The biggest export product in the Flemish arts sector is circus. What else would you expect, if you look at the number of performances, countries and kilometers circus artists chalk up each year. It’s especially in the summer that the odometer goes wild. From festival to festival, playing pitch to playing pitch, criss-crossing around Europe and the rest of the world. We take a peek in the boot and talk with some of those artists who have been touring for years. Just what is life like, ‘on the road’?
[This article was published in Dutch in Circusmagazine #60 – September 2019 // Author: Gwendolien Sabbe // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Clown Dieter Missiaen usually travels all alone from venue to venue with Cie kRaK. In the old days it was different. Ten years ago he put together a circus show with his wife Els Degryse that they played some eighty times in South-East Asia and Latin America. That experience whet their appetite for travel. So when they got back home they created the show Kus!. They couldn’t keep up with the bookings. Dieter left his day job and chose for the full-time life of an artist. He’s currently touring two solo’s: Viva Raphaël and Kontrol. Touring alone has it’s advantages and disadvantages.
“You don’t have to take anyone else into account, you’re your own boss. If you aren’t touring with a group, you make contact with other people more easily, I think. It’s easy for me to chat with people I meet on the road or other artists in a festival. Of course it’s not all peaches and cream. I spend a lot of hours alone in my car. When I play Viva Raphaël, I have the caravan with me: my tour bed and the decor for the performance. I can’t drive very fast with that thing behind me, the furthest I can travel in a day is about 650 kilometers, so a trip to Portugal and back…
You arrive at the festival, you build up the decor alone, you play, a nice applause, you hang around a bit, you get some positive reactions, which is fine for the ego. You’re happy it went well. The first few hours in the car you are floating. Then that starts to ebb away. Fatigue sets in. You realise you are alone again. Aaaargghh… that feels like crap. So you eat a lot of sugar. (laughs) After the kick you get from playing the emptiness sets in. Got to get back to some real life. When you arrive home the kids jump all over you, which is of course wonderful. But all the banal problems of everyday life are waiting there for you too: the things you have to take care of, the shopping that needs to be done, … Sometimes people ask: ‘Ah, why don’t you take your kids along with you on tour?’ But I don’t want to put them, nor myself through that. Already now they ask after a few kilometers in the car, ‘are we almost there?’ If Els were to come along that would also be difficult, because then we would have to find a baby-sit for an extended period of time. I am, by the way, so grateful that Els can accept this way of life. I’m away a lot. She supports me, encourages me, even irons my costumes from time to time. Without her I could never do this.”
Florian Brooks graduated seven years ago from the circus school ESAC. His end-work there was a juggling number which he later transposed into the sensational act he’s still touring with today. “After lugging two suitcases full of metal trestles around without a car for some thirty performances, I decided to make the piece a bit more compact. Now everything fits in one suitcase. If the prop is necessary for the act I have it, if not it stays home. With my champagne act I have an ice bucket which weighs three kilos, as well as its stand. That’s a bit exasperating, but it’s essential to the act. Touring works ok for me. I don’t drive, I travel by train or plane and always sleep in hotels. Before I moved to London life was chaotic and pretty stressful. I was playing each week from Tuesday to Friday in Switzerland. On Friday evening I would fly to London, where I would sometimes grab a show, as well as playing Saturdays and Sundays. In the end I decided for personal reasons to move to London. I live in Angel. In less than a half hour on the bus I can be in Leicester Square. That leaves me ten minutes walk to any of the venues in which I regularly perform. I’ve been known to play a show at 21:15 in Piccadilly, walk to Leicester Square for a second show at 22:15 and finally play a third time at 23:30 in Covent Garden. So it’s practical for me to live in London, but not always easy. I already had a foot in the door, thanks to the vintage and gentleman juggling I had been doing there for a few years, but in the meantime the scene has radically changed. There are fewer and fewer shows. It’s all become ‘immersive’, which means that though there are still a few theatres which offer a classical cabaret setting more and more cabaret is to be found in hotel bars or restaurants.”
