[This article was published in CircusMagazine #47 – June 2016]
[Author: Lene Van Langenhove – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
After more than five years touring the globe d’irque & fien decided the time was ripe for a new creation. ‘Sol bémol’ promises to become at least as poetic and moving as their prior performance ‘Carousel des Moutons’. The website gives us a teaser: “We all come from somewhere. Stranded with a packed suitcase. In search of a better future.” Were Dirk Van Boxelaere and Fien Van Herwegen inspired by the current refugee crisis for this, their third creation?
Dirk Van Boxelaere: “You could read that into it, but that wasn’t what started us off. We wanted to talk about our lives, which consist primarily of being on the road, and where our only real mainstay is the language of the circus. There isn’t really a story, there are some allusions, but in the end we prefer to touch people on a different level. First there’s an idea and a setting, and then we look at all the things we can do with that: myself as circus artist, Fien as musician. Along the way bits of our daily lives and our own characters sneak into the performance.”
Fien Van Herwegen: “Rather than stories, we write poems. We start by sketching images and then we set out in search of how we can excite and amaze the audience. We’ve made the choice for a very direct contact with the audience and also notice that that audience is ready to go with us in a performance without words, and to fill things in with their own interpretation of what they see.”
Is that universality the strength of your plays?
Fien: “I imagine it is. For three years we’ve been working on, and putting our hearts and souls into ‘Sol bémol’. Having played the first few performances, we realize that we’ve put our entire way of life into it. We’re always on the road with our luggage, arriving somewhere we’ve never been and starting immediately to relate to the people around us. ‘Sol bémol’ is about working together, helping each other, conflict…”
Dirk: “The premiere of ‘Sol bémol” was at the festival Le Boulon, in Vieux-Condé, where we were also in residence. The very first times we had to find our rhythm and get used to elements like the wind. The reactions from the audience were also unpredictable. I know the piece will only be there once we’ve played it thirty times.”
Fien: “This piece has been in our womb for the past three years, and now we have to teach it to walk: we’re still refining, moving scenes around and looking again at the rhythm of the piece. In two months we will be part of the IN program in Chalon dans la rue, the most important street theatre festival in France, and after that we go to Germany, England, Switzerland, Spain and France. Here in Belgium we will play at Cirk!Aalst and Theater op de Markt in Hasselt.”
Do you still manage the rhythm of playing summers in festivals and winters in the theatre?
Dirk: “Yes, we always develop our plays first for open-air festivals and then we adapt things for the theatre. The other way around wouldn’t work as well, because then you would create a mini-theatre in the street, when it is precisely that fourth wall we want to break down.”
Fien: “Playing in the open air is wonderful because anyone with the least bit of interest can come to watch. People who don’t go often to see performances, can enjoy something that is new to them. And a performance is living thing. We’ve played Carrousel around 850 times and we still change details along the way.”
Does Leandre Ribera just come along to cast a critical eye on the things you are doing, or is he really the director or dramaturge?
Dirk: “With our first creation Fien and I just did what we felt like and Leandre made sure the rhythm was right. With our second creation he was more involved and his contribution to ‘Sol bémol’ is greater still. Without Leandre we wouldn’t be where we are today. It remains our concept, he doesn’t write with us. We bring the material and Leandre lifts it to a higher level. He is very good at articulating our ideas, and creating a logical structure out of all the elements we bring. Dramaturgically he’s really strong. Leandre developed himself by playing on the street. You can’t learn what he does in a school or a theatre. Those are the artists who touch me the most.”
Fien: “His work is so simple and so sincere, there is so much emotion in it. To get to that point you have to go through a long process of throwing all the ballast overboard.”
Dirk: “In the old days I was always in search of the “why” in my performances. Leandre has taught me to open up, to try everything, and have confidence that in the end the form will come.”
Fien: “Yes, but you can only work that way once you have some baggage. Someone who has just graduated from circus school can’t assume that everything will just work out.”
Do you find that the circus academies don’t pay enough attention to artistic development and the forming of a performer’s identity?
Dirk: “I studied twenty years ago in Brussels and in Montreal. Those schools can be very proud of what they offer on a technical level, but the creative side of things never got the same attention. After school I chose myself to continue my development by playing in the street, and that direct contact with the audience helped me discover the artist that I was. Circus schools could start to offer acting lessons, but I think that could also be dangerous. For me, circus is about the relationship with the audience. At le Lido, the circus school in Toulouse, they organize an open session every two weeks where the students can present works in progress to anyone who might be interested. With that regular audience confrontation a young artist can really grow. And the students who come from Le Lido are really strong, with great presence. If you spend years working in seclusion behind the walls of a school, where are you going to develop your talent as a performer?”
Fien: “You don’t become a circus artist in order to practice your technique alone in a black box, in the end you want to reach an audience. How can you culminate an education with only one presentation at the end of the school year? That a school offers that kind of opportunity is really important because it gives the students a chance to explore who they can be on stage. That is an essential learning process. The relationship with the audience isn’t something you learn from a book or a teacher, you learn it by being on stage.”
