A Belgian, a Frenchman and a wheel: it could be the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s daily routine for Duo André Leo. The ‘wheel’ is the roue Cyr, the circus technique that Robin Leo and Jean-Baptiste André, or JB, both studied at the ESAC school in Brussels. Each are a quarter century old now, and after years of touring their act together, they are ready for their first full evening show, entitled ‘125 bpm’ or 125 beats per minute. Whoever has a metronome can attest to how high the tempo is, not only of the performance but also of their lives.
[This article was published in Dutch in Circusmagazine #60 – September 2019 // Author: Tom Permentier // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
When I meet up with them on a warm evening in De Expeditie in Ghent, they are coming to the end of a creative residence at circus festival Miramiro, which will culminate in a try-out of their material. They have just come from Spain and Robin is leaving for Sweden hereafter for something completely different. He was the kind of kid who just couldn’t sit still in school and was more or less saved by the famous Feronimo Terrones as he gathered up students for his fledgling circus school Circolito in Mechelen. Jean-Baptiste was 15 when het started doing circus in Châtellerault, situated in the middle of France. Before that he was intensely into roller acrobatique- stunts on rollerskates-as well as a bit of breakdance. This interview, in which we skipped back and forth from Dutch to French to English, is all about working with and against each other, the highs and lows of a creative process.
How have they been, these past few days?
Jean-Baptiste André: “Pretty intense. In Spain we played in a festival and weren’t thinking much at all about the new piece. Now we’ve sunk our teeth into it again and the days have just flown by. Tomorrow is another try-out so we’ve had to quickly gather up all the ideas we worked on before this, rehearse the last things we’ve found and look at the questions we still need to answer and come up with some quick solutions so we can show something tomorrow. And of course things will still all change again on our way to the final creation.”
Robin Leo: “We are working long days, which we try to give some kind of order. We aim to arrive by 10 in the morning, even if we aren’t going to be working physically. We talk, plan and work until 7. We have also had sessions now with Geert (Belpaeme, red.), our dramaturge and coach. The work with him was also intense, more about the idea of the play than about our technique, which is unusual, because as a rule circus artists use a residency to go deeper into the technical aspects of the work. It means that our piece is developing quickly but that on a technical level, with the prospect of a try-out tomorrow, we’ve had to pull things together in a hurry… which is also kind of fun.”
JB: “We only worked two hours on the 14th of July.”
Robin: “Yeah, we left the day before from Deltebre, two hours outside of Barcelona. In France I slept in a tent on the side of the road with my girlfriend and JB slept in the van. We arrived here the next day at 2 in the afternoon. We ate something and got to work, but it was my birthday the day we drove back, so my mother and her partner surprised me with dinner. All in all it’s been a lot, and with Geert coming in as well we’ve really been thrown into the creative process this time around. I think I prefer that to just gently coming into it. It was immediately ‘do it do it do it!’.”
Decisions come more easily when you work like that, because you just don’t have time to second guess.
Robin: “And yet, we still took time to consider things. We have had some interesting discussions, in which we’ve been able to develop our ideas. That’s an area in which Geert is a big help. I’ve come to realise that we work well under pressure, cause we are not inclined to stress, and it does help us make choices more quickly.”
And how are the nights? Do you sleep well during this kind of creation process?
Robin: “It depends how we have worked that day. If the work was more technical my head is hyper-active in the evenings, cause I still have so much mental energy left. And that doesn’t go away during the night or even the next morning. But days like this when we have worked with Geert, I get pushed so much mentally that by the evening I am completely empty. By the end of a day like today I want more than anything to switch off my brains and talk to someone about anything other than circus before I go to sleep.”
JB: “It is a really heavy process and it’s always a relief once I am lying in my bed. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the solution to a problem we have been knocking up against during the day. And even if that doesn’t happen, I think it’s incredibly important to leave the work behind in the evening, to sleep well, and the day thereafter we will surely find a solution.”
How many try-outs have you done, up until now?
Robin: “Tomorrow will be the fifth or sixth, I believe.”
JB: “Early on in the creation process we were showing small fragments of the work to an audience. The first time we only had about 10 minutes that we could show, even if in the end we are aiming to make an hour-long performance. We started so early showing things because it wasn’t yet clear to us which direction we wanted to take. The audience feedback often pointed us in the right direction for the next phase of work.”
Have you ever thrown everything away after a try-out?
Robin: “That happens at any rate, and not only after a try-out. What I did like, certainly in the beginning of our creation process, is that we sometimes felt that we had gone off in the wrong direction, and so for a try-out we would throw something together that was completely different from what we had been doing, with no idea how it would be received. Often it’s the audience that helps us realise what we want to say, the spectator who explains to us exactly what we’re doing. That’s refreshing, because we are so deep into the material that we ourselves have lost all perspective. The feedback after a try-out is vital, without it there is no point in doing a try-out.”
When do you get your best ideas?
JB: “They always come as a surprise. It can happen for example when you are listening to the car radio. You can never count on a good idea coming during a brainstorm or an improv session, but we often find links between the ideas we have collected from a brainstorm and the things we discover while improvising.”
Robin: “As circus artists we often start from our technique, roue Cyr, and first of all look for images we can create with the wheel. In that way we are more researchers than creators. Many of our ideas come out of that research. Yet it’s worth noting that most of our ideas come when we are the least actively looking for them. You get so steeped in the work that the ideas just come to you. And another source of inspiration are the links we make between our work and daily life. Whatever you throw out in the world you get back. It is a question of give and take.”
How much material have you developed that will not be used in your (provisional) definitive piece?
