[This article was published in CircusMagazine #50 – March 2017]
[Author: Liv Laveyne – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
A circus ring! We need a circus ring! But not a round one, no! Let’s stop turning in circles! We need a circus ring with peaks and corners, a ring that’s wonky, so sharp that it hurts a bit for those who come to watch. We have to change everything, ok? But who has the power to change everything? Him, you, me?
It’s a very unusual sight for a circus performance. Circular, proscenium, the audience seated on both sides… we’ve seen that all before, but a triangular circus ring? And yet, it is in that highly atypical performance space that the triangular relationship between circus brothers Jef and Jan Naets and acrobat Benoit Belleville plays out. ‘A-Tripik’.
“2 1/2 years ago we started with the creation of this performance, but in the meantime a whole lot of other projects came our way, and that’s why it has taken so long to get to where we are today,” according to Jef Naets. That ‘today’ is the international biennale for circus in Marseille, a series of tryouts before finally going into première at Festival Gare au Gorille in Lannion (FR) and at the beginning of July at PERPLX in Marke (BE). “There are advantages and disadvantages to such a long creation process: technically it’s hell. You work for three weeks to master something, another week to polish it off, and a few months later you have to start that process all over again. But artistically, ideas have the chance to ripen, and there’s more room to research the content.”
That’s exactly what they did with ‘A-Tripik’. They set out to create a piece about power, something that fascinated all three of them. “Power is everywhere: political, social, economic, financial, … it’s an inherent element of human behaviour, it’s in our nature and our culture.” They studied Soviet propaganda, the hero cults of the Roman Empire, military marches and religious symbols. “All of those elements are still present in the performance, one way or another, but that big idea of power was finally too big, each of us had our own interpretation of the theme, and in the end we came back to the essence: the hierarchy in a group, and how power functions in the relationship between one individual and another.” That content also translates to the choice of decor: the triangle as a symbol of power, movement from the top-down or from the bottom-up. Or if you take that same triangle and convert it into a structure in the playing space: a pyramidal construction built with poles planted in the middle of the triangle. It becomes the apparatus in which they climb, hang and jump, in which they work together and against one another. There is also a power-game which is played out (from a safe distance) with the audience. “I have no desire to take some poor guy out of the audience and stick him in the middle of the arena, I personally can’t stand audience participation, but we do speak to the audience directly. Literally. We sing songs to them in Sanskrit and Latin, and read them the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in different languages.”
No spettacolo, that is the introduction Danny Ronaldo used at the beginning of his piece ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ to clear the board and make space for a tragicomic solo about loneliness and loss but also the close ties which bind a circus family. ‘A-Tripik’ relies neither on technical virtuosity nor on the harsh flamande (the term they use to refer to the bastardised Russian they speak) – but rather on the content and the tragicomic of the clown.
For CirkVOST, the French circus company under whose wings the brothers Naets and Belleville created this performance, that’s quite unusual. “The company is known for its huge spectacle-performances, but with us they are looking for a different, smaller scaled result. Part of that is due to the economic crisis. The huge spectacles they used to bring for 600, 1000, or even 5000 spectators are more and more difficult to realise. But an equally important reason is the possibilities inherent in a smaller scale performance: the intimacy with the audience, the unique chance to go in depth, to work on the content and what you want to say, free from that pressure to evoke an ‘ooh’ or an ‘aah’ every few seconds. It’s something that I completely enjoyed with ‘Da/Fort’.”
‘Da/Fort’ was a minuscule circus-theatre performance, a tender and rather sad relationship play which happened in between balls of yarn in a truck-bed, for a maximum of 50 spectators. Jef made the performance in the duo formation Circ’ombelico, together with Iris Carta. “Finally, compared to ‘Da/Fort’, ‘A-Tripik’ turned out to be a bit larger scale than we had originally planned: we bought a tent and we travel with one articulated lorry, but that’s still a significant difference with the four lorries CirkVOST need to tour their normal shows.”
The link with Vost came via Jef’s brother Jan. “He’s smaller than I am, but a lot broader. When we were young we always went to the festival Summer of Antwerp to help put up the tents. When the circus company Les Arts Sauts passed through in 2004, they asked him if he felt like becoming the technical director of their company. Jan was trained as an educator and social outreach worker, but he decided to go for it. When the younger generation from Les Arts Sauts decided to start up their own company in 2007, CirkVOST, he became technical director of that company. It was from there that he developed close ties with Benoit Belleville, one of the acrobats.”
It was in that period that the idea to make a play together took root. “At one point Jan had studied in a theatre school in the Netherlands. He developed a beautiful clown I can still see before me. Once I had followed a few clown workshops myself, I told him that I would love to form a singing clown-duo with him one day. Around the same time Benoit had also let Jan know that he would like to make something with him. At that point Jan said: ‘You guys, you both want to make something with me, but you don’t realise what you are getting yourselves into. Maybe it would be better to make something with the three of us.”
We know the sayings: ‘Two is not enough, three is too many’. ‘If two dogs are fighting over a bone, the third one will walk away with it’. Who hasn’t gone out with a couple and felt like the ‘fifth wheel on the wagon’? In other words, how does a trio function when two thirds of that trio happen to be brothers? “Of course there are conflicts sometimes, but no more than in another creation process. Benoit remarks from time to time that as brothers we don’t need more than a word or a glance to understand each other. On the other hand they worked together for years in CirkVOST, and Benoit and I are the ones who are used to standing on a stage and create things artistically, while Jan has none of that experience. All that to say that the hierarchy fluctuates considerably. I am usually the one who is busy with the content and comes with a lot of ideas, Benoit just wants to start immediately with how things translate to the stage and Jan tends to be the reticent critical factor. Sometimes we spend two weeks chewing on something as if it were a piece of gum, then Jan suddenly comes up with a counter proposal, and the puzzle just comes together.”
For Jef it’s not the first time that the collaboration includes someone with whom he shares a strong bond. He made his last circus productions together with Iris Carta, his then girlfriend. “I absolutely have no problem with that, making a performance that goes further than just an artistic relationship. On the contrary, what could be more beautiful than to be close to one another, sharing all the ups and the downs. It feels very special to have made this performance with my brother. We can say anything you want to each other because we know, no matter what, we’ll survive the thing together because we share an eternal bond.”
Just as with his brother Jan, circus came into Jef’s life by pure accident. “I studied sculpture at the academy in Antwerp. In the summer I also built up circus tents during the Summer of Antwerp, but it was only when I went to the French street theatre and circus festival Chalons dans la rue that I saw performances by Cirque Trottola and D’irque (from D’irque and Fien), and that’s when got the urge. Then I met Iris, and with Circ’ombelio we played not only in Chalons dans la rue, but throughout the rest of the world as well. It sounds like a cliché, but for me this is a dream come true. I am very happy doing what I do.”