Since the beginning of this school year (September 2017) the location of the Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (ESAC) has moved from behind the school building in Oudergem, to an impressive new site on the CERIA Campus in Anderlecht. CircusMagazine went to take a look and to talk with Virginie Jortay, director since 2013 of one of the most renowned circus schools in the world.
[This article was published in CircusMagazine #53 – December 2017]
[Author: Hanna Mampuys – Translation: Craig Weston – Picture: Tom Van Mele – all rights reserved]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
What were your first steps in the circus?
Virginie Jortay: “My first contact with circus was rather by chance. I was working in the theatre world, mostly as sound designer and director. They asked me to make a video for the graduation performance of ESAC in 2001, when the school had not even been officially recognised as a college. That’s how I got involved. In that period I directed different collectives and gave a course in sound design. You could say that I got to know circus, not through the circus material itself, but rather from the outside. I organised the space and the players, created images and atmospheres, each time somehow connected to the musicality of the whole. Only much later did I come to realise the importance of the ‘feel’ and experience in circus, what it means to stand on stage as a circus artist, and just what that is, the ‘circus material’ with which we are working.”
In 2013 you were appointed director. Why were you interested in taking on that position?
“Call it a concurrence of circumstances… I had made just about every piece of theatre that I would ever want to, and at ESAC I was involved in the pedagogical side of things, looking at the ways we could infuse creation and the artistic aspect into our pedagogy. That question, by the way, remains essential to me now, in my function as director. Now from the inside I still want to continue to research artistic development, to try to make the right choices for our program, to radically stimulate the sensitivity of our students. We don’t shape any one type of artist, but we do decide to a large degree the artistic challenges that the students will face during their education. What matters to me is that they develop an openness and come to realise the artistic necessity of their work.”
How do you actually do that?
“You can’t put a finger on it, it’s a kind of chemistry, a pollination you can’t predict. To begin with, you have to try to determine the things that stick, the things that mark someone along the way. You can’t actually measure the result of that, but I go on the assumption that if the student reacts, things are moving in the right direction. Whether that reaction is one of resistance or adoration is not the issue. As long as we get an emotional response we are on the right track. When feelings are evoked, we’ve entered the realm of the artistic.”
What is it that touches you, that attracts you to circus?
“It may sound simple, but for me it’s the body. The generous, profane body of the circus artist. For me, circus means powerful, dexterous bodies that cannot and may not be pushed into a straitjacket. Bodies at the maximum of their ability, within the limitations of their own individuality, is something that touches me deeply.”
In the meantime you’ve begun your fifth year as director. What have been your biggest challenges up until now?
“One of the most important projects was of course moving to this new building. Our old location in Oudergem helped us put ourselves on the map, to begin this whole adventure. But we had outgrown the place, and we needed more room – literally and figuratively. This new building gives us the chance to better anchor operations and continue our develop. I also believe that it’s a continuing challenge for us to maintain our position in the global network of circus education. Somehow we want to remain a reference, with the necessary appeal and reputation, even if things continue to evolve within the school and towards the outside world. At any rate, the new building gives a real boost in perpetuating our program and making it more sustainable.”
Can you name some challenges for the future?
“One big challenge is to safeguard the position of art education within the institutional framework of universities and colleges. Art programs have to aim to keep their specific artistic identities and not allow themselves to be taken over by the academic machine. What is certainly fascinating is that there are more and more initiatives and circus education programs sprouting up. But we have to be careful to guard the essence of the métier of circus. Even in a very traditional manner, as far as I am concerned. We must try to avoid the trap to which contemporary dance and contemporary art in general have fallen victim. That circus might ever become contemporary circus in name only, while at the same time losing its soul, the craft of circus. Another important challenge is to make students aware of the political meaning of art and the social importance of their endeavour. To speak before an audience, perform in front of an audience, is a political act. Just ‘showing what you can do’ is not enough.”
Are students in ESAC trained to be artists?
