With Follow Me Ward Mortier (25) and Thomas ‘Key’ Decaesstecker (29) didn’t make it easy on themselves. In each new location the duo creates a ‘custom’ version of the acrobatic performance. It’s a continuous process of adaptation with the urban landscape in a starring role. The streets of the neighbourhood are transformed into a stage, the facades become the decor, the cobblestones a dance floor and the roar of traffic offers up an exclusive soundtrack. The audience travels a route along with the performers, taking a walk through the city they’ll never forget. ‘We invite people to think in a different way.’
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #58 – March 2019 // Author: Maarten Verhelst // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
By now you have built up a reputation as the circus company Be Flat. But you started out in the world of parkour. How would you describe that to me?
Ward Mortier: “Baggy pants, Youtube.”
Thomas Decaesstecker: “Outdoors. Always outdoors.”
Ward: “It’s a very peculiar world. The max.”
Thomas: “Certainly as a young kid.”
Ward: “You have so much freedom. You just go outside. Meet with your friends, go somewhere in town, a particular spot where you train for hours. It’s also about creativity. What is it you see and how do you respond? You film it and move on to the next spot.”
Thomas: “The good old days.”
Ward: “In those days – let’s say ten years ago – the parkour world was still small. Everyone knew each other. If you came across someone in the street doing parkour you just joined in. Now the scene’s gotten really big.”
Thomas: “Especially in cities like Leuven, Oostende or Brussels, that have their own parkour schools.”
You mean to tell me there is such a thing as parkour schools?
Ward: “Yes, mostly indoors of course. When I see that my feelings are mixed. A school can give you a chance to learn the movements and the techniques, but it just doesn’t jive with the origins, the need to adapt to the environment. The set-up in those schools is diametrically opposed to the spirit of parkour.”
Thomas: “We learned in the streets, and through YouTube. A lot like the skaters. But the fact that you can also take lessons now doesn’t bother me that much. I suppose you make a lot quicker progress if you take lessons.”
Ward: “Yeah, ok, learning on your own may go a lot slower but your focus is on where you are as an individual at that moment. Actually it’s good to go slow. You take on risks more gradually, slowly expanding your limits. That’s how you grow. If you go too fast, it can be dangerous.”
Thomas: “The impact on your body gets heavier and heavier. You jump further and higher. So going slow is a good thing.”
Are there connections to the graffiti scene?
Thomas: “With the entire outdoor scene. Graffiti, breakdance, skaters…”
Ward: “You meet a lot of people out on the street. We hung out a lot with breakdancers. So somehow there’s an exchange that happens between you, even if each sub-culture has its own rules and its own style. A skater doesn’t listen to the same music as a breakdancer. Everyone has their own identity determined by how they act on the street. With parkour it’s the big trousers. And the mindset of an athlete. Everyone who does parkour is really fit. Physical condition is crucial. If you are jumping around for 6 hours, you feel it.”
And what brought you both to the circus?
Ward: “For us it was easy. We were asked by Circusplaneet (circus school in Ghent, red.) to give some parkour lessons. After the lesson hours we tried out everything: juggling, ladder, Chinese pole. We were training all the time.”
Thomas: “The big click was the Extreme Convention. Arriving in that huge hall with all that material and all those crazy guys, just sick.”
Ward: “All the different techniques.”
Thomas: “And the Atlas Festival. We saw some fantastic shows. Mind-blowing. La Meute. Fuck. Good humor, good timing, wonderful characters, impressive technique.”
Ward: “Cirque Inextremiste at the Youth Circus Festival, that was also the max.”
Thomas: “By then we were completely caught up in that circus world. We started doing more and more things ourselves, little performances on open stages and open spaces.”
Ward: “If we see something that blows us away, then we want to do it ourselves.”
Thomas: “That’s the true parkour mindset.”
Ward: “But also a circus mindset. You see something and you want to be able to do it yourself. That’s how we started in circus. The first time we made something ourselves, it was with our ladder. We spent about a quarter of an hour looking for figures in the Keizerpark and then, hup, off to the Gentse Feesten, mark out a space of our own and perform a l’improviste.”
Is it essential for you to deliver the ‘tricks’?
Thomas: “No. The interaction with the audience is the essential thing. Involving people in what we do. We found that important from the very beginning of our little performances.”
