[This article was published in CircusMagazine #48 – September 2016]
[Author: Bauke Lievens – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
This past June, ‘Forever, happily…’, the new creation of the Flemish Collectif Malunés, went into avant-première at the PERPLX festival in Marke. Over the last years the company has toured nationally and internationally with their street performance ‘Sens Dessus Dessous’ (2009). After six years in good company the Malunés decided it was time for a new adventure.
Four new artists joined the original collective, while Vincent Bruyninckx went to study at the École Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (ESAC). Collectif Malunés 2.0 (Arne Sabbe, Simon Bruyninckx, Juliette Correa, Luke Horley, Nickolas Vancorven, Lola Devout-Sierra and Gabriel Larés) shared a dream to become a nomadic circus collective, and bought their own circus tent to make that dream come true.
From Andersen to Grimm to Disney: with ‘Happily, Forever’ the Malunés throw it all in the mixer and serve us up their own contrary fairytale under the big top of their brand new tent.
How did Collectif Malunés begin?
Simon Bruyninckx: “We met each other at ACaPA (Academy for Circus And Performance Art in the Netherlands, red). We weren’t all in the same class, but each of us spent some time there. At one point we said to each another: ‘One day we will buy a tent together!’ Then we dug a hole. Each of us threw some sand in the hole…”
Arne Sabbe: “No, we put all those handfuls of sand in a little bowl and took it with us. We said then, all together…”
Juliette Correa: “One day!”
Do you still have that bowl of sand?
Bruyninckx: (giggling) “No.”
Sabbe: (sarcastically) “Maybe we should put some ground from Marke in a jar.”
How was the transition from an existing collective to a new one, with the same name, but with four new members?
Bruyninckx: “That was very strange. We actually invited people into our existing collective and we presented that transition as a collective where everyone would have equal status. But it never really worked like that. It’s very difficult to make decisions with seven people.”
Was the creation of ‘Sens Dessus Dessous’ a collective one? And did you live all together in caravans for that one as well?
Bruyninckx: That creative process was collective, but the collective living arrangement only happened after the performance was made.”
That, I gather, was not the situation now. During the making of ‘Happily, Forever’ you were already living in some seven caravans encircling the tent. Did you notice a difference in how the creation process went the second time around?
Sabbe: “I found it more difficult. There were so many things we didn’t know: the tent, how to live together, how to be together on stage…. We made ‘Sens Dessus Dessous’ in one week. That performance grew by touring it and by re-creating it together with Jan Daems. We were still in school, it was a light-hearted adventure. Now we really do live together and that is super-intense. From one day to the next we have a tent. And then it all starts.”
Bruyninckx: “And there’s no going back.”
Correa: “It was a dream come true, but also, and especially, a dream we had to turn into a reality. Into a daily reality. First off, that meant taking the step of really getting to know each other and finding a place for everyone in the final piece. Learning how to communicate with each other. And above all: not letting the enormous weight of production concerns get us down as a group. The time you have for being artistically creative is seriously reduced once you are on the road with a tent. That was truly a crisis which put our belief in a happy ending to the test.”
Could you say that ‘Sens Dessus Dessous’ just happened and that your vision on the work developed after the fact, whereas now you had formulated a dream to begin with, and had to work incredibly hard to try to make that dream a reality?
Sabbe: “Yes, you could say that.”
Bruyninckx: “For me there was also a plan in the very beginning. With ‘Sens Dessus Dessous’ we wanted to make a performance we could tour in our free time. But even then our dream was actually very ambitious for where we were and who we were at the time. Especially in terms of production. And this time we found ourselves in exactly the same dynamic. We didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we did know we wanted a tent.”
That’s remarkable: the first step was not artistic. It was more about the desire for a place (a tent), and only then about the idea of what to do inside of it.
Bruyninckx: “Yes, exactly.”
Correa: “But the idea of fairytales didn’t come ‘just like that’. Luke and I had laid down the basis for that in our last year at school. Even if it took a while for us to realise that in the course of the creative process.”
What is a collective for you? Is it in the first place a way of life? A collaborative working arrangement? An artistic choice? And how do all those areas eventually affect one another?
Bruyninckx: “For me it’s a way of life. The performance is only part of that. It’s about living together, solving problems together, supporting each other in areas where you know nothing. That doesn’t mean you decide everything together. But I know the others trust me in what I’m good at. And that’s the collective for me: trusting each other in your respective territories. A collective is not about sitting around a table all day discussing every little decision. That said, artistically everyone has to be in agreement about the direction that you’re going.”
Why do you all find the collective so important?
Bruyninckx: “Because I believe you get further as a group than if you stand alone.”
Isn’t society also a group? What would you say is the difference?
Bruyninckx: “I don’t actually think our society is a group, but rather an collection of individuals. And that’s why it is so valuable to work together.”
Correa: “Everyone is so different and that diversity is a treasure. To come in contact with other ways of thinking and to learn to understand them. I find it important to show those differences on stage. Even when we are united around a common theme – an exhaustive research into the position of women in fairytales – finding an artistic form in which different interpretations have their place, for me that’s beautiful.”
Do you always have to agree with one another in a collective?