“It is not because we are an art school that we turn our students into artists. That’s a flawed way of thinking. An arts school gives students artistic baggage that may help them to become artists one day. You graduate with specific tools and with an open attitude, but you become an artist in the course of your career. You have to have something to say. I find it very risky for a school to claim that it delivers artists. There are so many kinds of artists and artistic work, as a school it is our job to remain as all-round and as open as we can.”
Is the distinction between maker and performer that we see in the other performing arts, relevant in the context of circus?
“You can certainly make that distinction in circus, but I think it’s essential in both of those roles to understand each other’s viewpoint and logic. I don’t think it’s possible to say: I am only a performer or I only work on the creation from the outside. In an education it’s interesting to experiment with techniques from theatre direction, choreography and dramaturgy, but they remain techniques that we ‘borrow’ from other art forms. In the end we always have to base our work on the circus material, that which truly and only belongs to the circus. And to my mind any absolute discourse around that is dangerous. There are so many possibilities for artistic expression, the only thing that we can do is make our students aware of all the possibilities and their mechanisms. We sometimes see in the course of our program that students have developed a preference for performing or for creating, but it is just as possible that two years after graduating that has completely changed. Our students writes their own story, and we are just a tiny moment in their lives. Sometimes you can predict things, but we are more often surprised by the path our students take once they leave us. That’s only more motivation to give our students a maximum number of choices to take with them, and especially a curiosity for that which they don’t yet know.”
Sometimes people say that a circus education is too short to offer the necessary technical baggage and also work on artistic development.
“I certainly don’t think we should make our program longer. The career of a circus artist is short. Like music, circus relies to a large degree on the physical virtuosity of youth, so by definition that virtuosity has an expiration date. What’s more, the level of our entrance exams are so demanding that a student who’s only eighteen years old is seldom accepted. To lengthen the study by another two years would have an enormous effect on the career of the artist. That’s not necessarily the case in other art forms. All doors are still open for an actor or a designer who is twenty-seven upon graduation, while a circus artist at that age already starts to see that his possibilities are diminishing. I’m personally more drawn to the idea of post-study modules, like the Certificat en Dramaturgie Circassienne that we organise together with CNAC (the French circus college Centre National des Ares du Cirque, red.). Now that we’ve moved location it’s something we want to devote ourselves to: post-study modules around different themes for a very diverse public. The bachelor offers mainly technique, an artistic openness and an openness to the needs of the sector, and from there you choose your own direction. It’s our priority as a school to defend and protect the circus practice and the freedom of our students. One dominant vision of creation or direction that we might impose on the students is the last thing we need. In ESAC I am not in favour of developing any program that would lead our students in one particular direction when it comes to the creative process of circus.”
Do you think we can speak of a typical ESAC style? Or a Belgian style?
“Our school of course has its own identity, just like le Lido (circus school in Toulouse, France, red.) or the circus school in Montréal, Canada. That identity is formed by the pedagogical team and a way of working that has developed over time. That style, that trademark remains even when people leave or new people take their place. The idea of a ‘Belgian style’ is something projected on us from outside the country. Perhaps from the outside you can detect a certain taste or smell, but we ourselves are not advocating ‘Belgian circus’. Which would be a rather strange idea because our ‘Belgians’ also come from Canada and South America. Ninety percent of our students and half of our teachers are not Belgian, so you could hardly call us a Belgian school. What’s really funny is that about a third of our students remain in Brussels after their studies and identify themselves as Belgian circus artists, even if they come from Finland or Switzerland…”
You attract students from all over the world. How does that influence the school?
