[This article was published in CircusMagazine #50 – March 2017]
[Author: Hanna Mampuys – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
I had arranged to meet up with Abdel Senhadji in the bar of Festival Circolo in Liempde, on a sunny autumn day in October. With a fair share of anticipation I awaited my meeting with a true celebrity (by circus norms), armed with a series of carefully prepared questions, in my best French, about his artistic vision, how the collective functions and his future plans. Abdel’s answers were extensive and focused, he stayed on course and knew better than I did where all of the diversions in our conversation originated. Exactly what you would expect from someone who in his fifties still has the acrobatic prowess to stand any comparisons with his twenty year old colleagues, and who together with his former partner Mahmoud Louertani founded one of the most influential acrobatic collectives of our times: Compagnie XY. I’d soon set my questions to the side, as our animated conversation diverged to the questions of collectivity, transparent communication and the pride of the circus artist.
Abdel Senhadji: “Compagnie XY started in the circus school in Lomme (Centre Régional des Arts du Cirque Lomme, red.) where Mahmoud and I still teach. We wanted to help our students at that time as they took their first steps toward the professional world, and so we created, together with them, ‘Laissez Porter’. It was the first performance under the name Compagnie XY. The idea for the project came from our vision on teaching. I see pedagogy as transmission: passing all the things from my own experience on to my students. Not insisting on some classic teacher-student relationship, but going forward and working together towards the further evolution of our discipline (hand to hand acrobatics, red.). By that point in our work, creating a performance together was the next logical step. We had no idea where we would end up. If our adventure just came to an end after ‘Laissez-Porter’, that would also have been ok.”
But things turned out differently.
“Indeed. The fact that XY still exists, means there were some pretty good reasons to continue. And I am not talking about funding, or demand from the sector for a new production from us. What matters, is that the group wants to go further, that the inspiration is there for the next step. Mahmoud and I have always done it like that: we had worked together with different people, but after the first production the group always seemed to fall apart, because it wasn’t what they really wanted to be doing. Sometimes you see that a company is only staying together because there is the possibility of continued funding. But that money never insures a good product. You need more than that: you need to feel the necessity, the ‘freshness’ essential to creating something. Our first production was made without subsidies. Now we are funded, but we don’t accept the support offered to us just like that. If the prerequisites for that support don’t jive with our plans, then we would rather continue without the money. If you lose yourself in all those rules and criteria, you end up not making the thing you wanted to make, and more likely than not the result will also be disappointing.
After ‘Laissez-Porter’ we wanted to take our research of acrobatic language a step further, and involve more people in that research. The result was ‘Le Grand C’, a creation with eighteen artists. In our most recent production, the one we are touring at the moment (‘Il n’est pas encore minuit’, red.), there are twenty-three artists on stage. With ‘Le Grand C’ we focused on static figures, with the present performance we’re experimenting with more dynamic movement. Each time we try to take a step further in our research of acrobatic language and all its possibilities. In the near future we are also going to work with the University of Rouen, and try to leave a bit of a scientific trace of the work we are doing.”
What kind of things do you want to research?
“A big group offers lots of acrobatic possibilities. And that is precisely what we want to do with XY: develop the language of acrobatics, do more research around what we call the ‘acrobatic gesture’. What is specific to acrobatics, what’s not derived from another language like those of dance or theatre? In hand-to-hand acrobatics the body is always in a certain tension, a physical alertness. Perhaps the idea of danger also plays a role, I’m not sure. At any rate, there is a tension that is inherent in what we do, a way of being on stage that touches people. Just as in the preparation of a movement, the state of the acrobatic body just before it takes off: the acrobat is in the center of a bubble, of tension and concentration. But falling can also be beautiful. It reveals the humanity of the acrobat.”
How real is the risk that you take on stage?
“Anyone who performs acrobatics at this level, risks their life every day, in a manner of speaking. What we do is top-sport. An exceptional physical performance. Of course on stage the actions are all calculated, but the risk is always there. With XY we make sure there are always people around us who can step in if things go wrong. But that doesn’t mean that what we do isn’t dangerous. We have to always remember that ourselves. For an acrobat it is good to feel fear, it keeps us alert.”
It may offer you possibilities, but I can’t imagine that it’s easy to work with so many artists, in creating, when you take the stage, …
“Because there are so many of us, an important part of our work is to figure out how to function well together, being such a large collective. We don’t do auditions, the group grows in an organic way, through the people we meet ourselves, or via the people we know. Decisions are made collectively. We never vote about something with the idea that ‘majority wins’. Everyone has to be able to accept the idea, otherwise it doesn’t happen. We also don’t entertain ideas of seniority. If you join us, you’re immediately a full-fledged member of the collective. We don’t go on the assumption that someone who has been at it for thirty years has more to say that someone who has just begun. And that notion of equality translates as well to the financial aspect. Everyone in the collective gets paid exactly the same amount. And all the money we earn goes to salaries, not a single percent of it goes to the company. Of course we can only do that because we have no tents or lorries of our own.
