One big reason we will be looking forward to the upcoming PERPLX festival: the brand new collective Common Ground will be presenting their debut performance of the same name – Common Ground. The recently founded company brings together three duos who each enjoy an international reputation in their own right: Zinzi & Evertjan (Zinzi Oegema and Evertjan Mercier), Circus Unartiq (Andreas Bartl and Lisa Rinne) and Chris & Iris (Christopher Schlunk and Iris Pelz). On a fine Monday afternoon we slipped into the Predikherenkerk in Leuven, where the six of them were rehearsing.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #59 – June 2019 // Author: Brecht Hermans // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
As duos the six of you have all earned your circus stripes. What brought you to form a collective?
Evertjan Mercier: “We know each other from the ACaPA program at Fontys College in Tilburg. Christopher, Iris, Lisa and I all studied there for four years. Zinzi started out at Codarts in Rotterdam, but when we decided to form a duo, she joined us at ACaPA. Andreas was one of our teachers: he studied at ESAC in Brussels. After graduating in 2011 we all went our separate ways, and with success. We’ve all done pretty well for ourselves in the circus. A few years ago we managed to find the time to go on a weekend together in the Ardennes. That’s where we began to fantasise about doing something together. That was around the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017. The seed was sown.”
Zinzi Oegema: “But actually we agreed after finishing school that one day we wanted to make something together.”
Why did it take five years before it happened?
Evertjan: “We all had a lot of work. Solo work, with companies, outdoor performances and theatre performances, galas… All over the world. We sprouted our own wings. But we hadn’t done this yet: create our own performance with our own company. Make the time for that. We’ve all learned a lot from our own experiences, so now it feels like a logical step to combine that knowledge and work as a collective.”
And why specifically with this group of people?
Evertjan: “It has more to do with who we are than what we want to do. This collective formed out of friendship.”
Andreas Bartl: “During the formation we were already a pretty close group and we worked together on a lot of projects. Not always with the six of us, but all the same we have a common past that draws us together.”
Zinzi: “And we respect each other’s work. We’re not only working together out of friendship, there’s more to it than that.”
Evertjan: “We share a vision of how we want to work. In circus you meet a lot of different people: some of them thrive in chaos, others are very structured. This group is more for the structured approach, so that works well for us.”
Can you describe the process of going from the idea of working together to the concrete realisation of that goal?
Andreas: “It was a pretty long process. The idea to work together had been there a long time, but in 2016-2017 it actually happened. We had a chance to go to Dommelhof in Neerpelt to do a pre-residence, a sort of laboratory. That’s where we decided to really go for it. It was from there that the whole process of imagining a concept and asking for funding began. That took most of 2018. We asked for funding in both Flanders and Germany, so we had to take into account different deadlines and the different expectations those countries had. Figuring all that out took quite some time. Then we spent two residencies in Germany working out our technical vocabulary: what did we want to focus on?”
Zinzi: “During that residence we took photos and made a video trailer. That really gave us a boost to take things to the next level, and the visual material made our funding proposal stronger. It also gave us something in hand with which we could approach various theatres.”
Evertjan: “But an important step that had to happen before all of that, was to put our calendars together. Actually all six of us were very lucky: we all had quite a bit of work. But as a result it wasn’t easy finding time to work together. From the moment all six of us managed to make that time available, we knew we were serious. The will had been there for a while, but now it was actually going to happen. Deciding how and where we were going work was huge for us. A milestone.”
Andreas: “It was a big step. Our duos are actually three successful businesses. To leave that behind and start something completely new is a risk. There is no guarantee of success. That’s pretty scary. It’s easy to say yes to a dream, but to actually take the step to realise it is something else. If you turn down work offers too often, they may stop asking you. Some programmers understand very well what we are trying to do, but others don’t. You’re immediately confronted with different realities, with the business side of the story. We very soon decided to get somebody to help us with all of that: Ute Classen. She is in charge of production, helps us with selling the show and gives us financial advice.”
Was that your next step, to build a team?
Zinzi: “When we were sure we had the money, we did indeed start to look for who we wanted to work with. That wasn’t easy. Our first artistic decision was to ask Stefan Schönfeld to join us as ‘outside eye’. Evertjan and I had met him shortly after we finished school, in 2012. We invited Stefan to come to our laboratory in 2018 for a trial run.”
Stefan Schönfeld: “That was my audition.”
Iris Pelz: “No, that was our audition!”
Andreas: “After Stefan we were also joined by a scenographer and a composer. We now have an entire organisation around us. In Circus Unartiq, Lisa and I are not used to so much support in the creation process. In Germany circus is not yet recognised as an art-form, so there just isn’t the same kind of infrastructure as there is in Flanders. If we make a performance in Germany, we produce it with our own money. We don’t have the luxury of asking others to help us.”
Lisa Rinne: “That’s why we have one non-profit organisation in Flanders and a second one in Germany: we want to show the German circus world that a lot more is possible. And we’ve gotten funding, so things are actually starting to evolve in Germany.”
What are the ideas that led you to the creation of Common Ground?
Zinzi: “The first questions we asked ourselves were the same ones you are asking us now: why this group? What can we do? How do we imagine a circus performance with the six of us? That’s how we began. Thinking about what it was we had in common led us to the theme of ‘common ground’, and we started to try to understand what that meant for us. And what it meant for a society. If everyone were to acknowledge what we have in common, we would be more inclined to help one another, to respect and work with each other. That’s the idea behind the performance.”