Sabbe: “Yes, but what we’ve experienced is the same thing that they seem to be concluding in the European Parliament: in search of a consensus, sometimes a portion of the tougher decisions have to be made by a smaller group within the larger one. Let’s call it the core. At first we didn’t want to accept that. But it comes down to what Simon just said: in a collective you have to learn to delegate and to trust each other.”
Is everyone equal in your democracy? Does everyone have as much say in the decision-making?
Sabbe: “In theory yes. But of course, if…”
Bruyninckx: “That’s not true, we all have the same power once something is being proposed, but…”
Correa: “But even there, it’s not the case. At a certain moment in the creative process I started to gather material and took a more central roll in the decision-making. The creation was collective in the sense that everyone contributed, but every opinion didn’t carry the same weight in the final decision.
In the end isn’t democracy learning to live together with different opinions rather than moving all together towards one and the same opinion?
Sabbe: “We must constantly strive for a situation in which everyone is equal, while at the same accepting that’s not possible. You have to be willing to compromise, but even that’s not always possible. Sometimes you just have to shut up.”
Cie Ea Eo once said in CircusMagazine that it is about micro-politics. You learn to influence and manipulate people to get them on your side.
Sabbe: “Yes, it’s actually true. (to Simon) I know you don’t listen to me, so I try to influence you via Juliette. But that’s human, that’s how it always goes. And we also say those things to each other.”
Bruyninckx: “Yeah… now! I am in shock.” (laughs)
Correa: “We live together, so naturally we have our share of power struggles. And there is sometimes resistance to certain dynamics. There are also those moments when you are confronted by your ego, or the ego of others.”
How did that influence the creative process?
Correa: “It meant we got lost a lot. We spent a long long time focusing on training and circus technique, while we couldn’t find a method, a common way of working. Luckily the director (Dominique Betenfeld, red) helped us a lot with that. And also Esse (Vanderbruggen, red) was important as an outside eye to help us realise what we were actually doing. When they weren’t there, we often got lost and our improvisations didn’t amount to much. Then I would step outside to watch.”
Isn’t that a contradiction: in order to artistically function as a collective, you need someone on the outside to ‘lead’ the collective?
Sabbe: “To form a collective is also to search for how the collective can function. And sometimes yes, that does imply the need for someone who is ‘neutral’. But Dominique doesn’t lead us, he accompanies us.”
Bruyninckx: “I think that we are still looking for how the collective works. The six months of our creation process were too short for that. It was not only the creation of the performance but the creation process of the collective.”
You have an artistic work method and a daily order of business as a collective. At the end of the day are those not one and the same thing?
Sabbe: “They are not the same thing, but they have a lot in common. In each there are certain rules you need to respect. And you need to trust in each other.”
Are the criteria from which those rules develop of a human or an artistic nature?
Sabbe: “Don’t the two go together?”
Bruyninckx: “Yes, but not completely… The fact that the two lie so close to each other, was often a problem during the creation. People often took things too personally.”
Correa: “You really have to learn to trust each other and that’s not easy. We also had completely different vocabularies. Literally. When for example someone used the word ‘aesthetic’, that could mean so many different things just because we had never worked together before. And then you get scared, because ‘aesthetic’ to you is not something positive. Without the same vocabulary it is very difficult to put into words what you see in your head. Or to understand what the other is trying to say.”
Can you tell me a bit more about the work method of ‘Happily, Forever’?
Bruyninckx: “During the creative process we had a lot of different methods. But up until April we weren’t really aware of it. People kept bringing up the issue, but I didn’t understand what they were talking about.”
Correa: “When Nico got injured, something opened up.”
Sabbe: “There was a moment we started to listen to each other.”
Bruyninckx: “At a certain point Juliette began to collect ideas, out of which she made her own concoction.”
Correa: “And from that we distilled some rules and limitations we imposed on ourselves: ‘there have to be two Red Riding Hoods, there is one narrator, the narrator changes…’ ”
How did you decide if a certain kind of material was ‘good’?
Bruyninckx: “I think in your head you have an image of the performance and certain improvisations seem to fit that image. Not only aesthetically, but also in terms of content. You feel like a certain sort of material takes the play forward.”
Did it ever happen that you found a scene to be a good, only later to scrap it?
Sabbe: “Yes, that happened a lot. Finding back the spark you felt when you saw or played the scene the first time, is really not easy. Certain ideas also lose their punch as time goes by.”
Bruyninckx: “I think it’s more that the performance you see in your head has changed. And you get better at distinguishing between what is really essential and what is just noise.”
Correa: “Sometimes you get stuck in a series of images and ideas that’s very rich, but at the same time a rather arbitrary mishmash of material.”
Does that have to do with the fact that fairytales, at least in our collective imagination, are made up of a parade of iconic images and archetypes?
Bruyninckx: “That really helped us in the creative process and that is to some extent what we did. But for me there is a certain relationship between those images: we don’t believe in fairytales. That’s what it’s about for me.”
Is a collective also a kind of fairytale?
Bruyninckx: “There is no such thing as ‘the’ collective. It is not a word in the dictionary with a general definition. You have to search for your own definition, and that definition changes all the time, along with the people who make up ‘your’ collective.”