As I write this Post uit Hessdalen are putting the finishing touch on their latest performance Man Strikes Back. In this technological showpiece, the programmed triangles on stage begin to lead more and more a life of their own. Balls are batted back at cruise-speed by robotic adversaries. Relationships are put into question. The humans seem to become increasingly robotic, and vice versa, and everything, including the musical choreography, depends on the collaboration between man and machine.
Author: Sarah Vanheuverzwijn // Published in Circusmagazine #64 (September 2020)
We meet at the Loods in Antwerp. It is scorchingly hot out, and Ine Van Baelen, Stijn Grupping and Frederik Meulyzer are working in a room they have built in the middle of a shared working space. The scream of a grinding wheel competes with the music in the background.
How did you come up with the idea to work with robots?
Ine Van Baelen: “In our previous creation PAKMAN we wanted to show how people are being expected to adapt to the speed of technological development, often forced to work at an impossible, inhuman pace. We were inspired by a documentary about the delivery system of Amazon. Employees explained how they were being robbed of their humanity, as they were expected to be able to determine the location of a package every seven-seconds. Now a few years down the line those same employees are losing their jobs to robots. We realised that robots are almost always spoken of in threatening terms. Look at the role they usually play in science fiction. In Man Strikes Back we wanted to explore the symbiosis between human and machine. We wanted to explore the tipping point between the initial phase when we teach them the performance and the moment in which they become the artists on stage. We’re looking for a state of equality, a balance between those two extremes.”
In creating the performance Polar Night you literally spent a month in the dark. You traveled far enough north to experience life where the sun never rises and explore the desire for more time and more silence. Did you begin the creative process of Man Strikes Back with a similar research period?
Stijn Grupping: “This time the research was especially in learning to live with robots and accepting that their behaviour is sometimes rather unpredictable. The creation period of Man Strikes Back has been a bit of a marathon, four years to be more precise. In collaboration with the university in Twente we spent about two years on the technique. During the creation we wanted to maintain the freedom to adapt, and the end result had to be something we could tour with. All those parameters have made for a very complex process. Ugo Dehaes is now working with the robots, and the final performance is starting to take shape.”
Van Baelen: “To begin with we went out in search of objects, suitable forms that lent themselves to juggling technique. Thereafter we took those forms, various triangles, to the university to ask if they could make robots out of them. For Stijn it was imperative that they move to a millimeter’s precision, otherwise none of the patterns he was building would work. Under the supervision of robotics professor Edwin Dertien, two students finally dedicated their theses to the challenge. Gertjan Biasino helped us with the programming. Meanwhile Theater op de Markt provided us with the decor and there are others working on light and costume design. The premiere of the performance, originally scheduled for May, has now been moved to September. So when the lockdown started it cut right into our final sprint.”
How has it been for you so far, this exceptional period we find ourselves in?
Grupping: “At first I was restless, but from the moment I decided ‘we will just finish making this show and then we will see’ I felt better. I also felt like I had been here before. When we spent our month in the dark it was a sort of voluntary lockdown, though I have to say the environment then was a whole lot more interesting then this time around.”
Frederik Meulyzer: “At first having more time seemed like an advantage. But I think the more time you have, the slower decisions get made. The calm that I initially felt is gone now. It’s all been going on for too long. Getting cancelled then cancelled again is starting to wear. But we’ll see. I will be happy once we can finally premiere this piece. At some point you have to land.”
Van Baelen: “Sometimes you need some sort of ‘imperative’ to push you on to the next phase of the work, but by now we’ve given up on that idea. We just create from day to day. Of course I have some thoughts about the bigger picture. As a person in a society, as a citizen, I have some real questions. The insecurity that society is experiencing now is something we are already used to to some extent. We work with funding, from project to project, so with each new round we have to reinvent ourselves. But now we are in the middle of a final sprint and we can’t even see where the finish line is. That is an entirely new experience, and it’s not easy. In June we had a chance to work for a month in Hetpaleis, and rounded that working period by playing a tryout for an audience. Suddenly you realise again just why you have been working on something for the past four years.”
I imagine you don’t get a lot of feedback from the robots.
Grupping: “A lot of people warned us that developing the robots would take a lot longer than we initially expected, and that was the case. We could have gone to some private company, which would have been quicker but also much more expensive. I am still really pleased with the ingredients we have now. It is wonderful to finally add them to the mix.”
Did you also begin working on the music from the very beginning of the process?
Meulyzer: “Not every day, but often, yes. Some juggling patterns are impressive, but not musically suitable to being developed. Others lend themselves perfectly. It is a balance between finding something that is visually strong and rhythmically good, so that all begins quite early in the process.”
Grupping: “For example, when I throw a pattern, Frederik asks me to repeat it three times quickly and then repeat it one more time slowly, because that works better rhythmically. Then he can add the drums. I could spend time training on patterns alone, but if afterwards he says that he can’t do much with them rhythmically, all that work will turn out to have been for nothing.”
Van Baelen: “That happened during the rehearsals for PAKMAN, Frederik wasn’t in the process from the beginning. There is also a lot of drilling necessary to get the music down. Stijn throws balls to the tempo of a metronome, or we shout or clap. And small details in that process make a huge difference, everything has to fall precisely in the rhythm.”
Meulyzer: “This time the musical part of the performance is not only live. Each robot also makes music via a built-in sound system which is triggered when hit by the balls. To realise that part of the soundtrack I often recorded a pattern that Stijn was throwing and took it into the studio to do something musical with it. So now the recorded music literally travels around the stage, as each robot is also a speaker. We have been working with all those elements from the very beginning.”
How did this collaboration begin?
