[This article was published in CircusMagazine #45 – December 2015]
[Authors: Gwendolien Sabbe & Maarten Verhelst – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
There is the French saying: ‘Never two without three’. But in the company Deux sans Trois from Leuven there are four: in ‘TYPO’ three circus artists and one very flexible musician explore the impact of the group on the actions of each individual. Physical theatre, circus, dance and music flow together into one winning performance. CircusMagazine spoke with the circus trio of the group – Hanna Mampuys, Toon Van Gramberen and Annemie Pierlé – about retro-swimsuits, Sartre, the collective creation process, the self-made artist and the weaknesses which are also one’s strength.
They have developed a reputation in the past years as excellent teachers and leaders of workshops for young people, but slowly they’ve also built up their own artistic careers. Their training comes on one hand from the university (“which may come in handy once the body decides it no longer wants to co-operate”), and on the other hand circus pedagogy (Annemie and Hanna studied at the Formation Pédagogique in Brussels). Toon juggled his way into Cirkus in Beweging (Leuven). He and Hanna are now regular teachers there, as well as in the circus-high school. A few years ago Toon left his job as social worker, took the leap of faith to try to live solely from the circus, and succeeded. The fourth member of the company, Jef Hendrikx, studied among other places at the Lemmensinstituut and combines his musical talents with a full-time job as IT’er. In short, it took a long time for these four to join forces.
When did you decide to make a performance together?
Hanna Mampuys: “Three years ago, during the festival ‘the groote stooringe’ in Roeselare, we started to talk about it.”
Annemie Pierlé: “We were together in the Willi Dorner project ‘Bodies in Urban Spaces’ and we shared a bedroom. At some point we were talking about the circus performances we had seen, and wondered what stood in the way of us doing the same thing.”
Mampuys: “We decided we didn’t have to feel inferior because we hadn’t done one of the circus academies like ESAC or CNAC.”
Pierlé: “That’s how we pumped ourselves up and finally we said, ‘Come on, let’s just do it!’ A few weeks later we got together for the first time.”
Toon Van Gramberen: “We also immediately asked Jef to join us.”
Mampuys: “Jokingly we said that if in three years we are in the program of the groote stooringe ourselves [the circus festival the Groote Stooringe happens every three years], then we will have come full-circle. And voila, last September that’s exactly what happened.”
But in the meantime you are all still teaching?
Pierlé: “For me that’s a financial solution. A bit of insurance.”
Van Gramberen: “Anything you do that is creative is great. Also teaching kids, seeing how they develop. I definitely want to continue doing that. Working on theatricality, on creating, more than just technique. Trying to give kids a bigger picture, going further into things. That also gets me thinking. What do I want to give my students? Object manipulation, the relationship to an object,… Not necessarily with those words, but essentially it’s that.” (laughs)
Mampuys: “The lessons I give in drama and creation are also interesting for me. I try out a lot of things, and I’m constantly watching. It’s as much my own development as theirs.”
Van Gramberen: “In the lessons things happen that you don’t expect. You set something up, but it may lead to something completely different from what you had in mind.”
Mampuys: “You get somewhere with a group, much further that you ever would have expected when you began.”
Deux Sans Trois wasn’t your first collaboration on stage.
Van Gramberen: “Hanna and I already had an acro-porté number that we played on the street. That worked. For me it was also a big revelation, I hadn’t any artistic history. But standing on that stage…I felt like I discovered something about myself.”
Pierlé: “And of course there was Circus BAF.” (general laughter)
Van Gramberen: “Yes, but do we have to talk about that?”
Pierlé: “Weren’t we in the yearbook with that production? At any rate, it was a semi-professional production from Cirkus in Beweging. We three played in that, together with Jonas and Arne.”
Van Gramberen: “It was about a traditional circus where everything always goes wrong.”
Pierlé: “I was the strong-woman.”
Mampuys: “I was the ballerina!”
Van Gramberen: “And I was one of the hired help. We had all the cliché characters covered.”
