[This article was published in CircusMagazine #44 – September 2015]
[Author: Els Van Steenberghe – Photography: Sigrid Spinnox – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
Red. Deep red. Ronaldo red. That is the color of the Circus Ronaldo truck, and also of the mini-van with which Danny Ronaldo drove, last August from Kallo – where together with his brother David he had just finished playing ‘La Cucina dell’Arte’ – to the center of Antwerp to talk about his latest jewel, ‘Fidelis Fortibus’. Red is the color of passion. In Ronaldo’s case: the passion for the circus and for life. ‘The circus is my life.’ Still, it is a life he had to learn to love. ‘That took time, courage and therapy.’ ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ also falls to some extent in the category of therapy. For him and for the audience. At least he hopes that is so. Danny Ronaldo always sees both sides of something. His open regard – penetrating with the hint of something dreamy – is always overshadowed by the frown of a determined sceptic. A character trait in the family.
Why is circus your life?
Danny Ronaldo: “Because I want to give people joy. Watch them become very very happy during a performance, that’s why I do it. Circus is one of the most beautiful ways to make people happy; a catharsis. In the middle-ages circus people took over the town square and brought other smells and colors with them. They touched people.
And I love the circus because I love to travel. This summer we played ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ 29 times during the Zomer van Antwerpen (Summer of Antwerp). Being in one place so long just makes me want to travel. Travel is nourishment, it gives me the energy to play and allows me to take distance from a performance. As an actor I become more intense when I travel. Clearing the table feels good. By nature I am not very good at that. It’s hard for me to let go of things. And traveling is the process of taking down, moving somewhere else, and building up again in some untouched field. That’s where something new begins. The physical act of letting go makes the inner process easier. Traveling makes you free. That is why I didn’t like going to school. School meant ‘not being able to leave with the circus’. That cut deep.
And, third reason, circus is in my genetic make-up. Just like the theatre. I come from a theatre family whose golden years came at the beginning of the last century, in the 10’s and 20’s. In the depression of the 30’s things went sour, and remained so up to and including WWII. After the war there was a ‘comeback’ that moved more towards variety and revues. But my grandparents’ life in the theatre is written in my DNA. When I was 18 and went to the theatre for the first time, a world opened up inside of me. Something in me recognized that place.”
But that something can also immobilize you. In ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ your character stands completely alone in the ring, surrounded by the graves of a family that have literally and figuratively held him back.
“But that is an attitude to life. The character – a juggling, acrobatic clown with a large fear of failure – allows the past to hold him back. That is why this performance is also a bit of therapy. It is an attempt to let go, to cut the ties with everyone that I have loved and do love. Circus is good for that because circus is a world of bonding. A world where the past is very present. I always feel the presence of my ancestors in the tent when we play. You are intensely tied to them because you are doing something that they also did. Bakers – or families who make chocolate, recognize that feeling. It is a positive feeling, but it can also make you suffer. In the guestbook of ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ there is a reaction written in the handwriting of a child: ‘I thought it was really beautiful. But it would have been even more beautiful if all the circus artists were still alive.’ That child innately understood the feeling from which this play came to be. The clown that I play in ‘Fortis Fortibus’ seems alone. But all the members of his family who have died are with him in everything he does.”
Just as your own father and founder of Circus Ronaldo always plays along with you?
“My father taught me to see through things, and to recognize the universal in things which were very concrete. He built a philosophy of life with quotes and bits of wisdom that he collected and gave to us. What a gift. And he impressed upon us that if you really wanted to achieve something, you would succeed. I will never forget how one of our caravans crashed when we were traveling. At night, in the pouring rain. The caravan had smashed into a pole. The next day we loaded the remains into a big garbage container. That evening my father realized that my brother’s first communion cross – which had always hung by the fireplace in the caravan – had also been among the wreckage. So he went to the police, explained everything, after which they led him to the container. In the pouring rain he went in search of and eventually found that cross. If you really believe you are going to find something, you will.
In the meantime I have also learned that the world is constantly changing and that you regularly have to put the quotes and wisdom of the past to a present day reality check. That is the same for a performance. Each time you have to see if it still works. And just like my father, just before I would go on stage I would often be overcome by a dark feeling. I lost confidence. I recognized that feeling in Edward Runci’s painting ‘Showtime’, which hung on the wall of my caravan. You see a clown. He’s sitting on a stool in a black suit, looking completely defeated, and his dog is jumping up to him. After the renovation of my caravan I purposely didn’t rehang that picture. Maybe that’s also a sign that I have taken some distance from my father and my past?”
