People sometimes say that talent comes rushing in, but that isn’t quite how the circus artist, Camille Paycha (27) would describe her journey. For her, as aerialist, maker and performer, the process has been more akin to leavening: slowly crafting, considering, kneading and being left to rise. There are at least three good reasons to have a talk with her today. She is performing in Walk the Line from Grensgeval, an artistic quest towards how to flourish in the new norm of crosses, lines and rules of distance. In March 2021 she will premiere her first solo show, Ice Skates and other Cruelties, at De Grote Post in Oostend. And in the meantime she is hanging, in the heat of the summer, from aerial straps in Ghent. I sneak into the rehearsal space of the Circuscentrum, where Camille is working with choreographer Jannie Van Goor and her young colleague Billie (8) on The Time of Our Singing. The premiere is a long way off, the atmosphere playful and relaxed, adapted to the rhythm of the child. On a screen that spans the entire playing space there’s a woman, 86 years old, playing peek-a-boo with me.
Author: Ine Van Baelen // Circusmagazine #64 (September 2020)
The performance is a portrait of three generations of circus women. The youngest bounces around the stage like an unguided missile. The oldest is only on screen, in video images that try to capture life in the detail of a hairpin. And between the two is Camille, with the smell of reflex spray on the grated skin of her wrists. “Thanks to corona it’s been months since I have hung in the straps. Normally I have callouses, but now my skin has to start all over again. Looks horrible, no?”
Camille was born in France, but at 16 she bid farewell to parents and middle school and left to follow a preparatory circus course. Thereafter she left for Tilburg, where she graduated in 2015 from the ACaPA where she specialised in aerial straps. Now she lives in Oostende. “Ruben (Mardulier, Ed.) and I split up 8 years ago. We are writing a book about dividing up the objects from the apartment we bought together. We took a photograph of every object we both liked and recorded the conversation we had about which one of us deserved most to keep it. It reveals a lot about us, our relationship and about the objects themselves. It is intense, but it also makes the process a bit easier.” In the meantime she has bought herself an apartment in that seaside town. “I really feel at home in Oostend. It is calm but still lively. Between jobs I love to go home. And my family lives quite nearby, in the north of France.”
While Camille wraps her wrists, Billie traces the wrinkles of the face on the screen with her fingers, like a sketch, with no realisation of just how deep the lines have been drawn. Camille: “Jannie wants to make a play about growing old as a circus artist. About passing things along from generation to generation. The process of showing things and learning things. Just as I am teaching the straps to Bille now and also showing her what it means to create something.” It is playing with and caring for someone at the same time. “I like giving lessons. I have the feeling that there is a lot I have to offer the young students.”
In between two scenes Billie has managed to fix a visit at Camille’s place on the coast, effortlessly working her way into Camille’s life. On the other hand José, the retired circus artist in the video didn’t want to meet Camille. “She thought I would be too envious of her” Camille laughs. For José time came to a halt 50 years ago, when she was still a star of the piste. A white lie was needed to bring the two women together. I ask if José was not over-romanticising her circus past. Camille immediately takes the wind out of my sails, in reaction to my dual thinking. “If you talk to circus artists, there is often a line drawn between tradition and what is now happening in the circus world… Listen, we didn’t invent anything. Everything comes from something and we could learn a lot if we were more aware of those traditions, instead of approaching tradition as something we have to react against, or something we have to avoid.”
Outside the heat and the virus are palpable, but neither seems to have made its way into the rehearsal space. The rasped up wrist grabs on tight, the feet leave the ground. Camille lifts Billie up. The body is powerful and the lift seems effortless, In the straps she seems to transform. She is in total control. She and Bille hang just above the ground, but it feels as if they are floating through the cosmos together.
“My method on the straps is to search for the technique that is good for my body. I try to work with gravity, instead of against it. Sometimes I watch other strap-artists at work, as they follow a choreography that has been written out and practiced to perfection. I try to approach the work by following my feeling. I don’t go high any more, I find it more interesting to search for the floor, and the space between the earth and the sky.”
The rehearsal day lasts as long as the attention span of an eight-year-old allows. We leave the hall in the early afternoon to continue our talk outdoors.
I ask Camille if she wants to take a moment’s break, but she just picks up our conversation at the point we left off. “It’s a new experience for me to work for someone else. At first it was weird to just do what was asked of me and not to give my own opinions about everything. But I enjoy hanging in the straps for someone else and improvising there. I trust Jannie to choose and develop the right material for the piece. Maybe I’ll use the straps once again later in my own work, but not right now. I want to surprise myself.”
If she had to evaluate where she was, five years after graduating? Her economic situation has improved. People’s perception of her work as well. For the rest not much has changed: she does her thing and it continues to evolve. “It is usually in the years right after graduation that a young circus artist performs a lot. For me that wasn’t the case. I had to accept that my path was different. If you are 20 it’s not easy to fall outside of those expectations. Now I am only thankful that it went like it did.”