You may be a bit condescending about it now, but don’t underestimate the importance of those experiences along the way. Those are the moments that you try things out.
Mampuys: “We did learn a lot. And by the way, don’t forget: the theatre in Leuven was completely sold out. There were even scuffles outside because some people weren’t allowed in!”
Van Grambergen: “That was indeed the highpoint. But we also played in Center Parcs for children that had just gotten out of the swimming pool. We even did animations in the swimming pool.”
Pierlé: “Also in the ball-bath.”
Van Grambergen: “In retro-swimsuits. The performance in the theatre was our dernière. We stopped at our peak.”
Mampuys: “Ok, let’s leave it at that.” (laughs)
Van Grambergen: “We did learn a lot from that experience.”
Mampuys: “Especially what we absolutely didn’t want to do again in the future.”
None of you studied at one of the circus academies. Does that feel now like something you’ve missed?
Van Gramberen: “I started late with circus and once I was hooked, I often thought: Shit, why didn’t this all happen a bit earlier? Then I would definitely have gone for one of the circus schools. But now that feeling is less intense, in the meantime we have built up a nice little history of our own.”
Mampuys: “These days I don’t think it’s necessary to come from of the circus academies in order to be a good circus artist or to make a good performance. I am not necessarily including ourselves on that list, but there are many examples. Of course it is true that your training is a sort of calling card, and it can open doors.”
Van Gramberen: “On the other hand you also see that young graduates of the academies need some time to cut loose from their schooling. They tour for the first three years with their graduation number, and only thereafter take a completely different turn in their work. So it’s all a bit relative.”
Pierlé: “I think the technical baggage that you get at school is a real plus. Three or four years training full-time, only having to be busy with one thing, no other studies or jobs,…in the end you have reached a very high level. It is not a ‘must’ to have a circus education, but I have to admit I did everything I could to get in somewhere. I knocked on a lot of doors, but was never accepted. A very frustrating period, with some real blows to my self-confidence. I believe a diploma makes things a bit easier. That said, there are absolutely no rules about how to build a circus career. There are examples enough of the alternatives.”
There are of course many examples of self-made artists who have created original work and have enjoyed a lot of success.
Van Dramberen: “Definitely. It is nothing to be ashamed of if you haven’t done one of the academies. On the contrary. Actually those are the people we most look up to, now that I think of it. Bram Dobbelaere and Sander De Cuyper from Pol & Freddie and Cie Ea Eo, Iris Carta and Jef Naets from Cie Circ’ombelico. ‘Da/Fort’ was an incredibly strong performance. They played more than 500 times all over Europe, and even if the acrobatics were not the most technically advanced, it was their own artistic signature and the concept that made it such a success.”
Does it make you proud to know that everything you have done, you’ve done entirely on your own?
Van Gramberen: “In a way, yes. Though you can’t say that someone who’s gone to one of the circus academies hasn’t done it on their own.”
Pierlé: “But, for example the fact that we didn’t work with a director, that we made the play completely on our own, that makes me proud.”
Your performance is about the dynamic between the group and the individual. Was it a process of taking your experiences while creating the play and working them into the show?
Van Gramberen: “Yes, unconsciously, I suppose it was. I know that when we worked with Randi De Vlieghe we asked him what he thought our play was about, and he answered: ‘It’s about who you are and what you can do.’ At first we were kind of insulted: ouch, if it’s nothing more than that, then that’s a bit weak. But that’s not weak, it’s strong. If you can put yourself on stage for an audience like that, in a good way, then it really works. And it’s true: the difference in our dynamic as characters is certainly something you can see in the performance.”
Mampuys: “The starting point was how as an individual you can never be neutral within a group, because your position is always determined. In the beginning we explored that idea in a very abstract way, and talked a lot about it. Gradually those ideas became more and more concrete.”
Van Gramberen: “It’s a bit like Sartre says: you are only who you are in the perception of another. If no one sees you as a certain kind of person, then you are not that person.
