but we didn’t want that. We wanted to do our own thing, right off the bat, so it’s not surprising that it’s not easy.”
Van Maele: “I have the impression that in school we never learned what it was to stand on stage. We only learned how to do circus on a stage. But what about the moments that there is no circus. What then?”
Zech: “Maybe that’s your take on it because you have been doing circus your whole life. When I started at ACaPA I had never been on stage before. I was more than happy to rely on my circus technique during my first steps onto the stage.”
Van Maele: “What I mean is that I realise now that one can do so much more on stage than just circus. But I don’t feel trained for that. Because our education was so specific, we are also a bit stuck in it. I would love to develop as a performer to the point where I would be capable of bringing any concept to the stage and making it work.”
Do you consider yourselves to be circus makers or performers?
Van Maele: “As a circus artist you are usually both, and I like that. When I first started out I was more interested in the ‘doing’, now more and more in the ‘making’.”
Steindl: “If it’s always only just the four of us in the creative process we may end up creating different versions of the same thing. So I definitely want to work for someone else as well. It gives you a fresh perspective on your own work.”
How do you make decisions as a group during the creation process?
De Broeck: “We don’t have one particular way of working. The process determines itself as we go along. We work a lot with improvisation. When it comes to making choices, we are very democratic. We take everyone’s opinion into consideration, which unfortunately doesn’t always lead to the most exciting choice.”
Van Maele: “We hold back.”
Steindl: “We talk too much.”
Van Maele: “We’re all equal as makers and so sometimes we block each other’s ideas and end up making compromises. We stop a line of thought too quickly, we are seldom audacious. As far as I am concerned it must be possible to give the lead to just one of us, so that they can go further without being held back by the rest of the group.”
Zech: “Searching for compromise takes up a lot of time. Each person’s opinion is equally important so it is an intense process to find out what all those opinions would mean if you bring them to the stage. But there’s also a value in discussing everything, in putting everything in question.”
Steindl: “Someone else may add something which fits perfectly with your idea, and you go further together.”
De Broeck: “A bonus in group creation is that there is just more to work with. More ideas, more talent, more possibilities.”
How did you come by the name ‘Familiar Faces’?
Zech: “In my third year I audited a course on cultural administration. The last task of the course was to work out a business plan. The first step was then to think up a good name for our quartet. There were many roads that led to coming up with the perfect name: sitting together deep in thought, lying on the ground at parties for a brainstorm, …”
Steindl: “… asking other people their opinion, getting really drunk, setting a deadline and missing it… We mostly had stupid ideas and plays on words that came out of those stupid ideas. At a certain point we became so desperate that we decided to choose a temporary name: Familiar Faces, with the idea that afterwards we would have a chance to look further.”
De Broeck: “When we graduated, we considered changing the name, but by then we had grown attached to it. People knew us by that name, and we couldn’t think of a better one.”
What are your plans for the near future?
Steindl: “First and foremost, to finish off our creation ‘Not sure where this came from’.”
Van Maele: “Or to decide that we’ll never completely finish it and just accept that.”
Steindl: “Beyond that we have plans for a real creation. A big, well-planned project with all the trappings.”
Zech: “Who knows, perhaps even with an official premiere.”
Steindl: “We have applied for CircusNext with this project, so hopefully they will take us. We have already gotten through the Dutch preselection (meanwhile we know that they are one of the 6 laureates of CircusNext 2018-2019, red.). But even if we are not selected, I think we will continue with this project. We have ideas and we want to follow them through.”
Zech: “But a bit of support would be helpful. At the end of each month I also have to pay the rent.”
You won the BNG Bank Circus prize for your graduation act, now you are in the running with CircusNext. What do those competitions and prizes mean to you?
De Broeck: “It’s great to get some money that you’re then free to use, but there is something weird about it as well. We also applied for Cirque de Demain (annual international circus competition in Paris, red.) in spite of our doubts about how honestly that organisation is run. But they had a lot to offer, so why not?”
Van Maele: “You can put in the article that I was against the idea.”
De Broeck: “It was a group decision to apply. But we weren’t selected.”
Steindl: “It’s fine to be nominated or to receive a prize. It means that someone is interested in your work, and it helps with the visibility of the group. At the same time it’s strange that the decision is made on the strength of a dossier. We’re trained to do circus, not write dossiers.”
Zech: “We didn’t learn that in school, so we just have to get better at it. That kind of work is unavoidable if you do what we do, so we have no choice but to learn how to do it. It’s the same story with promoting our work, contacting programmers, learning to negotiate payment, …”
Van Maele: “In an ideal world I would just have my own room where I could create anything I wanted to, whenever I wanted to. If it is good, people will notice. And an even better situation would be if I weren’t financially dependent on the success of my creations, that I earn my money by other means, for example as a performing artist, and that I would be beholding to no one in the development of my own work.”
