[This article was published in CircusMagazine #44 – September 2015]
[Author: Bauke Lievens – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
Claudio Stellato does it all: Italian theoretician in the relationship between object and body, dancer, researcher, circus artist and fake magician. In October 2015 he will premiere a new play, ‘La Cosa’, a “war which lasts fifty-five minutes” with 800 pieces of wood and four men with axes. CircusMagazine spoke with him about the catharsis that was necessary to ritually ban his first successful piece ‘L’Autre’, about pushing one’s physical boundaries and about continuously recurring ideas like transformation, development, and methodical thinking.
Did you begin this creation process in a similar way as you did making ‘L’Autre’?
Claudio Stellato: “Yes, this time the starting points were also an image I had in my head and one long physical exercise. And this time as well I worked for a long time alone. It was important that I didn’t do any magic this time, didn’t re-make ‘L’Autre’. After a first successful play it is very tempting to fall in the trap of a “remake”, a sort of ‘L’Autre 2’. In February I destroyed the set of ‘L’Autre’, I will never play it again.”
So this creation process was in a sense also a mourning process for ‘L’Autre’?
“I needed some time to forget ‘L’Autre’. You cannot imagine for how long every image that came to me had to do with flying objects, in one way or another. It’s like an old lover. There comes a moment that you are finally clean, that you stop suffering and feeling the pain. And then you start to live again. But that takes time, a lot of time. In this case a year and a half. I tried everything: burying myself in a hole in the ground, working with animal skins, chopping wood. All of them pure physical actions. I also didn’t want to use magic again. Magic is just a trick, you can’t build your life around a special effect. But that also means that you have to get good in a new risk, in the new material you have gathered.”
You could say that circus is a sequence of special effects.
“Circus is rich in options. Magic is just a circus discipline, it is not an independent form of expression like dance or theatre. Of course, you can make a play using only one discipline, but I want to master several different techniques and skills. I am happy that I know how to make an object fly or disappear, but it is just information for me. Actually I am a fake magician, who knows nothing of magic. ‘L’Autre’ is the worst bit of tinkering you can imagine.”
‘L’Autre’ was frontal and black. Everything was hidden. In your new piece, ‘La Cosa’, everything is visible. The audience sits on four sides of a square space and sees every tiny movement. Was that a conscious choice?
“Yes, that is part of my attempt to forget ‘L’Autre’. To step outside and remain in the light. I realize more and more that I am not happy if I don’t keep surprising myself.”
Could you tell more about that one image and that one physical exercise that provided the starting point for the creation process of ‘La Cosa’?
“The image that I had in my head was that of a large tree-trunk lying on the floor, and an axe. In that image I strike the wood with the axe in such a way that the axe stays stuck in the wood. And the more furious my attempts to pull the axe out of the wood, the more I have to smile. I walked around for two years with that image in my head, until I actually realized the image in Denmark, with a camera and a few friends. Once the image began a life of its own, a new image came to mind. That is how I work. I never have ideas for a piece, only images in my head. I try to turn those images into free improvisations. So I locked myself up for an hour with a piece of wood and an axe. On a physical level the first period of the creation process had something of a body in trance. I did all kinds of exercises, some lasted an hour, sometimes three, until I could go no further and lost consciousness of what I was actually trying to do.”
A few years ago you told me something similar in an interview about the creative process of ‘L’Autre’.
“‘L’Autre’ was a ceremonial sequence of actions that I, the performer, had to fulfill so that something magical could happen. In that case the cupboard began to fly. This time it was about a ritual that puts me in a trance because of how long it goes on and how many times I repeat it. The time it lasts and the repetition take me somewhere very far away, until I become someone else. Trance was the starting point. The exercises were always built around natural materials. I worked with animal hides, stones, rope, soil, small tools to cut with… And I usually worked outside, in nature.”
So in this first period you kept working on the relation between your body and several specific objects?
“Yes, or on the relation of myself with myself. Pure movement, like lying on the floor and pushing myself up with one arm, and that for two hours. Screaming. Voice-work. Repeating the same work, for two hours at a stretch, until the word changed. Holding my breath, and then moving. Changing my blood pressure, making myself dizzy and trying then to work. When you are alone, you can go pretty far.”
Your exercises seem to always focus on the invention of a limitation in order to go beyond that limitation. Just like in classic circus training.
“Yes, that is what I always do: try to push my mental and physical limits. Limitation is indeed one of the intrinsic elements of the circus, but also of performance art. Everything I do, I film. Sometimes a little miracle occurs, and that is what I try to capture.”