Dirk: “It’s equally important that a school stimulates its students to regularly go to see performances – not only circus performances but also theatre and dance – and afterwards to analyze and talk about it.”
Fien: “If we go to see performances, we are taken by the person on stage and what they transmit emotionally, regardless of what he wants to say. Our best performances are the ones where we are really enjoying ourselves in the play and just let everything go. The audience has to believe you.”
How have you seen circus evolve over the years?
Dirk: “When I left the circus school in Brussels twenty years ago, it was with a generation of performers who were technically very strong. I wondered what kind of things they were going to come up with. What I see are a lot of beautiful companies but not a lot of experiments. Of course demands are higher than they used to be. You don’t really play on the street anymore, you play in festivals. There are immediate expectations. You come from a school, you’ve worked very hard on your technique and then people ask you what you actually have to say to the world. That can be pretty immobilizing. I would say: do your thing and while you’re playing it will come to you, don’t sit around waiting for the ‘Moment of Inspiration.’”
Fien: “A lot of makers would like to do things differently but are not exactly sure how, or they look for it in other disciplines. Maybe we are all running away from what circus actually is: giving people a good moment and sharing your passion with the audience.”
Dirk: “We just want to touch people. We draw some lines but everyone is free to fill in their own story. I think that some people just need to let go a little bit of the theatrical aspect in their work.”
Fien: “Either you choose resolutely for something technical which has the power to astound, and there is certainly an audience for that, or you touch people in another way. It’s different for every artist.”
Are there more and more makers heading for the safety of the theatre, with the increasing attention that circus is getting these days from the theatre programmers.
Dirk: “We’ve been making performances for ten years now, and with each performance we grow. Some artists take short-cuts, or want to copy a certain form, but the form can only be interesting if it comes organically as the content of the performance begins to take shape. To succeed in bringing a performance to your audience, you first need to know who you are, how you are on stage. You can be technically strong and dynamic, but that’s not everything. I have a lot of respect for someone like Alexander Vantournhout, because he really explored the world of the street and dance in order to find his own voice. If you’re a stand-up comic you don’t practice your jokes in your room, you have to die thirty times in front of an audience to find the rhythm. It’s not what you tell, it’s how you tell it, and you can only find that by playing for an audience. For me there are not enough makers that have the guts to do that.”
Fien: “Either they go directly to a big company, or they sit around waiting for subsidies. In the end, a maker just has to completely go for it. A lot has been written about making theatre, but about making circus, virtually nothing. Of course we need to catch up, but sometimes I fear there is too much talking and not enough doing. We provide the images and make the wonder. It’s not by accident that circus is overtaking the theatre: people want to be touched, to experience that directness, to see a real person on stage, without a character or a story. Circus lends itself to that demand.”
Dirk: “A performance has to be lived. It’s so much more than technique. I don’t believe that performances with a well written story and technical ingenuity just get delivered onto the stage. You cannot just quickly make a performance. Mastering a circus technique is a process, and creating a performance is just as much of a process.”
Is that an explanation for your success?
Dirk: “Our performances are very accessible and yet not banal. Fien and I have grown a lot, in the making of something poetic, something of our own.”
Fien: “We really work hard on our plays but when we perform them, people just see the show and are swept up in the pleasure that we have playing it.”
Is being accessible the most important thing?
Dirk: “No, with accessible we mean something else.”
Fien: “Accessible performances aren’t those with big characters and dramatic events, nor those which delve into the woes of the world. An accessible performance is one where the performer allows himself or herself to be vulnerable and show their weakness. The spectators recognize themselves in the performer. In a theatre play you can enjoy the drama, interesting characters and good actors, and open yourself up to the vision of the makers, while the power of circus lies in the freedom of the spectator and the wonder of technical virtuosity. Circus must be lived. If there is that connection between artist and audience something magical happens. We tend to work with impressive decors, but sometimes people come to us after the performance to tell us that they were just touched by the way that we looked at one another. You don’t have to come with big images to touch people. The difficulty is that as a circus maker you are always occupied with technique.”
Dirk: “For ‘Sol bémol’ I have been practicing for the last two years on the straps. I had never done anything arial before, but now I wanted to learn that because it fit in the play and because I want to keep challenging myself. At the same time I realize that mastering a technique isn’t what makes a performance. It’s everything around that technique which makes the performance. The moments before and after a number are often the most interesting.”
Fien: “In other art-forms there is less proximity to the audience than there is in the circus. In the past years I notice more and more recognition for circus in Belgium. I am really happy that the Circuscentrum exists and happy with the government’s current policy towards circus. Circus is just as much an art-form as the theatre. It is tempting to make things more arty when you are adapting a street piece for the theatre, with a white dancefloor and a backdrop, but actually we need to be proud of the fact that circus can really grab people, and give them a lust for life. Circus sparkles!”