[This article was published in CircusMagazine #50 – March 2017]
[Author: Brecht Hermans – Translation: Craig Weston – Picture: Bart Grietens]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
On a crisp Saturday morning in February I walk through a beautiful snow-covered park to Het Klooster Breda. It’s quiet and hardly anyone else braves the cold. I’m here because I have an appointment with Michiel Deprez (27), a young Belgian juggler who graduated two years ago from the circus school ACaPA in Tilburg, and afterward stayed on to live there.
He’s kind enough to give me a tour of Het Klooster (the cloister), where he is in residency at the moment. We walk through the sacredly silent halls to a tiny room where we settle in with a cup of tea. I get a Sunday feeling, as time seems to stand still. The ideal background for reflection. It seems like a good idea to begin the conversation with the definition of circus that Michiel formulated in one of the texts on his website: “Circus is philosophical wonder in action, questioning and undermining the way things are. Chairs are for sitting, but we could also throw them.” As I read the citation I stumble on the word philosophical, which evokes a smile from Michiel.
What should we make of ‘circus as an act of philosophical wonder’?
Michiel Deprez: “The term ‘wonder’ is often used in circus. One quickly thinks of fairy tales, but ‘philosophical wonder’ is something completely different. That is about being amazed by why things are as they are. In circus we often look at things differently. We search for what else they can be, and all the other possibilities. We break through the routine, and therein for me lies the power of circus.”
In which context did you write that definition?
“The text from which that definition is taken, is about structures and systems of notation. In juggling, you can use a notation system called siteswap, which is based on the rhythm of throwing and catching, or bodyswap, in which you divide the body into different areas and describe the trajectory of the ball through those different areas. The premise of my text was that if you pin everything down into structures, that can be very limiting. Juggling is really just an action with no practical purpose, so there is no strict definition of what you are supposed to do with your objects. You should indeed do everything you possibly can with them. But when you attempt to structure your juggling, you are actually determining the purpose of an object. And that’s a limitation.”
But then again, jugglers often work with standard materials: you have the ball and the club, and there are certain expectations as to what you can do with them.
“The more one approaches juggling with the idea that there certain techniques which already exist and that a club is meant to do this and a ball to do that, the more limited one becomes. I think that in circus our approach should be much freer when it comes to the existing techniques. In your circus development you usually begin with pushing your technique as far as you can. Your artistry develops parallel to this, somewhere on the sideline. That’s the model that the circus schools are based on: you have so many hours a day to learn how to make triple flips from the banquine, and alongside of that you work on your artistry. Since that is how everyone works, everyone thinks in the same way. In circus it is often about adding something. Once you have learned those flips, the audience knows the technique and you have to add something to make it interesting or original. But there are artists who take a step back and ask themselves what else one could do with the banquine. That’s more interesting. They go back to the basics and try to infuse their creativity into the performance from its very inception.”
In CircusMagazine there’s an ongoing debate as to how much emphasis should be placed on technique in the circus schools. What was your experience?
“Whether or not circus training programs focus too much on technique is difficult to say. Circus artists love technique, I myself always worked on my technique with enormous pleasure. Actually there are two ways you can understand technique. On one hand you can look at technique as something that already exists. So you talk about juggling with three balls, with four, with five and finally with five plus a pirouette. Technique is a structure which already exists. On the other hand you could define technique for yourself. I could for instance say that the technique of juggling is working with objects. If that is your approach, you can never give enough attention to technique, as long as there is a mental process going on at the same time.”
Every practitioner of circus chooses for him or herself; someone might get a lot of satisfaction out of mastering an existing technique, but a circus artist wants more than that.
“As a student in the dance department in Tilburg, you can choose between the specialisations choreography or contemporary urban. In circus everyone makes a similar choice, even if they are not aware of it. The line between entertainment and art is quite vague. I’ve thought a lot about what makes one an artist, or what an artist can be, and one of the best answers I have come up with is: one who puts oneself and one’s environment into question. For me, that is the difference between an entertainer and an artist. There’s not necessarily that much difference between what each does, but an artist’s work includes the questions. Why do I do this? Why is it important?”
Do artists also have to evoke the same questions from their audience?
“They may. For me, that’s not essential. But it’s better to raise questions than to give answers.”
NO MORE EARTHQUAKES
Is it exciting to have graduated and find yourself standing at the beginning of your career?
“I am happy to have finished school because I’ve never been much of a student. I haven’t fallen into some kind of a black hole, but a lot has changed. I’m juggling less. My current work leans sometimes very much towards circus, and at other moments very much towards performance. Right now I’m quite involved with the visual aspect of the work and with my performance ‘No More Earthquakes’. Alongside that project, I’m also working on a new circus piece, picking up my juggling balls once again. I am really enjoying the freedom of choice that I have at this moment in life.”
Your performances are rather meditative. Is that a conscious choice?
“Generally, I don’t think I have a lot to say. I don’t want to make work that’s ‘about something’. I am searching for something that exists in the moment, here and now. I think that circus is a good medium for that. As a circus artist, you must always be in the moment, with your full attention. That is what I love about circus. And I like to observe things myself. In that way I become a member of the audience. By the same token, it’s also interesting to give the audience a task, so that they become actors in the piece as well. It’s all part of breaking down daily routine. Even if for some people that can be a pretty violent experience. If all they have to do is switch a lamp on or off, you can see that they are frightened by the prospect. But I won’t get someone up on stage just so that I can throw a pie in his face. Whenever I include the audience in the play, it is because I want to give them a sort of freedom. In the end everyone in the audience is completely free. Anybody could stand up and do something at any given moment. But nobody does. Doing nothing is the norm, just as in daily life our ‘routines’ have become a sort of norm.”
