[This article was published in CircusMagazine #48 – September 2016]
[Author: Hanna Mampuys – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Sven Demey (47) has been a teacher at the École Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (ESAC) in Brussels since 2004, taught for three years at the École Nationale de Cirque in Montreal, wrote manuals for the FEDEC (European Federation of Professional Circus Schools) and moonlighted in the meantime at the Circushumaniora in Leuven. Those who have not heard of him, probably recognise the names of his students, Robin Leo, Alexander Vantournhout, Kenzo Tokuoka and Maxime Pythoud, to name just a few. So it won’t be a surprise to learn that Sven has a clear vision on contemporary circus. CircusMagazine spoke with him about the pedagogy of the future, artistic ambiguity and revolution.
When you were offered the teaching job at ESAC, you didn’t hesitate for long. You said goodbye to the world of top-sport and ‘ran away to the circus’.
Sven Demey: “I see myself as a creative person and I couldn’t do much with that in the world of top-sport. At ESAC I discovered that it is possible to combine extreme technical discipline with creativity and imagination: a true revelation! And that’s the biggest difference between those two worlds. There is nothing artistic about sport, whereas an ideal circus training pays attention to the artistic aspect from the very first day. As well as making that work fascinating, it also has an influence on the training method. The life of a professional gymnast is finished after a short and intense career. A circus artist who takes good care of their body can continue to work until they are 50 because the training can be built up more gradually. There is less pressure. From the moment you have a bit of technique, you can begin to experiment. The combination of the physical and the artistic offers endless possibilities and that’s what fascinates me. Unfortunately not all circus teachers share that fascination and too often the only thing being taught in the schools are technical skills.”
How do you see your role as a circus trainer?
“My role goes much further than that of a coach. That’s why I prefer the term ‘circus pedagogue’. With each student I lay out an individual program. I don’t have a stock recipe that I pull out at the beginning of the school year. Both the student and I have our personal knowledge and experience, and the beginning of collaboration is the process of getting to know each other. If it goes well, an exchange develops, a sort of chemistry. In the beginning we don’t know where we’ll end up and that’s a good thing. I accompany rather than lead the student. Once in a while I give them a push to the left or the right, and then leave them alone again. My job is to give them more than just technique. During a lesson we talk about a lot more than ‘shoulders a bit more to the left or to the right’.”
You were never a circus artist yourself. Do you feel like you lack that experience?
“You’re not the first person who has asked me that! Do you have to have given birth in order to be a good gynaecologist? I don’t come from the artistic world, that’s true. But I believe I do have a certain artistic sensibility. I see it as my duty to feed myself culturally in order to deepen that sensibility. I go to museums and performances, listen to music, read a lot… at this point in time I think we are too specialised: teachers only work within their own little discipline. Students are given dance, theatre, acrobatics, dramaturgy and circus technique and at the end of the line all of that is supposed to gel into a personal project. That’s too late, all those elements should be more linked from the very beginning. We could start by asking teachers from different disciplines to tune their work a bit more to that of their colleagues. But in the future I would like to see all the aspects united in one person: the circus pedagogue with a broad general education in both the technical and the artistic aspects of the work, a well read individual whose task it is to keep an overview.
When I first started at ESAC I worked closely with Arian Miluka, an Albanian from the ‘old school’, who himself was educated in China. That man could do everything: he knew all the circus techniques, directed shows and probably built the decors himself. We need more of those all-around pedagogues, those who can teach their students technique, but also have the tools and experience to give the students the artistic, creative and imaginative stimulus they desperately need. We are talking here about a serious engagement, but that to me is the duty of a circus pedagogue: to bring the artistic and technical together from the outset. To demand everything from oneself and to strive for excellence should not be taboo.”
To what extent is the career of the circus artist determined by the school and teachers that he or she may come from?
“The context you come from is of course a determining factor. If your trainer is Russian, you’ll get a different education than if your trainer comes from China or Madagascar. Each circus school has its own colour. At the ENC in Montreal, where I was lucky enough to teach for three years, there is a big focus on the physique. Artists who come from that school are some of the best trained in the world. But sometimes artistically there is something left to desire. The situation is quite different at the DOCH in Stockholm, where artistic research is really stimulated. People who come from that school are ‘a bit mad’. And I mean that as a compliment.
But, context is not the only determining factor. For me, who you actually are, and how much time you are given to develop as an artist also plays an important part. Take for example ESAC. We have three years to work with somebody. Ideally the people who come to audition already have a serious bit of experience behind them, they are physically ready and have sufficient technical and artistic experience. With students like that you can jump right into the research, and there is a good chance that they will graduate as an artist: someone who can express themselves in a versatile, subtle and intelligent manner on stage. But the reality of the situation is often quite different. If one of the elements is weak – the body, the technique, or the artistic insight – you can lose a lot of time in trying to remedy that situation. Sometimes students are working desperately to master technique for their final graduation performance, two weeks before it has to happen. That is not an ideal situation.”
As a prospective student, how can you best prepare for a higher, advanced circus education?