“In Belgium there are not many possibilities to prepare for higher education in the circus. The disadvantage is that few Belgian youngsters have the chance to prepare themselves, the advantage is that those who really go for it can usually get a place in one of the European schools. In other countries with a more complete system of study offered in high school, preparatory schools and colleges, you see that in the circus schools the majority of the students are from within those countries. However, there’s a richness to be gathered from the mobility of today’s students, also afterwards in the professional world. Other schools promote exchange programs like Erasmus, but we don’t feel like that’s of much use to our students. In the end we are in ourselves a three year Erasmus program. Almost all of our students leave their homelands to come to study with us. ESAC is the globe in miniature. Babel is here in Brussels. That diversity also demands a great openness and respect for each other’s differences. And that is something you take with you for the rest of your life. Now, in the end I think that is true for all circus schools, that diversity is everywhere, but perhaps in a slightly smaller dose than here at ESAC.”
Do we need more preparatory schools in Belgium?
“Absolutely. I think we need to make a decisive investment in this young generation on all levels, in all different areas. Not only for circus, but also for sport, culture, … If we want results than we have to provide the means. In the world of sport they’ve understood that for a long time. They’ve made some serious investments and as a result we now have an entire Belgian delegation going to the Olympic Games. Of course our young people are just as talented as those from other countries, but we have to give them the chance to realise that talent. And for that we are dependent on the good will of the political class. At the moment there are a number of dossiers on the table of the Wallonian-Brussels federation, for the creation of a circus program at the high-school level. The form that the schools give that program is up to them, but hopefully within ten years we will start to reap the benefits. This is long-term work.”
Why is art education important in our society?
“That is a huge question… To begin with I think that an artistic education should start in nursery school and not once you’ve turned eighteen. All children and young people are sensitive to art in one way or another, and the earlier they are introduced to it the better. Politicians want to bring the arts into the education system, but at the same time they make it almost impossible for artists to fulfil that desire. The diplomas and certificates that are necessary in order to teach anything officially, a contract for two hours of teaching a week, with the resulting loss of your artist statute in the bargain! The desire to include arts in our education system doesn’t correspond with the reality. So what do they do? They train teachers who may be strong pedagogically, but whose artistic baggage consists of a bit of flute and juggling with scarves. But what should children be learning at school? Pedagogy, or how to play the flute!? Something there is not correct. Learning about the arts should be a permanent part of every curriculum. In order to make that happen we need a revolution, a resolute choice for content – perhaps even at the expense of other lessons – and it has to be possible for real artists to come and work in the schools.”
What is the role of art in society?
“A dangerous question. Art can as easily be at the root of individual revolution as an instrument for the most monstrous fascism. Does art serve the power at hand, the revolution of reflection? By posing that question we approach art in a political way. For me that’s something very personal. It is the sensitivity that we can attain from seeing and experiencing certain things. If I want to speak about art I am talking about the human quality and not about art for its own sake, nor of art that comes from the catalogues. It’s good to give artists and art a place in society, but I can’t stand it when art becomes institutionalised. Look at how Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus were named cultural ambassadors for Flanders in the eighties… What does that say about the art? Nothing, it’s a political discourse in which the work of the artist is appropriated. As an artist, I think my sense of artistic freedom would be incredibly threatened, were I to suddenly become a calling card of a region or a particular culture. Of course, I’m not condemning it outright, since any artistic freedom is also linked somehow to financial support. It’s all very contradictory.”
What makes the art form of circus unique?
“It is one of the few art forms in which métier still determines the heart of the artistic discourse. There is little discourse in the world of circus and that’s a good thing. Circus today is not determined by theory, but by feeling, risk, the piste, the acrobat, the métier itself…”
Are you afraid that that might change?
“If schools and other institutions start pushing a particular vision, then you create a ruling point of view. And to my mind there is never just one point of view. The power of circus is in its eclecticism. Eclecticism and realism determine the DNA of circus. To propose one single vision is a crime against that diversity. The challenge for circus today is to hold on to its soul, or rather its souls.”
Which evolutions do you hope to see in the coming years?
“I can’t really make a statement about that. How circus evolves will be dependent on how the world evolves. We need to maintain that connection with our surroundings. If art doesn’t stay close to reality, close to the ‘now’, then you can no longer talk about art.”