You are also a father.
(His face brightens) “Yes! My three sons love the circus. My daughter is only a year old. My oldest son just turned twenty and is interested in performance and all that that entails. He is also fascinated by the technical side of things. Obsessed with trucks. For ‘Fortis Fortibus’ he did the technique. My seventeen-year-old son has been bitten by the playing bug and is taking lessons in two circus schools at the same time. And my youngest son – he is seven – experiences circus as the child he is. Playful and eager. When I started to work on ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ I could see on his face that it was very intense for him to see me standing in the piste, in the midst of all those graves. In the meantime he has taken to making the graves with me in the afternoon.”
What you received as a child and have given to your children, is what the audience gives your character in ‘Fidelis Fortibus’: healing attention.
“It is through the audience that he exists and grows. We all want love, attention and understanding. Understanding one another is essential to life. That doesn’t only come through discussing with each other. On the contrary. We need other forms to come into the world of another. Forms like literature or theatre. In 2013 we played ‘Amortale’ in Bonheiden. That is right next to Muizen, where our roots lie, and so we made something special out of that. We sent an invitation to all the town council members and mayors of the area. But also sent out invitations to the less fortunate, the poor, and people from the rehab center. Sitting there all together – the ‘all messed up’ next to the politicians with a public image to protect – all laughing at the same moment with the same jokes. People recognizing situations and one another. That is the power of circus. Circus brings together.”
Can it also bring together a society which is currently cracking under the weight of terroristic attacks and war refugees?
“Circus can solve that. That sounds like a pat answer but I truly believe that. Circus is an art-form which is centuries old, one that amuses while touching a sensitive nerve. Recently I wrote in an open letter for the Circuscentrum about a dog-act I had once seen. It seemed like a traditional circus-act but one of the dogs never did what it was supposed to. That dog, precisely for that reason, was the star of the show. That animal could be himself. That act contains a dramaturgy which could make the world a better place. Or think of a classic clown number where one clown is the first to enter his piste – his sacred world – and plays a lovely piece of music on his saxophone. That piece gets disturbed by a second clown who enters a bit later. With a bombardon. Also he sees the piste as his world. In the finale the clowns realize that in spite of the difference in their instruments, they are at their best when playing together. I would like to take our politicians to see that act and make it clear to them that we are all waiting for their finale. It is utopian thinking, but I would so love to bring the whole world together in one huge circus and let them experience how everyone laughs at the same jokes and exactly the same moment. I call it ‘opening a window‘. The luckiest thing that can happen in a human life is when a window gets opened, and you can reconsider all the things of which you were convinced, and learn from your failures.”
Are we all failing acrobats, just like your character in ‘Fidelis Fortibus’?
“It feels good that failure became a part of the play. People are full of fear. If I don’t watch out, my fears will get the better of me. Like the fear of playing. That fear comes out of a current trend in circus: the etheric quality of circus is disappearing. The audience expects a perfect performance with perfect acts. That freezes me up. Making mistakes is no big deal, it’s part of life and part of the circus. In the circus – also in ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ – and in theatre, tragic sagas of love are often performed from beginning to end. If you then watch those dramas, you see how relative it all is, and you realize it is not so tragic. That’s an insight which opens the door to playfulness.”
Those are hopeful insights. Insights you would expect from an artist. But recently the Belgian writer/poet Peter Verhelst admitted during the season’s presentation of theatre company NTGent that he seriously doubted whether he had given his children a good up-bringing. He asked himself if he should ‘also have taught them how to use a gun.’ Do you understand that feeling?
“I understand that feeling very well. I was lucky enough to be raised by a father who was a cowboy and weapon fanatic. He believes in the wild west and in defending oneself. At the same time he is a very peaceful, respectful man. He is a child of the war. From his seventh to his eleventh year it was wartime; WWII. The age when you realize what is going on, but cannot understand it. Four years of fear. That’s why he finds the idea of defending oneself so important. But he is against attacking. That’s the world in which I grew up. If I meet someone who is aggressive, I ask myself what I still need to learn and why I am crossing this person’s path…is that the correct attitude? For me it is. The war is the magnification of what happens at a tiny level in every individual life. In every life there is a war being waged.”
‘Fidelis Fortibus’ is also a war.