Andreas: “And the realisation that it’s precisely the differences between us, the diversity, that is such a gift. As we went deeper into that theme, we discovered that the differences between the six of us were much much bigger than what you imagine at first glance. Remarkable. If you look at our studies and careers, we appear to be a very homogenic group. But once we began to work together, we discovered that the diversity in this group is immense. In order to work together we have to take all those same steps: recognise the differences and respect one another. Our dream is to radiate the positive side of diversity throughout our work. To make the audience partners in the performance. That is part of our concept. We want the audience to be in the moment together with us. Not only watching us, but sharing our regard.”
How do you aim to make the audience partners?
Lisa: “We’ve consciously chosen not to perform in a black box. The audience sits on opposite sides of the playing space, so that during the performance you constantly see an audience across from you. Almost like looking at yourself.”
Zinzi: “And we let the audience sit as close as possible to the stage. As close as possible to us.”
Andreas: “We literally want to divide the space into particular stages, so that we, together with the audience, can experience the performance together as one group.”
You talked about the diversity within the collective. How did that manifest itself during the work?
Zinzi: “You notice it in the way we work If someone is stronger in something, they are the ones who lead the rehearsals in that discipline. This morning we trained with the trapeze. Andreas and Lisa have the most expertise, so they prepared the rehearsal. But then the others give suggestions which stem from their own background. That’s how we contribute to each other’s ideas.”
Andreas: “You also notice the differences in practical difficulties. Lisa and I have years of experience with trapeze and Chinese pole, while the others have worked primarily
on the floor. That being the case, we have a completely different attitude towards objects. When they work with objects, it’s a choice. For us it is a necessity. Without a pole I cannot perform my discipline. That’s a difference you notice when we talk about which objects we want to have on stage, what they look like and what we would like to do with them.”
Evertjan: “But we trust one another and we do a lot of delegating. The artistic work is the most important thing, but the organisational work still has to happen. We divide that up between us.”
In a group it often happens that people avoid taking responsibility. In your collective it’s nice to see that that’s not the case.
Andreas: “We decided together from the very beginning that we didn’t want a director and that there would be no leader. But we do take advantage of everybody’s strengths. So the final result is more than the sum of the separate parts, we incorporate the strengths and the weaknesses of each of us in the end product. If we accept our differences and work together, then the result will become something we can be proud of. We keep giving our positive energy to the thing, even when things get difficult.”
Zinzi: “But we are not interested in telling a literal story. We believe that we can speak in a physical way, by the way we relate to each other on stage.”
I see there’s a record-player in a very prominent place on stage. Is there a reason for that?
Lisa: “In circus it’s often taken for granted that the music just comes from somewhere undefined, as some sort of deus ex machina. In our concept that wouldn’t make sense. Everything that happens has to come from the stage.”
Zinzi: “So we put the records on or play music live. We play the instruments ourselves: clarinet, saxophone, guitar and voice. Maybe we’ll add some rhythm. Michael Strobel is our composer and he’s helping us with that.”
Lisa: “He’s also composed the music we don’t play live, it’s his music on the records we play.”
What are your plans for the performance in the near future?
Evertjan: “The last sprint begins in Neerpelt where we will have a three week residence and a try-out. After that we rehearse the week leading up to the premiere in the PERPLX festival, in the municipal theatre of Kortrijk. That’s a real luxury: to be able to work in the space where we will actually present the premiere. To have some time to get used to the space and adapt to it. After the premiere we have been invited to the Atoll festival in Karlsruhe in September, for our German premiere, and thereafter comes Neerpelt, Tilburg and Bruges.”
Lisa: “We’ve been lucky enough to line up some bookings before the performance is even finished. It’s a good feeling.”
Do you think the fact that you all come from successful duos made it easier to sell the new performance?
Lisa: “Yes, we try to take full advantage of the networks we’ve built up to sell this production.”
Evertjan: “It’s helpful that we are not financially dependent on this performance. We know there are possibilities in other places for our duo work. So what this project becomes will be a result of the desire rather than the obligation to make something.”
It probably takes away some stress during the creative process if you know you are not financially dependant on the performance.
Evertjan: “Yep, but it makes figuring out all our individual calenders that much more difficult.” (laughs)
Do you have a collective dream of where you would like to be ten years from now?
Zinzi: “Still together. That would be a good start. It would be great if we could make a space for our collective projects, but also for each person’s individual projects. Maybe the next project won’t be a collective performance, but only with three of us on stage. But let’s just try first to make a performance in which all six of us feel we are fantastic. That isn’t a dream for ten years from now, it’s one for a few months from now.”
What kind of advice would you give to the younger people who are reading this, and dreaming themselves of one day of starting a company together with their friends?
Lisa: “Love what you do, that is the most important thing.”
Evertjan: “Try not to copy the things that you see. Search for the things that fit you the best…”
Zinzi: “…With your body, and your spirit. Don’t let yourself be pushed in a direction that doesn’t suit you.”
Evertjan: “That’s what I love about circus: everything is possible. There’s a place out there for each type of body and each type of person.”