[This article was published in CircusMagazine #43 – June 2015]
[Author: Bauke Lievens – Photography: Jonah Samyn – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
At the end of June Cie Ea Eo goes into premiere with ‘All the fun (is happening somewhere else)’, a powerful and original juggling ritual for five sweating bodies. Bauke Lievens talked with two of those bodies, Bram Dobbelaere and Sander De Cuyper, about the circus of the perfect body, but also about self-doubt, artistic research and the dirty micro-politics of the collective.
Did you begin this creation process differently with than with your last piece ‘m2’?
Bram Dobbelaere: “Both started out of a declared concept, written out. The concept for ‘m2’ was a playing space that would shrink in size. This time we started with something a bit more vague, around advertising and the influence it has on our daily environment. Our ideas begin in our heads, not in our bodies.”
Sander De Cuyper: “We don’t start on the floor, we start on paper.”
Initially in written form, not precluded by sitting around a table and talking about it?
De Cuyper: “Jordaan (De Cuyper) and I act as sounding boards for one another. If we are sitting in a café together, then of course we talk about our ideas. For example, the period before we began this latest production, while we were on tour with ‘m2’ in Sweden, we talked a lot together and read a lot.”
Dobbelaere: “But rather informally: in the van, at dinner,…”
De Cuyper: “And then in a later phase it helps that the subsidy application forces you to think about what it is precisely that you want to talk about and what you are actually going to do.”
Dobbelaere: “More and more I start to realize that writing a dossier is a good thing. Even if the questions in a funding application are not well formulated. Much too much over-lap.”
What was it that brought you to the specific theme of publicity?
Dobbelaere: “It is only when you are on tour in the van and the radio is on, that you realize how much publicity is aimed at you on a daily basis. We all shared the irritation. Or at the airport, where you are not even left alone to urinate, because there is an advertisement posted right in front of your face.”
De Cuyper: “We have also seen a lot of circus productions, especially those from Canada, where artists are constantly ‘promoting’ themselves. Along the lines of ‘Look at how young, beautiful and perfect we are.’ And: ‘I don’t even look at the audience, but just a bit over their heads.’ We wanted to do the complete opposite. We aren’t perfect, we stink and we look you right in the eye. And once in a while we drop something.”
What is the relationship between the initial concept and the rehearsal process? How much room is there to deviate from the concept?
Dobbelaere: “From the very beginning we knew that it was a starting point, and that we could end up anywhere. We had to remind ourselves often that we had to dare to let go of the concept. Because sometimes we found really good, interesting material but were constantly asking ourselves what it had to do with publicity. And when that happens, you get blocked.”
De Cuyper: “In the end our production is not about publicity. But the choice to not present a perfect image of ourselves – something a lot of circus people do – is still a big part of the piece.”
Dobbelaere: “We don’t go into the rehearsal space with an artistic text. There is actually an in-between phase where we make a list of (juggling) routines that are linked to our initial idea. For instance doing a ‘live photoshop’ job on Neta (Oren): while she is juggling someone is combing her hair, making her up, dressing her… That didn’t come out of a rehearsal moment, it was an idea we had in our heads before we began rehearsals. So that in-between phase is a stopping off point on the way from an abstract idea to the rehearsal space. You end up with a list of 30 ideas you can immediately try out together, so you have already begun. The initial period was then, just like with ‘m2’, a process of putting all those ideas that appear to be so fantastic on paper to a reality check, and watching most of them disappear in the course of our rehearsals.”
And those are all ideas directly linked to the concept?
Dobbelaere: “Yes, and we scrap them because either they are practicably impossible to realize, or not spectacular enough, or too cheesy because they present a much too literal translation of the concept. Too obvious. Like the ‘photo-shopping’ of Neta. That is very much about the cliché relationship between men and women in the world of publicity. If you are not careful it quickly becomes moralistic. As if we all have important opinions about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘not’.”
When those concrete ideas have been scrapped, does that lead you to the next phase?
Dobbelaere: “Yes, then comes the phase of big muddling.” (laughs)
De Cuyper: “The phase of bit by bit. And from dragging along.”
