[This article was published in CircusMagazine #49 – December 2016]
[Author: Hanna Mampuys – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
June 2007. Four fresh boys graduate from the Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (ESAC) in Brussels. Gert de Cooman with silk, Kenzo Tokuoka with the unicycle, Luca Aeschlimann with ball juggling and Vladimir Couprie with diabolo. That same month they form the compagnie Carré Curieux. Their first performance ‘Le Carré Curieux’ tours throughout Europe and beyond. The follow-up projects; ‘Le Passage’, ‘Petit Frère’, and ‘Entre Nous’ can also be added to the list of successes. Almost ten years later the quartet is just as fresh and ambitious, and moreover armed with a mature vision of circus and their work as artists. CircusMagazine spoke with Gert and Vladimir about the chosen family, a circus tent of their own, ‘l’esprit de cirque’ and intellectual drivel.
You met each other at ESAC, where you were together in the same year. But how did you come to form a company?
Couprie: “We were the workers of the class. While the others dared to drop a class once in a while, we were the four who were always there. Luca and I had lessons from the same juggling teacher (Phillippe Vande Weghe) and Gert and Kenzo started to work on Chinese mast together in the second year, as their complimentary technique. We still share the same work ethic today. If something has to happen, we take care of it immediately.”
De Cooman: “We love to play around. We had tons of fun at school, with a penchant for the stupid stuff. But it also became our way of developing technical and artistic ideas, through play. In the summer after our second year at ESAC we took off for a month’s tour through Brittany. We just went to perform in squares or in front of cafés. That’s where we discovered that it clicked between the four of us, and that’s when we decided we would work together after school.”
Couprie: “We even proposed to do our ‘EXIT’ together (the last year’s final performance at ESAC). But the school didn’t like that idea. Luca and I did make a duet for EXIT, Kenzo and Gert worked solo. That wasn’t such a bad thing. That way we went further with our own disciplines, and after school we jumped right into the collective.”
Was it mostly friendship that brought you together, or a shared artistic vision?
Couprie: “We came together because it clicked, because we found each other in the play and in a common way of working. Artistically we each have a very different universe. That diversity is the strength of the company, but means that working together is not always that simple. After that first project we each went our own way, solos and duo’s got made, projects for in the theatre and for the street. Just because all four of us have our own preferences, and had different desires at that point in time.”
You have succeeded in making room within your collective for personal wishes and projects, while continuing to work very closely together. Could you give me a picture of how that collaboration works?
Couprie: “For me it is super important that everyone does what they want to do, so he can continue his personal development. Doing what you want is a philosophy of life. You want to make a solo? To work with other people outside of Carré Curieux? Well please do it then! The others follow up those projects, closely or with a bit more distance, but it isn’t our intention to play a role in the form they finally take. The final decision lies with the one who’s initiative it was to begin with, the others give support where it’s necessary: help with the scenography, checking dossiers, artistic or practical advice, … That’s the kind of collective we form: we support each other, we challenge each other. That’s how we go forward.”
De Cooman: “It is also indicative of our way of working together that only now, for the first time since our initial performance ‘Le Carré Curieux’, have we started on a new collective project. We tried a few times, but we couldn’t manage to get on the same page. Until now.”
Couprie: “Yes! We’ve begun the creation of a performance with the four of us together, in a circus tent. Our own circus tent.”
Why the choice, as a contemporary circus company, for a creation in a circus tent?
De Cooman: “We want to create our own space, to invite our audience to our place and not to some theatre where each time we have to adapt. We ourselves want to design the place we are going to play.”
Couprie: “A circus tent has something ethereal, almost magic. It moves from one place to the next, stands for a few days, and suddenly it’s gone again. For me this creation is the synthesis of what we’ve been doing these past years, and where we are now in our personal and professional lives. We started with a theatre performance, after that we mostly created things for the street. In a circus tent you can combine the focus of the theatre with the proximity of the street. The people are sitting more or less comfortably, there is light which gives a certain focus. But we see the people sitting there, we can look them in the eye and play with them like we would in the street. In the meantime we all have children and it can really drag you down to spend so much time away from the family. Traveling with tent and caravans gives us the luxury of bringing them along with us.”
How does the tent influence your creative process?
Couprie: “Before we began to effectively work on the project, we did a lot of research with other companies that had their own tent. Everyone told us the same thing: the choice of a tent and all the practical considerations that go along with that choice take an enormous amount of your time. And that’s something we can now confirm, but we took that into account when did the planning for this project (the Belgian premiere is scheduled for April 2018, red.). The tent is being designed to fit the performance: its design is there to serve what we want to express. So we have already made some important artistic choices in this first phase of the work. It’s not a case of just buying a tent and then deciding what we will do in it, nor what it means to us to perform in a tent. We are creating the ideal tent – our dream house – for this performance.”
De Cooman: “We would like to break with the standard expectations of circus in a tent. By not choosing for a traditional circus tent our audience’s first impression will get sent off immediately in a different direction. We hope to create new expectations, more coherent with the content of our performance. Whether or not we find the tent itself to be beautiful is secondary.”
Couprie: “As important as the tent might be, in the end it’s just the shell, the frame around the performance. Of course the shell has to coincide with what is inside, or in this case what happens inside.”
De Cooman: “Nor is the tent the artistic starting point. The beginning for this creation is the idea of ‘the chosen family’: although we’re not a real family, we have chosen to stay together and to form a group, so we are a self-chosen family.”