De Broeck: “At the moment there is a lot of financial pressure, perhaps more for some than for others, but the pressure is there.”
Have you had to make concessions because of that pressure?
Van Maele: “With our current performance the danger of making concessions is there. We realise that we have to play, and search for ways to make it more ‘playable’. That kind of motivation feels like a compromise.”
Steindl: “I don’t see it like that. We don’t want to make it more ‘playable’, we want to be happier with the final product ourselves.”
De Broeck: “Yes, but having more chances to play it would make us happier, no?”
Steindl: “To me that’s not our motivation.”
Who or what serves as inspiration to you?
De Broeck: “I get a lot of inspiration out of the little things I come across in my daily life. One constant is my love for balance: balancing of people and objects, but also being balanced myself.”
Steindl: “There are different art forms that inspire me: I read, listen and look, and some things make impressions that come back to me and influence my ideas. It may sound crazy, but at the festival Smells Like Circus I was inspired by circus technique. I felt a renewed fascination for all the possibilities, and what we – circus people – are capable of doing.”
Van Maele: “As a group we are strongly influenced by two people: Pia Meuthen, the choreographer of Panama Pictures (a Dutch dance company, red.) and Sergi Parés, an acrobat from Cie Un Loup pour l’homme. Pia introduced us to ways of creating and improvising from the dance world, something that really enriched our way of working. Sergi came along a bit later. His way of working compliments Pia’s method, but he’s a partner acrobat himself so his focus was a bit closer to our own work. It’s partly thanks to them that we have been able to develop the creative style of acrobatics that’s come to typify our work.”
Would you call what you do dance or circus?
Steindl: “We’re often asked that question. You see our interest in dance when you look at our work but I would never say we are dancers. We are trained for virtuosity in partner acrobatics, dancers are virtuosos in expressing qualities of movement with their bodies. We use methods from dance to round off our circus technique and to express things that are hard to get at through the abstract language of circus tricks.”
De Broeck: “I never find it very helpful to think in categories, that desire to stick the label of a particular art form on a performance. But I would certainly describe what we do as circus, with the hope that more diversity will be accepted within that category of circus.”
Zech: “We integrate different influences from dance and physical theatre in our circus practice, with the aim of touching our audience, not provoking them to ask themselves whether it’s dance or circus.”
Would you consider your creations to be art?
Steindl: “I wouldn’t say so.”
De Broeck: “What is art?…We talk about that a lot.”
Steindl: “I find that question both dangerous and unnecessary. Limits are too easily placed where there are no limits as a means of judging the taste and opinion of those who think differently than you do. To say that something is or is not art is not important to what we do. Oh wait, I just thought of a definition that would work: all expression is art.”
De Broeck: “Every human expression can be art. I can live with that definition.”
Steindl: “But then just expressing emotions would also be art. So that doesn’t work.”
De Broeck: “Art as a moment that something is expressed… Can a sunrise also be art?”
Steindl: “No. Yes. It’s a natural work of art. I think, if someone wants to transform something inside of themselves to express it to the outside world, by showing it to others in one way or another, then maybe that is what I would call ‘art’. I’m not sure if it is such a good idea to literally write this conversation down, because by tomorrow I will probably say something completely different.”
Do you include your vision of the world in the work you are making?
Van Maele: “To my mind not as much as we should. I sometimes wrestle with the question: why do I do this? For myself? Should I be looking for a different way to contribute to the greater good? It’s easy to say ‘I live my life for my own happiness’, but wouldn’t it be more responsible to devote myself to the happiness of the world around me?”
De Broeck: “I don’t think your vision of the world needs to be present in the work you make. But the work shouldn’t contradict that vision.”
Van Maele: “Like when Petra didn’t want to do an advert for milk. At some point you have to draw a line, and allow your personal conviction to determine what you are willing to do for an audience.”
Steindl: “We contribute to society because we offer something cultural, something people like to watch and something that makes them happy. But that’s different from talking about specific problems or defending a certain point of view in the work. We are not doing that, and it’s not the place of circus to do that either, in my opinion. Having said that, we could do that if we wanted to, we have that freedom as artists who stand in front of an audience.”
Van Maele: “I don’t think we are ready for that. And besides, as a group you would have to be in complete agreement with one another about what you wanted to say. That’s not so obvious.”
What do you dream of?
Steindl: “Selling out the Burgtheater in Vienna!”
Zech: “Earning enough to buy a house with my girlfriend.”
De Broeck: “To be financially stable to the point that I can experience and learn all the things that I want to.”
Van Maele: “I want to continue creating things for the rest of my life. With circus, and also with other disciplines, in whichever style I am comfortable in at that moment. For me circus is more than a career. It’s not my job. It’s a lifestyle. It’s what I do.”