Jasper D’Hondt graduated ten years ago from ESAC. In the meantime he has become a veritable expert in figuring out solutions for problems logistical and beyond. “After school I toured a bascule number for three years with Joren De Cooman, first in Circus Monti, then Cirque du Soleil, until injury led to the end of my bascule career. A bascule is a huge object. We had to chop up the foam in our safety mats, to get it all to fit in the van. That worked for a while, until we had to go to Canada: huge hassles with cargo and customs.
So I started with the Russian bar. All you need for that is a car with a tube on the roof. Safety mats in the boot and you’re ready to go. That was a relief… until the Russian bar, which is 4.5 meters long, had to fit in the airplane. The hold of a normal airplane doesn’t have that kind of space. Once we put a Russian bar on a cargo ship from Belgium to the United States. It arrived in pretty bad shape. Since then we have them make a Russian bar wherever we are going to perform, if it’s in America or Australia, and leave it behind when we are finished. It’s available for us if we come back, or for other artists to use thereafter.
Because of logistical reasons, we could never play the outdoor circus performance Poetry and Dynamite with 15Feet6 outside of Europe. We could never take all those pyrotechnics on a plane, and buying all the fireworks at the place we were performing also wouldn’t work, as each country has its own restrictions, which means you could never get the same materials. But we did tour all over Europe, and that was pretty easy. To avoid breaking down along the way we invested in a new Peugeot Tepee in which we could fit everything: decor, baggage, de Russian bar on the roof and the four of us. Since we all had completely different sleeping needs, we always took separate rooms, so everybody was free to do as they pleased, everyone got a good night sleep and there were a lot less frustrations to deal with. Since not every festival has the means to offer four single rooms, we started selling T-shirts after the show, and the profits from the shirts went into a fund to make sure that whether we were en route or at the festival we could always count on having those four single rooms.”
Gab Bondewel, Sander De Cuyper and Bram Dobbelaere have toured for seven years with the outdoor circus performance Le Cirque Démocratique de la Belgique. We talked to Gab about the ups and downs of life ‘on the road’. “We know each other so well that we almost never have any problems. The strength of the relationship, especially with Bram and Sander, is built on the fact that there is nothing you can’t say. The disputes that do occur are always after a show, if something hasn’t gone the way it should. That’s when emotions can get out of hand, accusations and curses can fill the air. But the good thing is that those moments quickly blow over.”
Gab and Sander had come from extensive international touring with ShakeThat, so one of the first subjects of consideration with Pol & Freddy was how to give the decor wings. “We have two kits. In Europe we tour with a van and a trailer. We have everything with us. The only thing we need from the organiser is a space to play with a level surface and electricity. And so not to miss the opportunities to play outside of Europe, we designed a system: the decor folds into six separate suitcases, each weighing 23 kilos, which corresponds to the weight allotment the three of us are each allowed to check in. All our personal stuff goes in hand luggage. We had to make lighter or compacter versions of some of the props. We also thought of things well ahead of time: what can you always ask from an organiser, anywhere in the world? A stage element, a ladder and tubes of a certain diameter. We have the couplings with us in the suitcases, so we can build things up on site.”
We just feel really lucky to be able to do this. The only downside I can think of is all the hours in the van, missing home and the ecological footprint of being on tour. I don’t have kids myself, but I see that Bram and Sander often miss theirs terribly. What we also often miss are the parties, the barbecues, reunions with childhood friends, or your best friend’s wedding. We really do think about the environmental damage of all the kilometers we travel. We do some crazy things you know. I think a lot of circus artists will recognise this: you get a really attractive offer to play in a top festival. But you already have a booking the day before, and of course it’s not nearby. No, it’s usually something like 500 kilometers away. And you do it. You leave at 8 in the morning, arrive 6 hours later, build up, warm up and play in the evening. It’s not uncommon to drive 500 or 600 kilometers to work. I think that most people, myself included, don’t realise how serious global warming is. Sometimes if I think about it I have real misgivings. I ask myself: am I going to make another show like this, and drive so many kilometers once again to perform it? I’m starting to have my doubts.”
Sophie van der Vuurst de Vries en Willem Balduyck met one another at the Codarts School of Circus Arts in Rotterdam. It clicked between them, both on and off-stage. Since then they’re inseparable and together they are Circus Katoen. “During our studies in Codarts we were already fascinated by natural objects that weren’t particularly related to circus. After we graduated in 2012 we made Ex Aequo, in which we play with wood blocks, plants and very large denim trousers. With As Heavy As It Goes we participated in CircusNext in 2015 and went to work with sandbags.”