Dobbelaere: “It really eats up the energy in a group when you have tried out all your ideas – the ones that were so fantastic on paper – and there is nothing left. Self-doubt takes over. Everyone sits and looks at each other, and the one whose ideas have just been shot down one by one, sits and pouts and thinks, ‘Ok , then propose something yourself for a change, huh…’ ” (both laugh)
How do you decide to scrap an idea? Are you a collective?
Both in chorus: “Yes, completely.”
And that works?
Dobbelaere: “Yes, because everyone gets the chance to…”
De Cuyper: “…propose bad ideas.”
Dobbelaere: “Exactly. And everyone may pull, and everyone may follow.”
De Cuyper: “We’ve also learned that it’s nothing personal when your idea gets shot down. But you are not allowed to tear someone’s idea apart with saying why or without formulating a possible alternative.”
There are five of you, how does that actually work?
Dobbelaere: “We don’t vote and it is also not the one with the loudest voice that gets their ideas through. It’s much dirtier than that.” (grins)
De Cuyper: “Yes, lobbying.”
De Cuyper: “Talking about your idea with someone before you present it to the group. Getting partners on your side. Micro-politics, actually.” (laughs)
Dobbelaere: “You mustn’t make the mistake of throwing a rough or incomplete idea into the group. Then it will certainly not survive. But if you can work it out a bit beforehand, so that it is not just an abstract idea and you can show something to the others, you have a better chance. Or if you can really defend it well. And every idea is presented with the stock introduction: ‘It is probably a very bad idea…’ “
De Cuyper: “ ‘…but what if we were to…’ “ (both laugh)
So it is each man for himself?
Dobbelaere: “No there are constantly different groups and alliances formed.”
De Cuyper: “And we have learned to delay making decisions. Not to say immediately: ‘This or that is bad.’ But rather: ‘Yes, perhaps, we will definitely work on it again tomorrow.’ ”
Are the ideas that survive then a compromise between five people?
De Cuyper: “No. They are the things that everybody thinks are great.”
Dobbelaere: “A compromise is the result of negotiation, where the sharp edges have been taken away. That is certainly not the case.”
Are there things this time around that you have consciously approached differently than during the creation of ‘m2’?
Dobbelaere: “We are trying to avoid narrative, and playing characters.”
De Cuyper: “After five years of touring with ‘m2’ we have really grown to hate that.”
Dobbelaere: “To determine the motivations of the players in terms of a story is something we no longer want to do. Or that whole story of the stage getting smaller and smaller. Now we are choosing not to go too logically from a to b, but to take a lot of diversions. There is no psychological intention, only purely physical actions. The idea was to make a juggling ritual, but we wanted to avoid anything that even vaguely hinted at the esthetic of a ritual, because we found that much too direct and explicit.”
De Cuyper: “Or it just pushed us towards parody.”
Do you feel in a bit of a vacuum now? That the narrative was a logical way for you to create, and that you now have to develop something new?
De Cuyper: “That’s something I’ve tended to feel on stage during the few try-outs we have done up until now. We are still looking at how we should behave on stage. When something goes wrong, we fall quickly into the reflex of the street: a wink to the audience or something like that. And we don’t need that here.”
And in the creative process itself? When you work with a narrative, the material often gets put into scenes. If you now want to get rid of the narrative thread, how do you structure the material?
De Cuyper: “That is where the given of the ritual has helped us immensely. Whether you go to the mass or to a rave party, the course and the setting of all rituals is always the same: a circle and the steady build-up to a moment of trance.”
Dobbelaere: “But it is also true that puzzling together the material this time is much more difficult that with ‘m2’. Then we had scenes for the small playing area and moments for the bigger area. And logically the things for the smaller area had to come after the moments in the large area. We didn’t have that thread this time around. But Eric (Longequel) had made ‘Flaque’ with Cie Defracto in the meantime, which is also a production without much narrative structure. In that creation process they waited as long as possible before putting the material in a particular sequence. They worked on each piece in such depth that it brought them to a point where it became obvious what was needed for a certain moment, and where it should come in the structure. We also tried that here: waiting for as long as possible to give the material a name, or putting fragments in any kind of order.”