Couprie: “You can also take the idea of a self-chosen family and apply it to the larger circus world: it is a community, a little world where everyone knows each other and belongs together. The theme of the performance is us, our relationships, our humanity. The tent is a mirror of whom we are. So it will be carré (square) and curieux (special)! (laughs)
De Cooman: “We asked Titoune from Cirque Trottola to accompany us during this creation. Our paths crossed a few times and it clicked, and it seems that feeling was mutual. Why Titoune? Because she’s a tough woman whose ideas are very close to our artistic vision. She is capable of bringing together the desires of four fiery and very different personalities and help us in working together. And she has experience with circus tent performances.”
Do you feel close to traditional circus?
De Cooman: “No. Just because we chose to work in a tent doesn’t mean that we want to make traditional circus. The difference can be found in the creative process itself. We are part of a movement in circus where the technique is a means of expression, and not a goal in itself. Whether or not silk, a unicycle, a diabolo or juggling will be part of the performance we are creating is something we don’t know yet. The creation itself will determine that.”
Couprie: “Today the borders are gone. Anything is possible in the circus. You can combine it with any other art form that you please. You can perform it anywhere. But in its heart there is still a specific attitude. ‘L’esprit de cirque’. That attitude, that way of thinking and doing things comes from training a circus technique. That’s where it begins, but afterwards you can apply that circus attitude to whatever you like. I can make an aerial piece with a tree, or a juggling act with this notebook, it doesn’t matter. It remains circus. Life is full of limitations, this is forbidden, this can only be done in a certain way,… it’s all about how you deal with that, the solutions you find that transform those limitations, and thereby master them. It’s a way of finding things that are a bit magic, flipped out or special. And it’s that way of thinking, transforming your circus training to something else, that to my mind is typical of contemporary circus. While traditional circus places the emphasis on tricks: you train the most difficult technical tricks, the one’s you’ve copied from artists who have come before you, you line those tricks up one after the other and you have one hell of an act.”
De Cooman: “It’s just another approach. One is not more valuable than the other. I always love going to a traditional circus. This summer we saw two of them because we were nearby. The show, the artists, the gigantic convoy of caravans, … I think that’s fantastic. But it’s not what I am looking for, for myself.”
Would you dare say that what you do is ‘art’ and the result of an artistic vision, whereas with traditional circus that is not the case?
Couprie: “Absolutely not! For me it’s indisputable that all forms of circus are art. Perhaps it’s not contemporary art, but it is a performance, a spectacle, so it belongs to the performing arts. If you watch a knife-thrower at work, the precision and the tension, that also communicates something. Every action on stage expresses something. And for me that is art. I can be just as moved by a knife-thrower as I can by a piece of contemporary theatre. Why do we feel the need to always compare things and give them a name? They are simply different styles. And traditional circus is at the foundation of contemporary circus. Just as Molière and ballet form the foundations of theatre and dance. Some of those classic pieces have been performed thousands of times. But you don’t hear anyone asking if it’s art. The contemporary form of all the arts can be found in the history of the art-form, in a certain ‘tradition’. (thinks for a moment) I don’t want to say anything stupid here, but to my mind the whole discussion about whether circus is an art-form or not is about the money. As if our answer to the question ‘are we just as much art as theatre and dance’ should determine if we deserve the same support. Well, my answer to that is simple. Of course we deserve the same support! A circus company makes the same costs as other companies in the performing arts, in production, administration, diffusion, materials, … If it’s about money, then don’t ask questions about the content, ask how the company functions. And here’s the quick answer: there is no difference. Circus is a performing art just like all the others.”
De Cooman: “Circus continues to lag behind in the race with theatre and dance, in the sense that there are still not enough large structural companies with some political clout. As an artist it’s hard to get access to all the political games and commissions where we can fight for our interests. And we need that, people who represent our interests at the political level, that can influence policy from a circus angle. It’s not the most enjoyable part of our profession, but we think it is very important. We fight on a daily basis for our place at the institutional table. And that’s without even going into how frustrating the divisions are between Wallonia and Flanders, in terms of cultural policy. Carré Curieux has a lot of partners and we are recognised by the French speaking side of Belgium. But unfortunately, that fact closes doors for us on the Flemish side. For us it doesn’t have to be like that, our art form is without borders. But that invisible political wall is not one that gets broken down easily.”
Can this debate on the circus arts also contribute to the development of the art form? You’ve said it yourself: it is by putting yourself and each other in question that you move ahead.
Couprie: “Every art form must constantly put itself in question, ok. But raising doubts about whether circus is art or not is a moot point. Traditional circus or contemporary circus, it doesn’t matter. It is just a question of style. It’s not the issue whether circus is art or not. It’s about what you do, how you do it, how hard you work for it. And if it’s good, then it’s good. Then you feel that something’s there. Circus is a living art, you can’t say one form is more valuable than the other. That sort of question just opens the door for intellectual drivel. Next question!”
De Cooman: “What is worthwhile is to get people from the circus world together, to exchange, and to create things across Flemish, Belgian and European borders. We still have this island mentality: everybody is completely absorbed their own thing, their own company and their own creation. And yet we can learn so much from each other, and about ourselves! – learning through talking with others, with each other.”
Couprie: “When I first started as an artist there was a French magazine about circus that gave circus companies a chance to talk about how they worked and how they thought. Their answers inspired me as a young guy: what appealed then to me, where did I differ from opinion? Usually it had to do with subtle nuance, a particular way of formulating something that would stick with me and leave a big impression. To some degree, that’s helped make me the artist that I am today.”
And now Carré Curieux is the company that is sharing it’s methods and opinions… Maybe a last question: what to you is the perfect recipe for success as a circus collective?
De Cooman: “Don’t be convinced of your own success too soon…” (laughs)
Couprie: “Do what you want to do.”
De Cooman: “Trust each other and give each other freedom. Accept that sometimes you don’t agree, but don’t love each other less for it.”
Couprie: “Actually just love each other.”