More often than not companies present themselves as a collective, but in the end there is a core of initiators or a director and people taken on to interpret their ideas. The core is always present, the performers are interchangeable. Which raises the question: what do we share and how do we share it? Does what I bring to the company match up with what I receive from the company? In France there is a huge taboo when it comes to talking about money. If people feel like they are being treated unfairly financially, they don’t dare talk about it. It would actually be great for the egos of the circus artists, and for all artists for that matter, if we could just talk about it. Financial transparency is really very important for healthy collaboration.
I also don’t like the notion that someone gets granted a permanent place in a company. Your position belongs just as much to the person sitting next to you. You need to know when it’s time to leave and offer your place to someone else. Of course that’s not an easy thing, and it demands real self-awareness and an openness to criticism from those around you.”
Your vision of the collective seems to correspond to some sort of vision of society.
“It’s often said that ‘circus, that’s something collective, it’s about giving and sharing…’ Well then do it. Don’t just talk about it, put it into practice. The primary reason that Mahmoud and I decided to set up XY, was because we wanted to give the people who were just starting out a chance to work. That motivation is still there today. For us it’s not just about the development of the company or our ideas, we want to share with others. You could say that we create job opportunities. The idea of getting rich doesn’t interest me, of earning more. I don’t need more than I have, and it wouldn’t correspond with how I understand my task as a circus artist.”
Has it ever happened that someone ceased to function in the group?
“We have had people whose ideas didn’t seem to correspond with the way we wanted to work in the collective. In those instances the collaboration was brought to a close. It’s a shame, but there is no other course for XY other than the collective. Of course we talk about it first, because it has to be clear.”
You are a teacher affiliated with the Circus School in Lomme. In your opinion, what are the attributes of a good circus pedagogue?
“For me, pedagogy isn’t written in stone. It’s an exchange between student and teacher. I also need exchange in order to move forward. I don’t want to just give lessons, I want to know what my students are interested in outside of classes, so that they can also nourish their work from that perspective. Sometimes it isn’t the training, but more a case of everything which surrounds them, that contributes to (or detracts from) their progress. If a student is happy with what he or she is involved with, that’s great. That’s where it begins. Not with performance or the technical level they’ve achieved. It’s not the talent you’ve been blessed with that will make you better than someone else at the end of your training. The psychological plays a big role. Someone who wants to learn, will always prevail. Someone who is not interested, will stagnate, even if he or she has the talent.”
I hear that there are plans for a new piece. How does XY begin that process?
“Everything begins with dreams: what we want to do, what we are able to do. Everyone in the collective is involved, even if it’s not immediately clear who will finally be on stage. Each time we try to be more precise with our ideas, so that each member can feel for themselves if the project speaks to them and if they want to be part of it. Then we can decide if we also want to look for people outside of the current collective for the creation.”
Could you say that your creations usually begin from the technique? A research of technical possibilities?
“I find it funny that in circus we always talk about technique. Do we talk about ‘dance technique’ or ‘theatre technique’ in the same way? It sounds so negative. It reduces what we do to ‘just technique’ and that label suggests that it is thereby less valuable than dance or theatre, for example. I think that’s where the inferiority complex of the circus artist begins. We don’t have to break the term circus down into separate particles, it is already such a small métier.
Circus technique, circus gesture, circus language, … It is all just part of the art of circus. If we are occupied with technique, then we are still artists. We use circus to express ourselves. And each circus artist does that in their own way. Each body is different, moves differently. If it was just about technique, then everybody would be doing precisely the same thing. I’m happy to see that in the past ten years the label of circus artist is one that is worn with more and more pride. In the old days it used to be ‘yes, I do circus, but it is actually closer to dance, or theatre…’ These days the language of circus has begun to develop, artists embrace the fact that they are doing circus, and they defend the particularities of their art form.
Contemporary circus is also evolving in terms of its content. Today, circus is not just about creating an extravaganza. It’s more politically and socially engaged. Circus artists have something to say. Circus creations can talk about violence and fragility in contemporary society. Art and culture are necessary to a society. They feed us, show us that things can be looked at from different perspectives. Art can be a form of protest. You could compare it to politics: someone addresses the people, shares their vision with the public. People can agree, or disagree with what is being said. For me, that second layer to a performance is very important. A creation can, and should, offer more than just spectacle.”