“The interior war of a man who struggles with his past to try to be himself. Lotte van den Berg -with whom I made the play- understands that, as daughter of the former puppeteer Jozef van den Berg, very very well. We met each other a few years ago after a performance of ‘Cucina dell’Arte’ during Wintervuur. What began with talking about life led to making a play together about the things we wrestle with in that life: escaping from a past that you love very dearly.
I love the circus that brought my family so much love and so much suffering. That really saturates the space, and makes playing ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ a mental challenge. I have always felt a mess of emotions in that circle full of history, but at the same time I have experienced enormous pleasure of playing there. And allowing that pleasure more and more space in my life took some courage and the help of some people who opened a window for me. Happiness is something that comes to you and that you open up. You have to want to receive that happiness. In ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ it is the audience that brings happiness and courage to the main character. I hope and I believe that those moments of happiness also come to our cultural policy-makers. And I hope that they then realize that the world needs circus and that it has a right to some oxygen, and to structural support. It may create some space to realize new projects. And make a whole new batch of people happy, and through them, the world.”
[Author: Filip Tielens]
Family, traditions, death. Curious as to what pater familias Johnny Ronaldo thought of the very personal and emotional ‘Fidelis Fortibus’, Filip Tielens travelled to Muizen. He didn’t have to ask many questions, the nearly 82 year-old cowboy talked nineteen to the dozen.
The first thing he does when Johnny Ronaldo opens the door to his cozy house in Muizen, is to excuse himself for the condition his voice is in. “In 2011 I had throat cancer and one of my vocal chords had to be cut out. The doctor in the hospital said that afterwards I would be able to speak normally again, but at this point I would be inclined to call it ‘making myself understood’. Unfortunately I can no longer shout or sing.”
“Recently I have been having attacks of arrhythmia. I get dizzy and have black-outs, sometimes I even fall over. Once it happened when I was behind the wheel. I must have a good guardian angel, because I luckily saw just in time a place where I could park on the side of the road. Since then I don’t drive and I got a pacemaker. This year I will turn 82, but since I have gotten the arrhythmia under control I feel 70 again. I hope I can live another 10 years.”
“I stay involved with everything that happens with Circus Ronaldo, but now more as the godfather. I am chairman of the association behind Circus Ronald, but since the throat cancer operation Danny is the artistic director. Someone like him comes once in a generation, huh? He is really exceptionally talented. The way he combines the tragic with humor in his new solo…I think it’s really fantastic.”
“I phased out my artistic career a while ago. One last time at the end of the tour of our performance ‘Komediantentheater’. At the back of the piste we have a red curtain. I stood behind that curtain in the final performance in Hasselt and realized that it was the last time I would ever perform my dear cowboy-number. I can tell you that at that moment I felt pretty alone. I entered through that curtain as one lonely cowboy.”
“Ten years later Danny asked me if I wanted to do my shooting number in the new show ‘Circenses’. This time not on a real horse, but on a horse from a carousel. Danny challenged me to do something I had never done before; to shoot with two pistols in two different directions. We played the last run of ‘Circenses’ in Wellington, New Zealand. Because my number came in both parts, before and after the intermission (‘Circenses’ split the audience into two groups, watching the same show happen on stage and then backstage, or vice versa. Ed.), I ended up playing my shooting number in total 28 times there. I am very proud that I didn’t miss once. I couldn’t wish for a finer send-off.”
“This winter we will make a special Christmas program with Circus Ronaldo in Mechelen, and I will probably do my cowboy number one more time. At any rate I keep practicing it, cause you never know if I might have to jump in if another artist gets hurt, or if Danny decides to make a bigger show. At home it is difficult to shoot with real bullets, but I learned the trick of dry shooting from an old shooter: pointing quickly with the finger to a target can help keep your feeling for direction intact. That’s how I practice now.” (laughs)
“A lot of misunderstandings have risen around my cowboy-style. Once a few tough guys asked me how many people I had shot down that day. ‘Not a one,’ I said, ‘but the day is not over yet.’ (laugh) The best thing you can do when people challenge you like that, is to make a joke of it. Another time a kid wanted to know how good my aim was. He asked me if I wanted to shoot a bird up in a tree. I answered that I certainly could, but that the bird, just like the kid, just wanted to stay alive. ‘Never forget,’ I said to him, ‘never do something to someone that you wouldn’t want to have happen to you.’ You see, I am a pacifist with a gun.” (laughs)