Ward: “With Ludo & Arsène, our alter egos when we began doing circus, we play with the reactions of the audience, even the negative ones. We don’t rehearse any of that beforehand. That’s also so much fun because you can surprise each other. Okay, there is usually a trick in there somewhere, but it’s not about that. It’s about the people you come across and how you finally end up in one figure or another. It doesn’t start with ‘Look at me, I’m about to do a trick’ but just ‘Let’s just go and we will see what we come across along the way.’”
Thomas: “With Ludo & Arsène, we use some eye-catching objects, an enormous tractor tire for example. If you walk around with something like that in a festival, you immediately get a lot of reactions. And that’s where it all begins.”
Ward: “The big difference between Ludo & Arsène and Follow Me is the degree of improvisation. In Follow Me almost everything is written beforehand. We know when there is a change of focus, how the ping-pong between Key and I will function. The question of focus is super important: there are 100 spectators, and a lot of action. How do you lead the audience to see what you want them to see? That requires specific writing.”
Thomas: “Ludo & Arsène grew organically between the two of us, we had to work really hard to create Follow Me, together with Craig Weston.”
Ward: “It was a conscious choice not to work with a director – we direct things ourselves as we adapt the performance from location to location. But Craig worked with us as an oeil exterieur, someone we could trust to give us good dramaturgical advice. He helped us throughout the creative process: ‘that’s perhaps difficult to realise in the street, that’s too anecdotal, you could cut that’…”
Thomas: “Without resorting to literally declaring things, how can you clearly communicate your intentions to an audience, so everybody understands what is going on, all together on the same page? That is what makes our performance so strong, and those are things we learned from Craig.”
Ward: “Craig was great. We shared a lot of good moments together. All the research into ‘what this actually was, this idea of ours’ and all the things we wanted to say with the performance.”
Did you ever have any problems with the people living in the houses you would climb?
Ward: “The reactions are usually very positive. We always rehearse things several times in advance, all the inhabitants are contacted by the organisers and have to give their permission. That’s never really problematic. Almost never… Once we were playing in Italy and somebody just totally lost it. We were doing a Follow Me with a huge audience, far more than we normally agree to – the organiser had made no effort to limit the numbers. At some point we were playing the ‘bi-frontal’ part of our performance in a small parking lot. Normally there is a single row of audience on either side, but on this occasion there were about five rows on each side. Some people were leaning on the parked cars. One woman had put her two cute kids on the hood of one of the cars. The owner arrived and completely flipped out! Starting screaming in my face, in Italian – cazzo di merda and stuff like that – at a distance of about twenty centimeters, while an audience of some 300 people looked on. He even had a pocket knife in his hand – not open, but still… Anyway, in the end we could calm him down with the help of the organiser, and things ended with nobody getting hurt.”
Thomas: “But it was a powerful moment. It was real.”
Ward: “The great thing was that scene from the performance that followed that incident was all about togetherness. We approach each other, climb into one stool, hold hands and walk through the corridor of people on either side. Then we invite the audience to do the same, each spectator takes the hand of another and together they walk down that human corridor. The contrast with the screaming Italian couldn’t have been greater. And you can’t write things like that ahead of the performance. Those moments are unique.”
How importance is the social aspect of your work?
Ward: “It’s crucial. There’s the two of us, then there’s the local team of people assisting us, then there’s the audience who travel along with the performance, the accidental passers-by looking on, and finally the inhabitants, all sharing the same space and the same moment. It is incredibly interesting to watch all those meetings unfold. First we create a sort of safe space for our audience where we break the ice before we actually ask them to begin to participate. We let them grow into the event, without resorting to shock-effects. Finally we end up sharing an adventure full of remarkable moments as we travel through the city for an unforgettable hour together. And all that without a word being spoken. That creates a bond.”
Thomas: “Everybody has to be able to participate. Old, young, rich or poor…”
Ward: “We aren’t big fans of the traditional approach – ‘sit down in this chair and watch the artists perform on stage for an hour and a half, then applaud and go home’. We try to promote equality. That’s where the name of the company came from: ‘Be flat’, no difference between artist and spectator, we’re all the same and we are in it together. Everyone gets a folding camp-stool and follows us on the journey. It’s those stools that make us a group. Everyone has one and that’s what binds us. All of a sudden there’s a ‘we group’ traveling together through the city.”
Thomas: “When creating Follow Me it became clear that we had to look everyone in the eye. You have to play not just for the group, but for every individual personally. Everyone has to feel involved.”
What’s your goal with Follow Me?
Thomas: “I have always wanted to show people – even before Follow Me – that a particular spot, a particular structure, is always climb-able, even without a ladder, and that it’s not even that difficult. You just have to think a bit out of the box, widen your perspective….”