Mampuys: “If you find yourself to be incredibly cool, but no one else agrees with you, then you’re not cool. That’s an interesting tension to work with.”
Van Gramberen: “Yeah, for Sartre you are un-cool. But for other philosophers you probably are the ultimate.” (laughs)
Mampuys: “It was also indicative of our creative process that our only option was to start with who we were and what we could do. Sometimes you think: ‘we want to try this or that, we want to follow a certain line, something different’. Along the way you realize that it’s just not happening. That you are not a group that works like that. At the same time there come the moments you realize you can do something very well, as a group. By the end of our creative process things began to happen in a very organic way. We started to get into a flow. My favorite parts of the piece come from that period.”
There’s a lot of romanticizing about creating something collectively, while in fact it’s really not so obvious to do it well. Often, if the final product is good, all the problems get forgotten. But how do you deal with those problems during the process?
Mampuys: “From the very start we made some clear agreements, also artistically. For each period of the process we decided in advance who would lead which part of the work: who would propose the improvisation material, who would research our images, who would research the music, …”
Van Gramberen: “Good preparation helps immensely. If only to avoid the moment when you find yourself in the rehearsal room saying: what are we going to do now?, and subsequently sinking into discussions and frustrations.”
Mampuys: “By the end of the creation we were very good at thinking together about what we still needed to find, and on the other hand, deciding together what we needed to scrap. We got rid of a really beautiful scene with surprising ease, because we all felt that it just wasn’t right.”
Van Gramberen: “Conflicts often come from the details. But creating something is about the details, so conflicts are unavoidable.”
What is it like to work with Jef Hendrikx, a musician with absolutely no circus background?
Van Gramberen: “He was with us from the very beginning of ‘TYPO’. He wrote all the music for the piece, but we didn’t want to make any distinction between the circus-artists and the musician on stage. So he does a lot more that just play music. Jef was ready for anything. And that’s how a lot of acrobatic ideas came to be.”
Mampuys: “He also has an incredible presence on stage. He’s just a natural.”
Van Gramberen: “During the creative process we improvised a lot. There were moments that he just played us off the stage. He is so honest and his reactions are so true. Bram Dobbelaere, who coached us once in a while, said: ‘what a bastard, he doesn’t do anything and it’s absolutely perfect’.”
Mampuys: “But it wasn’t always easy for him, with his full-time job. He often joined us in the evening after we had spent a whole day working and making progress. And he would have to begin by turning the page in his own head.”
What would you say is the biggest challenge for a circus company in the times we live in?
Mampuys: “Doing something relevant. Not falling into the entertainment-trap.”
Van Grambergen: “Continuing to develop yourself. Not repeating yourself. It’s not because you have chosen a particular direction as an artist or as a company that you have to stay on that course.”
Pierlé: “The challenge faced by every artist: The search for originality. Not playing it safe. To continue to amaze.”
Mampuys: “I am sometimes frightened that if we get too old to master our circus technique, we will lose our legitimacy and our right to go on stage. I struggle with that.”
Van Gramberen: “While for me that’s not an issue. The most important thing for me is to make a good play, a good image is a good image. Something happens on stage, people look at it and are inspired, think about it afterwards. Or they just spend an hour of fascination, which is also just fine.”
Your strength as a group is without a doubt the fact that you don’t start with incredible circus tricks that you then hide behind.
Mampuys: “That is true. You learn from the very beginning to create from your limitations. That is something that really interests me: making your weaknesses your strengths.”
Van Gramberen: “That is where creativity begins. It is only in the difficult moments, when you’ve been pushed to your limits and things are just not working, that something happens which makes you think, hmmm now this is getting interesting! That is also something which is possible to push physically. What’s possible, and what is not. Where are the limits?”
Mampuys: “The word ‘limitation’ is perhaps a bit too harsh. I prefer the question: what makes us unique as artists, and as a company? And then getting everything you can out of that question. Who wants to go through life being a copy of someone else?”