Once you have found an organic order for the material, does the moment come where you look at the meaning of that order and, if necessary, adapt the order in function of the meaning?
Dobbelaere: “Yes, that is still happening.”
De Cuyper: “That’s the big job.”
Dobbelaere: “Because in this way of working we have already tried five or six different structures. When you play, or rather, when someone is watching, you can feel what doesn’t work in the rhythm. But then comes the work of ‘finding meaning’ in what you are doing and the order in which you are doing it. But the motivation for putting this after that doesn’t have to rely on a narrative to be meaningful. Eric, for example, thinks in a very filmic way. He puts certain images after others in a specific, often unsettling way, in order to evoke a certain effect or experience for the spectator. Or by making strange, sudden switches in light and sound.”
What is it that you find specific to making circus pieces? What are the great strengths of circus as a medium? And what are the big traps one can fall into while making a circus production?
Dobbelaere: “One big difference with dance and theatre is the technical aspect, which means that a circus show takes much longer to make. That’s complicated financially, but artistically it means you can stew a long time in your own juices. (laughs) Also, combining physical fatigue with getting your brain in action is not always easy. But there’s an upside to that as well: after hours of talking about the concept you can just enjoy working on technique without having to think. And you can also lose yourself in that.”
The development of a specific physical language or the discovery of a ‘new technique’ is always accompanied by to the need to train that language. At the same time, you can only begin to ‘make’ things once you have mastered it. Is the slowness intrinsic to the creative process in circus due to that parallel process of learning and making?
De Cuyper: “Absolutely. And it is sometimes difficult to know in advance if you will succeed in mastering the material in those four months of the creation process.”
Dobbelaere: “That’s what’s so difficult. You can’t allow yourself to get lost in pure mental gymnastics, but also not in pure technique, because it is endless, all the training and exercising you can do. You don’t have the time, nor the talent, to be good in everything. So if the technical training is not accompanied by some kind of thought process that narrows the spectrum, you’re doomed to be at it forever. You also make a lot more progress, technically, when you repeatedly exercise one specific thing.”
That seems to me particular to the circus: those who create the performance are usually also those who will perform in it. Bram, you also work as a coach for other companies like Circus Marcel and Bert & Fred. Do you notice a big difference in how choices are made in the technical material during a creation process when the creative roll is shared?
Dobbelaere: (thinks) “It is much easier when you are not in it yourself, because you have a certain distance. Plus, after the premiere I leave and I don’t feel the same bond with the material. While with your own work you remain immersed.”
De Cuyper: “It chases you.” (laughs)
Dobbelaere: “The most charming thing about circus, and certainly about creating as a collective, is that as a spectator you feel that the people on stage have also made it. As a creator you can’t help but defend the proposition differently on stage.”
So does technique in itself express something?
Dobbelaere: “Technique can certainly express something. In ‘All the fun’ it is the technique that determines how we move and react. Nothing is colored in: we don’t exaggerate anything, and we aren’t playing anything.”
De Cuyper: “Although the technique would not speak in the same way, if the audience wasn’t sitting around us so closely.”
Perhaps it is about a difference in how you define technique? For many circus artists ‘mastering technique’ signifies knowing and repeating an existing repertoire of tricks and figures. Technique is presented as a goal in itself, and not as a means to communicate ‘something else’.
Dobbelaere: “For sure, how many handstands on canes have we seen!? A lot of people can stand on one hand, and then on the other. Those people are technically well-trained in something that everyone does. You have to dig deeper in your technique to make it speak. You have to personalize: fanatically search until you find something that only you can do in that manner. Not ‘What do people do with clubs?’ but rather ‘What can I do with clubs?’. That’s when it starts to get interesting.”
De Cuyper: “Technique continues to evolve, certainly in juggling. When you make a new production, you want to give the technique a push. The others see the result and can then do something once again with that.”
Dobbealaere: “In dance or theatre I am also not blown away by what is told, but rather by how it is told. When the research gets deeply personal, it is perfectly possible to express something with pure technique. You are absolutely not required to play a character, speak with a funny voice, or dress up like Red Riding Hood.” (laughs)