“Whatever we do, it has to fit in our Citroën Berlingo. It places a limit on the creative process, but gives you the freedom to make choices: we won’t do this, because it’s too big. For most companies the normal evolution is: we make something, then we buy a vehicle that can transport it. It can always be bigger, it can always be more. But more is not always better or more creative. When we are ‘on the road’ we try to keep our ecological footprint as small as possible. We travel by car. That’s hypocritical of course – we do burn fuel, eh! We don’t want to tour more than we already do. For us it has been an issue for years that we travel so often in a star pattern: away and back home again, away and back home again. It’s very inefficient. It would save so much energy if festivals were to coordinate better between themselves.
We try to avoid flying as much as possible. Once we took an airplane, to play in South Korea. That was an exception. We could play a long series of performances. We did take the train to the airport. Two people came along to help us carry all our baggage. It was a big production in itself. In the future maybe we can tour by train. We would be more than happy to make a production that is even smaller, without props. The problem is we like working with objects. We’ll see how things evolve.”
We can without hesitation say that Dirk Van Boxelaere en Fien Van Herwegen, together d’irque & fien, are some of the Flemish pioneers of circus theatre, outdoors and in. Dirk played at home and abroad some 800 times with the duo performance ToBe2 from 1996-2000, then some 750 times with the solo Tais-Toi et Jongle from 2000-2005. Then he met Fien. That encounter brought love into his life and music into the performances. Dirk does the circus, Fien plays piano. Together they created Oh Suivant! (2000-2005, 864 performances), Carrousel Des Moutons (2010, 1036 performances) and Sol bemol (2016, 350 performances). They still tour the last two performances, 85% of the time abroad. In the meantime their children (Whoopi (8) and Felix (6) ) have entered the picture. We talked with Fien about life on the road, first without and then with children.
“Before we had children, we literally lived out of our suitcases. We were either on tour, rehearsing or planning all the logistics of the tour to come. We had about 140 dates a year, which meant being on the road for some 270 days out of the year. At one point with Oh Suivant! we had three flight-cases traveling around the world. One day we would be playing in Rome, while a flightcase would be traveling to Porto, where we would play the following day. From there we would take a plane to Mexico, where the other flight-case was waiting for us, to then fly once again back to Europe. For 15 years it was serious rock ’n’ roll. Life on tour is great and every day is a new adventure, but not always a bed of roses. We are our own boss, but that means we also have all the responsibilities and stress which go along with that: planning, technicians, building up decor, transport and all the surprises you didn’t expect along the way. Free days on tour usually end up being the days you need to solve all the problems of missed trains, strikes, broken down lorries, decor repairs, tour planning… It’s exhausting, but with so much passion it never felt like work. We totally realise what a privilege it is to do what we love, and to be welcomed and cared for by programmers and audiences time and time again.
When Whoopi was born, we converted a truck into a mobile home, a house on wheels, with our decor in the loading area. The world was literally our playground. For five years we toured like that, with my dad or with a nanny for our daughter. Depending on the tourplanning Whoopi and Felix would go to school in Belgium or in France. During the longer tours in Australia, South America or China we did home schooling.
Now that the children are going to school full-time in France, we are trying to find a balance between being mom and dad, playing and resting from time to time. Being on the road for so many years, vacation for us was synonymous with ‘just being home’: filling the refrigerator for the week, doing our own cooking, gardening or biking up our mountain. Now we keep longer periods free to take ‘real’ vacations with the kids and to enjoy some social life. We also try to keep the performances to a maximum of 80 dates a year, and to bundel those dates as much as possible. If we are on tour, somebody comes to live here to take care of the children. And if the children come along, they are part of the team: Felix operates the loading ramp and helps with building up the decor, Whoopi dances along after the performance. I hope with all my heart that later they’ll also be driven to grab onto life and do what they love. Fantastic, let them wander and discover, we won’t be worried. Who knows, maybe later it will be me in the role of ‘grandmother nanny’.” (laughs)