What is that little miracle you are searching for? Is it a change in the quality of movement or in your actual state of being?
“I never have something specific or clear in my head that I am in search of. There is no clearly defined focus. I only work. I work, work and work. And by working, something will happen. But beforehand I haven’t a clue if I am going to make a performance with stone or with wood, alone or with four people, with or without text, one hour or seven, with costumes, light,… I don’t know any of that. I just wait until something happens.”
Could you say that in this first phase you are looking for inspiration?
“In this initial period I am a sort of theoretician of movement in relation to objects. As if I wanted to be a teacher, not an artist. I develop a method. I practice. And I try to get very good at one exercise. I try, for example, to stay in a trance for two hours. I am not looking for material or a performance. But in that moment of trance my state of being changes. Sometimes I become a sort of devil, I take two objects around me and make something megacrazy. I look at the video and think ‘Wow! We are definitely going to do some further work on that!’ But other times I work for days on end where nothing happens that I can use. In the meantime I do develop my skills and a collection of exercises for the performer. So in those moments, there may be no results for the performance I am making, but there are things that emerge and that I can use for my teaching. You develop your skill as a performer when you do extreme exercises, a bit like in the work of Jerzy Grotowsky.”
Here again is a parallel with circus training: continually doing the same thing and trying to get very good at it.
“With circus-technique you have an example, it has already been done. And there is someone who can explain to you how it works. Of course there is the personal development of the circus-artist, who develops his or her technique. In circus, dance, but also in the kitchen for example, there are two different things. There is the moment that you can learn from others and there is the moment that you are alone in the kitchen with all that cooking paraphernalia and you start making crazy stuff. You mix soap with salt, you try things out. It is the same creative attitude. You work, you try things out, you don’t stop. Like scientists who find the ultimate solution to a problem, usually as a result of a little accident. What they do is work, work in search of something. In the end they also end up going in a different direction then they had imagined when they began.”
Does your creative process then boil down to training yourself how to be creative? Training how you do your research?
“Indeed, that’s it exactly. Training how you do the research. Training how to methodically think and work. Being free. The most important thing for me is breaking down the wall that comes from working in a result-oriented way. That’s also how I feel about movement: it’s about a development, it always goes one step at a time. No going back, not going upstream, going further…”
Is the performance then a continuation of the development process? What is the relationship between process and result in your work?
“The moment of trance is translated in a performance that does not stop once the first movement has been made. In that sense, the performance is one scene which lasts an hour. Each step is a result of the same starting point. What we do is not spectacular. We move wood from a to b, but we repeat that again and again. Like in daily life. You try. You work the whole day. And it is the same each time. You build a house. You break down a house. And at the end of the day you are exhausted and just want to watch television. It is very basic. We repeat that to an extreme point. Physically that is terrible. It is war. Fifty-five minutes of physical war.”
Is that the tension that holds the performance together? Can you speak of a dramaturgy that comes from going beyond one’s physical limitations?
“I try to write out a map, a choreography if you like, that helps the performers to get through the performance. Something we can lean on. But indeed, the entire performance relies on exhaustion, acceptance, staying together. There is no music, there are no costumes or lighting changes. There are only four men. I have no message. I have nothing to say. It is a specific and deep research of and with one object, done by four men and with all the emotional relationships that that research creates between them.”
Is there a particular relationship between the body and the object in your work?
“Yes, the object is like a toy. I work very often alone and when you are alone, you search for friends. (laughs) I also love to transform the material I am working with, and I become very good in the manipulation of that one object or that one material. That relationship to the object is very specific to circus. In dance the object is more often decor. In circus it is an extension of the body.”
Do you start a relation with something that is not part of you, with an object, in order to be transformed by that same object?
“For sure, objects change you. I worked for a while with stones, but that didn’t work. It just didn’t work, stones and me. They lie there, heavy and inert. And of course it’s me that is the problem, not the stones. But I did at least return them to the riverbed where I had found them.” (laughs)
Could you work with classic circus objects?
“I need daily objects and materials. I don’t understand the abstract form of a circus object. A white juggling club for example…”
Is there a technique known as ‘wood moving’?
“Yes, absolutely. But each piece of wood is different. You can’t control each object by the same means, the way you can when all the juggling clubs are identical. And yet I do understand how I have to touch that wood. It is like a craftsman who knows how to work a material in order to get a particular shape.”
Are you a craftsman?
“I would say I do spend a huge amount of my time in an attempt to make something beautiful. Plus, I am pretty straight. And I am a real businessman.” (laughs)