Meulyzer: “I don’t actually know how the two of them met.”
Grupping: “That’s something for another book.” (laughs)
Van Baelen: “For Polar Night we were looking for artists from different disciplines. We had put together a team, but we’re still looking for a musician. We chanced upon Frederik. It was really an intense process, that work, so we got to know each other very well along the way. It was just a great collaboration, on a human as well as artistic level. We had a lot of time there in the dark to think about what we wanted to do thereafter. I think it was at that point that the foundations for PAKMAN were laid.”
You spend so much time together. How do you manage that as a couple?
Grupping: “I don’t actually find that to be so difficult.”
Van Baelen: “We understand each other pretty well, but hopefully we also challenge each other enough. I feel very free in creating when Stijn’s around, and we really form a company together. It doesn’t feel complete if one of us isn’t there. We also try to have a life outside of the company and I think we succeed pretty well at that. But we never draw a strict line between the two”.
Grupping: “Often the interesting ideas come when we try to get away for a bit. A change of scenery can really help to get some order in your head”.
Van Baelen: “But Stijn and Frederik have also lived together in an intense way these past years. In the meantime they have toured PAKMAN for more than five hundred performances.”
Do you ever travel with them?
Van Baelen: “That’s become a bit more difficult since the birth of our daughter, and I miss it. Frederik also has a young family. That’s why we decided to tour this new production like a real family circus. We are looking forward to that, apart from the actually playing, having that much time to spend with the children.”
Meulyzer: “And with each other.”
And your wife was also keen on the idea?
Meulyzer: “Yes! She’s already given up her job. From March until August we go on tour with a whole caravan: three kids, one dog, four adults and five robots.”
Have your productions evolved over the years?
Grupping: “We could never have made Man Strikes Back before we made PAKMAN. That was almost a musical preparation. If we had tried to do it the other way around, it would never have worked.”
Meulyzer: “There are new factors in the mix, which makes it a herculean task to put it all together. Before I mostly just played my instrument, now I am also making the music that will be played through the robots. The whole process is a lot more intense.”
Juggling with bouncing balls doesn’t seem very easy to me. What got you on to that?
Grupping: “I followed circus lessons at the Steiner school, but for the most part I am self-taught. At juggling conventions I soon realised that I didn’t want to become the seven hundredth juggler bouncing as many balls as possible off of the ground. I quickly became more interested in what there was still left to discover in this method of juggling. I started throwing against different objects, but also in hallways. Later I was part of starting up Ell Circo d’ell Fuego, where I gave lessons and made performances. My parents also had a hayloft, where I would train, and the balls never rolled very far away if I dropped them. But I did break a lot of stuff, throwing those balls. It is especially frustrating in the beginning. Now I just have a lot of balls, so I can wait until I am finished training to go find all the balls that bounced away.” (laughs)
How do you deal with that during a performance?
Grupping: “In PAKMAN we make that part of the play. I’m not drawn to performances where you play it safe and only do the things you are sure will succeed. I actually enjoy the risk of pushing myself to the limits of my abilities. And the audience also feels that kind of concentration.”
Van Baelen: “We have played PAKMAN so many times. If no ball ever falls, the performance doesn’t work as well. It’s the moments of human failure that help the audience feel what we are actually talking about. So Stijn has to continue to challenge himself in the performance.”
Meulyzer: “At one point the performance started to get so smooth that we started doing things to increase the chance of failure. Still, some kids think there must be some kind of trick, because it’s all so incredibly tight.”
Do you have to have a certain kind of character to do this sort of thing?
Grupping: “It is a question of visual and aural focus. That’s why sometimes I go into a bit of a stare (laughs). It’s not so much physically intense as exhausting in terms of the concentration it demands. A pattern I have completely under control can go wrong the second I think of something else. And if Frederik says ‘do the same movement for eight measures’, that’s usually enough to make the whole thing to fall apart.”
Ine, how did you get into the arts in the first place?
Van Baelen: “I originally studied political and social sciences because I had no general knowledge and I really felt I needed that. And I wanted to get out of the house (laughs). I have always enjoyed writing and afterwards I studied theatre science. Although that is an academic course which isn’t particularly dedicated to the idea of creating theatre, we did make a piece in the course of our studies, and as luck would have it, that performance went on to play in Theater Aan Zee, and won a prize. Things started to roll from there. Thereafter I followed a writing course at the RITCS. And yet, our creations are almost never verbal. That continues to surprise me each time., In the beginning you think, ‘yes, this time we will work with text’, but along the way things get distilled down to the point where text is no longer necessary. I always considered myself to be a writer, but the further I get, the more I realise that my thinking is actually very visual. That’s really been a discovery in my own personal journey”.
The versatility you share means that your work can fit into a lot of different categories. Do you have a preference yourselves?
Meulyzer: “We have played PAKMAN in both the circus and theatre circuits, with remarkably similar reactions. We even got programmed once as a concert in a jazz festival.”
Van Baelen: “Sometimes we set an age limit, but we don’t actually create with a particular public in mind. We leave that to the venues to decide. The great thing about PAKMAN is that we just show up with our lorry, so we have been able to play for a really broad audience. Man Strikes Back is an indoor performance, which will make it a bit less accessible. At any rate, people tend to bring their children along if it’s circus, because everything is very visual, so we hope that the performance will also work for them. The children’s’ reactions once the robots start up have actually been identical to that of the adults: everyone gets a pleasant little fright. They actually still startle us at times (laughs). Our two year old daughter mostly finds the rehearsals at the moment to be too loud. And she thinks that working actually means just throwing some balls around. And Mama who tells Papa how he has to throw them.” (laughs)