Robin: “Good question. I have a feeling that we have thrown so much away and that everything has changed since we began this creation. We have also gone in a lot of different directions. It’s not necessarily a question of different technical material, but in the way we develop it and use it in the performance. A lot of the ideas we’ve had inspired us to go in a completely different direction. It’s been quite some process to get to our present material.”
JB: “Sometimes it is possible to enjoy this quest that we are on, but not always. It is difficult to throw ideas away, but often so necessary. The day after you’ve decided not to use an idea that you love, you often realise that it was the right decision, cause it’s opened a new door.”
Robin: “Throwing an idea away is one thing, but having to put aside your ego in order to do it is another. Allez, I don’t actually mean ego, but there is something of yourself in your idea, because you believe in it so strongly. You have to convince yourself that you may actually be really wrong, that another idea could be better. It is a lesson in daring and being obliged to let go. We’ve gotten better at that.”
Have you sometimes pushed ideas through because your conviction made it impossible to throw them away?
Robin: “For me personally: yes, to a certain extent. But we’ve never gotten in a situation yet where one of us is the dictator and the other the slave.”
JB: “We can always discuss why something should or should not be included.”
How has Geert Belpaeme coached you?
JB: “in the beginning of our collaboration he asked us lots of questions, which really helped us in the search for what it was we actually wanted to make. Later in the process he started to give some answers, if we found ourselves stuck on something.”
Robin: “The better he got to know us and the direction we wanted to go, the better he could take on the role of ‘outside eye’, and offer us little initiatives to help us get to what we were looking for. More and more we have found the right balance between the three of us. Geert also knows our limits very well. He is very involved with our creation, but he’s never tried to take it out of our hands, or to take over.”
Who are your examples?
JB: “I would have to say Defracto, a French juggling company, and Cie Ea Eo.”
Robin: “In fact for this performance we have mostly been inspired by jugglers.”
Robin: “We consider juggling as the most developed circus form at present. Jugglers have an extensive ‘sharing community’, which means that juggling as a sport has grown and grown. There are also a lot of tools developed, like siteswap (a kind of juggling notation, red.) that help in creating and research, something which to my mind is missing in the rest of the circus world. Our roue Cyr is of course not a juggling object, but we are researching how we can take the juggler’s approach to object manipulation and adapt it to the wheel. We’re wondering if we can use the same tools that they use to do that. Roue Cyr is a young discipline, there is still so much more to be found than showing your acrobatics in the wheel while it turns. That’s why at the beginning of our creative process we organised research labs and invited jugglers to come and experiment with our wheel.”
When you are in a creative process can you watch the work of your colleagues or do you have to avoid that contact?
JB “At times like this I simply don’t have the time (laughs), but I appreciate the moments I can see other work. Now even more than before, because I have become more attent to the structure of a performance, I see more detail. I learn a lot from that, even when the performance doesn’t necessarily appeal to me.”
Robin: “Now that we are making our own performance, I value the work of others so much more, and I am less critical than I used to be. I realise how much effort, time and devotion is necessary to come to a result.”
JB: “Less critical? Or even more critical?”
Robin: “What do you mean, more critical? Yeah, maybe more critical in some ways. But before I would watch bad circus and think: ‘What a waste of time.’ I don’t feel like that anymore. I remember for instance a show in Italy that I didn’t think was very good, but I was fascinated throughout the entire performance with a little green light they had on stage, and I thought: ‘Wow, that green light would be perfect in a scene from our show.’ There is always something you can take away, even from the worst performances.”
What is the theme of ‘125 bpm’?
Robin: “Well, the performance is still changing all the time, but it’s always about the delicate balance between two people and the cosmic force of heavenly bodies. The title comes from our first period of creation: 125 bpm (beats per minute, red.) seemed to us the ideal tempo for the wheel to turn. It fits our research into the relationship between the repetition of a movement and the repetition in the music, something that has fascinated the dance world for a long long time.”
So your choice of music came quite early?
Robin: “We started working from very early on with the music, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t put it into question. The music helps us a lot in our research, but we can’t guarantee that the same music will be present in the same way in the final performance. We work together with Tomas Vanderplaetse, a musician from Ghent that we met when we were recording a video for the series ‘Circus in Flanders’ for the Circuscentrum.”
Do you still like each other?
JB: “Yes, yes.” (laughs)
Robin: “I think our relationship has gotten stronger now that we have more experience. Even in moments of frustration or rage I feel closer to JB. There is a beautiful respect that has grown between us. In my telephone he is even listed as ‘JB spouse’. C’est mon mari. (It’s my husband). You can sometimes be angry with your spouse, but that doesn’t mean you love them less.”
JB: “Sometimes it explodes a bit, but only when it has to do with the performance, never outside the work. And we have always managed to turn those negative moments around to something good.”
Do you sometimes think: ‘If only I had an office job’?
Robin: “Sometimes I think that is what we have, with all the paperwork and emails, but it probably doesn’t compare at all with what people in a real office job have to deal with. There is nothing about that kind of life that I envy. Once in a while I do think: ‘If only I had a base’. For a while now I haven’t had a house, and my girlfriend and I would love to live together somewhere. The problem is we are so busy at the moment that we can’t even manage to find a moment to go look for a place. So there would hardly be any point in having a house at the moment.”
JB: “I experience all the daily challenges in our work as something really stimulating. If I could be stimulated like that working in an office, perhaps I could be happy doing that. But the image we have of office work is one of repetition. Every day the same thing. For us life is always bringing something completely different.”
Robin: “I couldn’t survive sitting in a chair all day. We are people, we are animals, I find it almost shameful that we don’t spend time learning how to use our bodies better.”