[This article was published in CircusMagazine #43 – June 2015]
[Author: Michiel Vandevelde – Photography: Michiel Devijver – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
CircusMagazine asked the choreographer Michiel Vandevelde to put together a three-part series about the nature of Tent-Circus. Vandevelde has little knowledge of contemporary circus performance but a great passion for the circus tent. He designs and makes tents for which one day he would like to program a circus festival. Part 1 of this series takes us to the new tent-circus performance of Circus Marcel.
There are currently many things on this planet threatened with extinction. But against all odds, the tent-circus seems to be holding on. You would expect otherwise, if you took a look at the disastrous situation in that milieu : the tent-circus is a big financial risk, it is not particularly ecological, and one must comply, as a consequence of ever diminishing tolerance, with more and more regimentation. And yet when an old tent-circus disappears a new one gets started up. It remains the big dream for many a circus artist. But from where does it stem, this desire for a tent-circus? What is the nature of this beast? And how can the choice for a tent be explained, here at the beginning of the 21st century?
In search of the answers to these questions, I paid a visit to Circus Marcel. They have recently created a new performance entitled ‘Nieuw programma/Nouveau programme’. The catchy title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the traditional tent-circus in which each year the same program is announced as a ‘new program’. Old wine in new bottles. A simple trick that is surprisingly effective, because we humans always want to see what is new!
Circus Marcel is a relatively ‘young’ tent-circus. It was started up by Chloé Vancompernolle and Joppe Wouters, two circus artists who graduated from the ESAC, the famous circus school in Brussels. In 2007 they scraped their savings together to realize a dream: they bought a second-hand circus tent. A beautiful white tent that looks good in both a summer and winter landscape. In their new performance, (is it really new?) they want to pay tribute to the ‘traveling circus that returns each year to the same town squares with the same posters, with the same dubious bilingual promise of a completely Nieuw programma / Nouveau Programme’. What follows is the typical succession of acts that make up a traditional circus: the trapeze, a knife-thrower, the horse (in robot-version!), the ‘wheel of death’, and even a living human cannonball.
Joppe Wouters explains: “We wanted to make a performance that was easy to understand. No nouveau cirque. No complex narrative. Just a few numbers, a pause and a few more numbers. That is what we wanted to do. Just like in the traditional circus.” And yet: Circus Marcel still brings several narrative elements. Elements which reveal life behind the scenes in the circus: the hard labor of the circus-artist, the attempt to present everything at its very best, an attempt which is always spoiled by the amateurism of another player or by one who is distracted. It calls up a kind of amateurism that was probably a trademark of the first tent-circuses. The difference is that with Circus Marcel, the amateurism is a played one. It is not out of ignorance, but the conscious choice for elements that many would associate with the tradition of the ‘old’ tent-circus.
THE HEART OF THE CIRCUS
One notices that many contemporary tent-circuses are looking back at their own traditions. On a more abstract level, you could call it ‘meta-circus’. With this I mean to say: circus about the circus. A tent seems the perfect space to talk about the past. The makers seem to be searching for the very heart of the circus. Or rather the heart of what circus evokes. For Joppe Wouters of Circus Marcel that would be: “The pleasure of wonder for things small and large. The magical atmosphere of the tent, warmth, a feeling of the collective.” Three notable ideas that one could choose to look at from a highly politicized point of view. Is it not precisely those qualities that current day neo-liberal society, dedicated to the idea of every man for himself, seems out to destroy? The nomadic circus has the power to bring people together. The time when people sat in front of their houses and chance meetings would occur, the time when the circus was the largest event in town, is long gone since the advent of television.
And yet, the circus has not completely lost its ability to bring us together. Sitting on a hard wooden bench, with the smell of wet grass and wood-chips, you understand why the circus will always be stronger than what is produced for television or the internet. The answer is simple: the tent-circus breathes life. The sight of the tent alone reminds one of the physical labor that was necessary to get it up. And it is a huge job to put a circus performance together.
Along with the building up and maintenance of the tent itself, circus-artists have a curious habit of rehearsing a lot. Practicing a number demands discipline. This discipline is vital as circus is truly defined through its technique (juggling, unicycle, acrobatics, etc.). In contrast with contemporary dance, or theatre, it is probably impossible to imagine circus without technique. Without it, there would simply be no circus. It is also interesting that an artist like Wouters from Circus Marcel begins a new performance with an idea for a new construction, something he would like to build. It is the technique which inspires.
Adding to the list of hard work, it has become more and more difficult in the past years to find a pitch in any given town or city. The mania of regimentation is taking over, suitable space is becoming more and more scarce, and there is a lot of competition between circuses for those spaces. Joppe Wouters concurs, but also tells us that Circus Marcel always plays under an invitation from a festival or cultural centre. This makes things easier, because all the permits are applied for by the organizer in question. The old tent-circuses are used to doing all the organization themselves. One could say that the ‘younger’ tent-circuses take a lot fewer financial risks than their traditional counterparts. Wouters does add that he would love to become just such a nomadic tent-circus, but he simply isn’t in the financial situation to do so. Even with an invitation from a cultural centre it is no simple task to balance the books and pay all the artists a decent fee for their work. In Ieper for example, in the three-day festival Gevleugelde Stad, companies have to cover their own costs. Gevleugelde Stad claims that they provide a large group of organizers who come to see the work and offer contracts to those companies. But in truth it appears to be more of a cheap marketing trick to give color to the city. A typical form of exploitation in the 21st century: what the artist receives is an ‘opportunity’, but the one who demands their services is under no risk themselves. One would hope to expect more from a local government!
NOT TO NAME BUT TO EXPERIENCE
Back to the essence of circus. One sees that many circuses aim to call up a certain melancholy. That is something that is unavoidable with a circus tent: a colossus that evokes anything but the 21st century. The melancholy gives us the space to bathe in an illusory past. Perhaps even a past that never existed. Should we regret this? Is the attraction to and essence of the circus based on the fact that it always confronts us, one way or the other, with a feeling of what has past? Why are circus and melancholy, a certain sadness, so closely tied to one another? One thing is for sure: the circus is a place of extremes. Of emotions, thoughts and actions which seem to contradict one another.
During the conversation with Joppe Wouters, he uses the word – ‘magic’. For Wouters the essence of circus is difficult to capture in words. ‘Magic’ is the word that comes closest. “Circus is something you cannot name. It is something you have to experience.” Bold words to offer in a period where we are expected to name and understand everything. The circus as a place for ‘not-knowing’ or for ‘coming to know’ can serve as a powerful antidote for the organizing and planning-obsessed, late-capitalistic society we live in today.
The circus is intense, magical, creates a feeling of belonging, is financially a huge risk, and demands seriously hard labor. In all ways, the tent-circus is an impressive undertaking. All theories – economic, social and ecological – seem to argue against the survival of the tent-circus. And yet, it does not seem like it will be disappearing any time soon. What can it mean to the 21st century? To begin with, it can fulfill its oldest roll: to create a feeling of belonging and to provoke a state of ‘I don’t know’.