Ward: “Invite people to think differently. To put the way we use space into question. Our daily habits. You can take the same route to work every day, but maybe it’s interesting to take a detour once in a while and discover something new. You see it best in the children: after the performance they are climbing up onto everything they can. For adults there are of course some barriers, physical but also social ones. But I do believe we are encouraging people to just let go, discover a truly absurd way of getting from point a to b, or more generally, think creatively.”
Isn’t that at any rate one of the goals of circus: inviting people to think out of the box?
Thomas: “I do believe so.”
Ward: “Circus is so often on a demonstrative level. Watch me, look at what I am able to do, I’ve trained my whole life to stand on one hand and I can do it very well. That’s something that has always bothered be, even in the old days when we did parkour demonstrations. The lack of depth. But it’s not a given that every circus show can spur people on to think differently. People can also conclude that – ‘they can do that, I cannot, I never will be able to, so I will just admire them for a moment and then go back to my computer game, here in my comfy chair.”
Thomas: “Circus has always had its extraordinary side. But the setting is so important: are you watching something on a stage a long way away or are you sitting in the middle of it?”
Ward: “With us you are sitting right in the middle of it all. There’s no fourth wall. We involve our audience as much as possible in what is going on. You are invited to make your own choices and to play along. From the very outset we wanted to give people the experience of parkour. If we can’t do that by letting them climb up on things themselves – because the route doesn’t lend itself well to that – then at least we can offer them a performance in which they have done something. And they have: they’ve walked a kilometer together.”
Thomas: “And they’ve done silly things as well, with the camp-stools for example. We have really played with them. Shown them how they can play together, how to have fun without doing things that are even that crazy. And there’s another goal we aim for with this performance: to try to show the people from the neighbourhood or the city something they’ve never noticed before. To take the audience on a journey through their own city which leads them to wonder – ‘where in the hell are we, anyway?!’”
I heard someone who knows a lot about circus say recently over a beer: the guys from Be Flat are working on a totally new form of circus.
Ward: “It wasn’t us who re-discovered the ‘walk act’, but we do have our own approach. There’s nobody else who is going to take along an audience of 100, each with their own chair, in order to introduce them to the world of parkour. We come from the world of urban sport and we present that to our audience within a contemporary form. So I guess that is unique. But does that mean it is a new form of circus? Yes, maybe in Flanders.”
Thomas: “I don’t personally know that much about the circus world, but what we do is largely inspired by Kamchàtka.”
Ward: “Kamchàtka’s performance Fugit was incredibly cool. The idea of transport, the theme, splitting up the audience. You start out with a hundred people and by the end you are alone with eight others. You get thrown in a van, its pitch black, you have to hold on, a bit later the doors get thrown open, eight others get thrown in, hup, a bit later some will get dumped again. You have to give them your identity card and your cell phone, all without a word being spoken.”
Thomas: “You don’t feel like you’re watching something, you just are somewhere, here and now…”
Ward: “…living it.”
Thomas: “Yes, it was quite an experience. Powerful. It really inspired me for what we are doing now. Because Follow Me is also about the experience, about all the things that happen to you, rather than the things you have been watching.”
Ward: “We had been toying around with the idea of doing something mobile in the public space, talking about a lot of different ideas. But once we had seen Kàmchatka, we knew: yes this is our thing, that’s what we have to go for.”
What is your next step?
Ward: “That’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot. Follow Me is loads of fun and it has been a success, but we don’t want to stop there. It’s also not a performance we could play for another ten years.”
Thomas: “We need to continue to evolve and to grow.”
Ward: “Stay hungry for new things. We are completely at home in the streets, we are true street punks, but it would be fun to make a performance for the stage. We have a concept and a team we want to work with.”
Thomas: “But we still have some questions to answer.”
Wait a minute, you are true street artists, but your next project is for the stage? How does that stroke with your ideas about equality and solidarity?
Ward: “Maybe we have a solution for that, heh.”
Thomas: “The aim is to reach other groups, people that are not easy to get to.”
Ward: “That’s precisely what it’s about.”
Thomas: “The confrontation between different groups of people… We have several ideas around that theme.”
Ward: “We want to talk about divisions in the world.”
Thomas: “And apply those divisions directly to our audience.”
Ward: “All people are equal, and yet there are minorities to be found everywhere. Palestinians, Kurds, Roma, … the list goes on and on. This is a project that we have wanted to do even before Follow Me. But we weren’t mature enough. Now the time’s approaching; we feel like the pieces of that puzzle are starting to fall into place.”