“Who I am and what I do doesn’t fit the ideal image of a female aerialist: the pretty woman that follows the rules precisely. At first I didn’t have much confidence in myself or my capabilities. Then I just started to follow my own path, even if that was a slow process and I didn’t earn much doing it. Things grew bit by bit. And now I can only think: it makes sense, the fact that my career didn’t just immediately ‘take off’.
It’s no accident that other people want to work with me now. There is always a reason behind a good connection, even if the reason is different every time. My collaboration now with Jannie has been a real conversation. Everything is relevant for her: what I think, what I believe, why something does or doesn’t interest me. That is a wonderful way to work. I am also going to collaborate with Side Show; I can really identify with their visual language. I am lucky to work with good people.”
Camille was the first ever to graduate from ACaPA in the discipline of straps, and the fact that she is also a woman is something that always gets mentioned. “But I think that it is too easy to blame the schools for supporting conventional stereotypic expectations. The students themselves are equally responsible, I also had a sort of cliché idea of what I would finally become when I first started out.”
The gender issue has accompanied her throughout her work and her life, first as a young gymnast, then as a woman in a circus discipline that is very physically demanding. “From my 5th to my 15th year I did gymnastics on a national level in France. In gymnastics there are a lot of rules, and you are simply expected to follow them without question. There is a big gender problem, for example in the uniforms. The problems are very explicit and so therefore perhaps easier to resolve, I think. However it’s obvious that we are a long way from that resolution.” In the media there is an endless stream of confessions about mental and verbal abuse in gymnastics. Young girls who have to starve themselves and train to the point that their bones inflame. “The cesspool has been opened up” writes De Standaard. But according to Camille it stinks everywhere. “In circus there is still not enough awareness of stereotypes and how they are being promoted. Artists think that they are making their own rules, but in the end it all ends up at the same place. That is the reason I do my own work, and doing my own work is also my solution.”
But rather than taking on the gender question in her work as some kind of political theme, it’s the very nature of the projects she works on that vibrate with emancipatory energy. “That is what I find so interesting about the project with Jannie: it is about nothing and everything at the same time. It isn’t a feminist performance just because there are three women on stage. It is about the craft that you practice every day until it is in your body. I don’t think we are stigmatising anyone along the way.”
Her own work also includes Ice Skates and Other Cruelties, for which Camille has been selected by the European support program for budding circus artists; CircusNext. “I am standing at the beginning of my first creation. I am alone on stage. Where shall I start? Practice and theory have always gone hand in hand in my work. For Ice Skates and Other Cruelties I am working around the theme of violence. I wanted my work to be dictated by the material rather than by the technique in which I feel comfortable. I know the straps too well, I know precisely how my body will work with them. That is why I went in search of material that I haven’t mastered. It became glass. Glass is many facetted: it can be strong or breakable, clear or cloudy. When it is warm it becomes flexible. It can also be fake, sugar or plexi glass, which is really interesting in relation to the circus and playing with the expectations of the audience.”
We drink lemonade out of paper cups. I ask her if her relationship with glass has changed. “At first I was breaking glass all the time. I don’t know how many glasses I have broken. Now I’ve become more careful. A glass that breaks is impressive. I want to use that wisely.”
She will play the performance on a synthetic ice rink, with skates on her feet as sharp adversaries for the glass. “It puts the danger in starker relief, the fragility. But it is also a way to force myself to create in a different way. I have been working with vertical technique for years. Now I want to work horizontally. The skates dare me to enter into another relationship with gravity, one that I am not used to.”
Her body is strong, but she feeds on theory. There is as much if not more reading and writing in her creative process than power training. The body is there to reach the spirit. “I try to become more aware of my surroundings. If I exist, then it is my surroundings that help determine who I am. I am trying to work on that idea: to wake up my consciousness to the idea that it is the environment that makes someone who they are”.
“I want to make the abstraction concrete, so that abstraction is not seen as something that only confuses you, but also as something that can clarify. ‘It’s abstract, it’s not for me’… I want to go against that idea. You shouldn’t get the feeling that you have to be more intelligent than the artist to understand what is going on. That’s why I want to work with imagination. I want everyone to come along with me. I don’t have to pretend to be dumb to achieve that, I just have to avoid being pretentious.”
The lemonade is finished, the ice cubes as well, the paper cups are soft and not the least bit threatening. I don’t want to ask her what the near future will bring. The answer is too obvious, too painful. Each and every day brooding, waiting for permission to lay your egg. Insecurity. But as a physical performer it is a state that you just have to embrace. “Instead of working to some kind of ideal image, one for which I would have to betray my own body, I am trying to get to know my body better. It is not showing any signs of wear yet, and it’s not as if I am giving up the straps, but there is a political reason that I am not using the straps at the moment. There is something I no longer want to illustrate: the circus artist as the person that transcends everything and is capable of anything.”