“Unfortunately the possibilities are very dependant on which country you’re living in. There are few Belgians accepted to ESAC. One reason for that is that in this country there is almost no organisation that lends itself to that kind of preparation. Whereas in France for example you see a much bigger attention given to culture, even in the most general education. For circus specifically there are preparatory programs at several different levels. And after graduating from one of the higher circus institutions, there continue to be opportunities on offer to develop as a professional. This is an entire structure wherein one can develop into a circus artist. In Belgium, we have one circus college, ESAC. The Circushumaniora in Leuven is a first attempt to offer a preparatory education. So we still have a lot of work to do, and that work begins with the policy makers and circus representatives, who need to offer a framework in which that development is possible.”
Is it imperative to attend a circus college if you want to become a circus artist?
“Is that a trick question? I don’t want to say there’s only one way. But I do think that in order to achieve excellence in any discipline, you need an education that demands something of you. The big advantage of a school is that you are pushed to go to your very limits. I think a majority of people are incapable of doing that on their own. We humans are blessed with a certain laziness. Everyone has a strict and much hated teacher in their past, to whom they look back afterwards with gratitude and respect: ‘if they hadn’t have crossed my path…’.
But to become an artist, a huge responsibility lies with oneself. I often see students who don’t seem to have a notion of this world. They’re nestled in the safe cocoon of a school, paid for by mom and dad. And at the end of their schooling – I’m drawing a bit of a caricature here – they produce a number all about their own personal problems. Of course that’s possible, there is a place for that, but I miss an awareness of the outside world. Our eternal search for individual freedom seems to have translated to pure individualism. We are living at a critical moment, it’s not going well with the world. As an artist, you cannot just ignore that fact. One who stands on stage is choosing to express themselves before a large group of people, so they better have something worth saying. I don’t mean that every performance has to be about the geopolitical situation, but I see so little content. I miss anger, the sinking of teeth into something and going for it. It all remains so ‘nice’.”
Still, a good share of the audience is especially waiting for ‘tricks’ from a circus artist.
“Circus artists have to dare to go further than simple entertainment, to not just give the audience what they want. An artist also has a role as educator. They succeed in touching an audience. You don’t do that by just showing tricks. That’s why it is so important for the circus artist to do research, to learn to express themselves with a well-trained circus body. That subtle form of expression demands as much effort as the mastering of technical skills, and finally it’s what makes the difference between doing on stage or being on stage. For me that is what distinguishes an artist from an athlete: the athlete does, the artist is.
For me, ideally, a circus-artist becomes a circus-body. You see it immediately on stage: this is not a dancer or actor, this is a circus artist. The synthesis of the education, what he’s been fed artistically and his exceptional physical ability makes the circus-artist a ‘circus-body’. Even without the use of structures or circus materials that artist remains unique. If you succeed in bringing something to the stage that only a ‘circus-body’ is capable of, then you are close to the essence. Then you have reached something near to the core of circus.”
Is that then art?
“Hmm. Yes. What is art? Circus possesses an enormous potential, but has a long way to go yet before it can present itself as a mature art form. Everyone just does something, there is no line to it, no methodology. If you look at other art forms, then you see that they have gone through various revolutions, and reinvented themselves along the way. Up until now circus has had one revolution, that from traditional circus to nouveau cirque. That was about twenty years ago, and since then not much has happened.
I think we can learn a lot from other art forms. Not only by looking to theatre and dance, but much further. I would love to set up a program of experimental research that scrutinises and compares various methods in different areas of the arts. Could we for instance learn anything from the creative processes in architecture or music? Maybe we would come across something. A core or a method that is applicable to circus whereby we could define our own creative process a bit better. If we want to innovate in the circus we have to step out of our closed little world, start a dialogue with other disciplines, and really begin to experiment. A bit like the Bauhaus movement at the beginning of the 20th century (Bauhaus was a German art school that eradicated the borders between arts and crafts, and thereby set off a revolution in design and architecture, red.).
At any rate it seldom happens among circus people: getting together to discuss things. Only then will we make some progress. There is more reflection and more things are being written, I notice that when I read the CircusMagazine. That is great. But more has to happen and it can go much more quickly. I spoke earlier about the critical moment we find ourselves in. There are changes to come in the world. Let’s see this as a turning point and a chance to evolve ourselves.”
These days there is a lot of talk about circus dramaturgy. Is that what you are looking for with your experimental research?
“Circus dramaturgy… it is in fashion at the moment. To me the term dramaturgy is too limited. And it means too many things. For this experiment I would like to look further than the biotope of the dramaturg. I would rather talk about methodology. It sounds rather scientific, but there is also a place for ratio in the arts. We don’t have to be afraid to look for methods and structures. Only then will we break free of the artistic ambiguity wherein everybody just does something. This experiment is my way of contributing to the quest of contemporary circus. All of us, students, artists, pedagogues, circus representatives and policy makers, have to continue to work demandingly on quality. We have to continue to search, and talk to one another, create innovative structures and dare to invest in them. Only then will circus continue to develop into a mature art form. Not evolution but revolution!”
Then let’s get started right away! Thank you for this talk.