It’s the code of circus: the audience sits here, the artist stands there – the artist does something and the audience watches him do it.
“That code can be very useful, but it is good to be aware of it. And to realise that you can also choose not to comply. If you only ever follow, you never get anywhere. By asking my audience to participate, I put them in a situation where they have to make a choice. I love that. ‘No More Earthquakes’ also plays around with that.”
What are you actually going to do?
“I put someone on stage who doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Not someone from the audience, but a fellow artist. That person has no goal and no norm, beyond a few simple rules: you may not leave the stage, and you may not lie down, because that’s too easy. For the rest you are completely free to do as you wish. It’s a way of creating a situation for my players in which they don’t know what they have to do. In daily life everyone has a goal. Even being a circus artist is a goal, or a frame from which you interpret and understand things. Just as a baker interprets and understands from his perspective. It gives direction to your life, and if you take away that direction, you feel completely lost. I want to put that feeling on stage. In order to do it I’m working with people who are used to doing something virtuosic, and I take that away from them.”
You force them to be vulnerable. Just as John Cage – from whom we get the phrase No More Earthquakes – put a classic orchestra on stage in his piece 4’33, but didn’t allow them to play.
Deprez: (nods in agreement).
As well as John Cage, you often quote the philosopher Martin Heidegger in your articles. What do you have in common with him?
“I find Heidegger super-interesting. You can also easily link him to Eastern philosophy. He doesn’t start out with the idea of ego but rather of being, in the here and now. Heidegger is convinced that one’s understanding of the world – for example what one understands a chair to be – is based on nothing. The idea that there is nothing substantial supporting all of our assumptions is terrifying, but at the same time I find it quite soothing.”
Where did you acquire the interest for philosophy?
“I have ACaPA to thank for that. In my third year I had a bit of philosophy in one of my electives, and we talked a lot about Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Very interesting for people who work with movement. Merleau-Ponty talks a lot about being in flow and interacting with your environment. With very concrete things. Both Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger are phenomenalists, their thinking begins from concrete phenomena. Their philosophy is very interesting for people who create performances, for those too are phenomena.”
THAT WHICH CANNOT BE PUT IN WORDS
In one of your texts you talk about risk in the circus, and about the dangers of judging the value of a circus piece by the amount of risk it takes. Does the meditative aspect of your work – simply being, here and now – not offer a lovely counterbalance to that idea of risk?
“The prevalent idea is that circus is all about taking risks. And that idea also influenced me considerably. I spent years attempting to juggle with seven balls. I wrote that text inspired by a performance I had seen which was all about risk. To my mind there was material that offered lots of possibilities, but it didn’t go very far because the makers got stuck searching for the danger. If you are talking about climbing a rope, then you can climb as high as possible or hold on as long as possible. That can be fun, but there are also so many other possibilities. If the risk factor is always your main motivation, you just end up spinning your wheels.”
The desire to push the risk further and further is inherent in a society that is so performance oriented. Are you consciously going against that trend? Or is your challenging of the definitions actually just another form of ‘going further’?
“With the circus project that I am developing, my goal is to take things away rather than add to them. I want to go in the other direction. The idea is, rather than juggling, to make scenes wherein I only catch things, or only throwing things without catching, or only using the trajectory of the ball in the air. I am not yet sure what that will look like in practice, but it’s based on the desire to do less. Even less. And thereby much more.”
Is the desire to do less a search for the void that you write so much about?
(laughs mysteriously) “Yes, the void is very interesting. I wrote a manifest, something pretty cryptic, all about the void. Taoism and the void are ideas that give me a lot of joy.
What is that void for you?
“It’s that which cannot be put into words and which you can never understand. The first sentence of the Tao is: ‘Tao which can be spoken of, is not the true Tao’. I find that very beautiful.”
Even in your diet you’re aiming for less. While researching different physical states you fasted for quite some time. Are you still doing that?
“Less intensively, but I am still involved in it. It is something that feeds me. Recently I did some cold-training. I went walking in the cold and then took ice-baths, once again with the idea of doing with less rather than doing with more. I personally experienced a heightened awareness of self when fasting. You shouldn’t do it for days on end, but if occasionally you skip breakfast and then go do some movement, it feels a lot better. For me, the idea of less, of letting things go, gives me something to hold on to. It’s a concept that comes back in everything I do.”
Is that something you want to give your audience as well, how good ‘doing with less’ can feel?
“I suppose so, in a way. I don’t want to say that it’s better to do with less, but it is a possible way of living. There is a lovely quote from Oscar Wilde: ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation’. So, if you are going to do with less, it’s also good once in a while to go way over the top. In the context of a circus performance, it’s great once in a while to get completely blown away. The paradox is that when you are watching something in which a ton of things are happening, you don’t have to think for yourself. Your thoughts get absorbed. When there is less going on, your brains gets a much more extensive workout.”
Let’s end with a cliché question: where do you see yourself ten years from now?
(thinks) “No idea. Maybe by then I will be a gardener.”
Ok, what do you wish yourself in ten years’ time?
“More help with the things I can’t do. Really practical things. Organisation often takes up so much of my time, and that is tiring. An assistant, yes, that’s what I wish myself.”