[This article was published in CircusMagazine #48 – September 2016]
[Author: Maarten Verhelst – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
What began in 2001 as a private French affair for ‘young’ talent, expanded quickly into a European project that set the tone for contemporary circus throughout the world. The name evolved together with that expansion: from Jeunes Talents Cirque to Jeunes Talents Cirque Europe (JTCE) to CircusNext. On the eve of a new period of accreditation we look back at the beginnings and forward into the future with a few people who have been involved with the organisation these past years. “We have to stop putting the focus on results. We need more experimentation… and more failures.”
Some very important doors swing wide open for you if you can add the title ‘CircusNext Laureate’ to your resumé. Festivals, cultural and art centres are no longer hermetically guarded strongholds, but accessible places begging you to enter. Directors, choreographers and dramaturges are biting at the bit to help you put the finishing touches on your creation. And those in power make a note of your name, and drop it at international congresses and cocktail parties. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but you get the picture.
CircusNext in a nutshell: An international jury makes a bi-annual selection from more than one hundred written applications, inviting some fifteen companies to come and give a live presentation of their projects during the selection week. Out of those fifteen propositions a handful are chosen as laureates, who can subsequently count on financial, productional and promotional support. In addition to a sum of money (which can be used, for example, to pay someone to come in as an outside eye on the work), the selected companies are also offered residencies at an assortment of European circus houses and the chance to show their work in progress on several occasions to the professional community. The gala ending to this whole process is a presentation by all the laureates in Paris: they perform their work in progress to an audience of artists, programmers and organisers from all over Europe.
Fourteen years of top-circus
Among the twelve laureates from the first edition in 2002 – in circus terms an eternity ago – there were companies whose names still resound today: Les Objets Volans, Camille Boitel, Ludor Citrik, Cie 14:20 (pioneers of new magic), and especially Baro d’Evel, who a few years later (in 2009) brought us one of the most gripping circus performances ever made: ‘Le Sort du Dedans’.
Already in the second edition of 2004, French companies were not the only ones to be selected. The British Ockham’s Razor and even the Flemish Cirq’ulation Locale were among the laureates. Bram Dobbelaere talks about that period: “We applied with the project ‘Who goes on?’. After being selected on the strength of our written application we were invited to show about 10 minutes of material and the selection which took place at the Académie Fratellini. After that we could come to the ‘finale’ in Paris, with seven other groups. The head of the jury was Alain Platel. We were one of three laureates, got money from the SACD and a tour of eight performances in Portugal. We also invited Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to that finale, and he subsequently agreed to work with us on the fine tuning of the performance.”
Certainly since 2006 there have been many laureates who spring to mind, artistic and international success stories: Race Horse Company (FI), Cie Defracto (FR), Ivan Mosjoukine (FR), Room 100 (HR), Cie Nuua (FI), Iona Kewney (UK), Oktobre (FR), Alexander Vantournhout & Bauke Lievens (B), Cie Ieto (FR), Cridacompany (FR), and Un Loup pour l’homme (FR) to name a few. If you look at the sort of circus they bring, you can likewise see several recurring elements: absurd and/or subtle humour, a dark and/or intimate atmosphere, not taking oneself too seriously, a focus on physical exhaustion and/or pushing the work with a particular object to its utmost, and a re-interpretation of the classic elements of circus. Can we conclude there is evidence here of a ‘European style’?
French dominance and Belgian challengers
What is also evident is the continuing dominance of France, in spite of the explicitly European character of the project. One sees it not only in the number of laureates (as an illustration: in the present edition five of the seven laureates are based in France), but also in the applications. Interesting figures from CircusNext show that of the 126 companies who applied for the 2015-2016 edition, 47 are French (good for 37 %). Of the 199 artists involved, 54 are French nationals (good for 27%).
But what do we see in the same figures? Belgium is, after France, the second most important circus country. Two of the seven laureates of 2015 are based in Belgium (Circus Katoen and Motchok. 14 of the 126 applications, (11%) come from Belgium; which gives us silver. And from the 199 artists, 14 are Belgian (7%). Only the Italians, (and of course the French) do better in that category.
Our own additional calculations show once again where our country (Belgium) stands. Since the official transition from a French to a European project in 2009, there have been four editions, good for 28 laureates. 14 of them have come from France. 4 have come from Belgium: BabaFish, Alexander Vantournhout & Bauke Lievens, Circus Katoen and Motchok. Once again that puts us in second place, in front of Finland (three laureates), the United Kingdom (two laureates) and countries like Croatia, Spain, Germany, Sweden and Ireland, that have each produced one laureate.
What can we conclude from these figures? France is still the Eddy Merckx of contemporary circus. But just as in theatre and dance, it’s tiny Belgium, with its divided cultural policy, that is offering the toughest competition. We are an emerging power in the financially under-funded European circus sector. The influence of a consequent circus administration (with structural funding) is clearly not to be underestimated.
Circus by circus makers
Back to CircusNext itself. Along with the support it offers to the laureates and the performance opportunities it provides, an essential aspect of the project is the bet that it places on circus makers. In French there is the beautiful term ‘auteurs de cirque’ (authors of circus). You don’t need a perfectly worked out act to be selected. On the contrary: it is all about the artistic vision and the potential of your project. “The ‘profile’ that embodies best CircusNext is that of a creator, an author, who creates personal and singular shows, who is a project and company leader, who has a deep reflection on his/her place as an artist in our society, on his/her circus/artistic language, on the evolution of circus and of the performing arts in general,” according to Cécile Provôt, current director of CircusNext.
In this, CircusNext radically differs from the rampant surge of competition formulas like Cirque de Demain, Monte Carlo, Young Stage,…that offer the winners money, fame and performance possibilities, but only with a focus on the classic circus act of seven minutes. It is to the credit of CircusNext that it wants to give chances to precisely those artists who wish to go further and colour outside the lines, and therefore need the time for research and experimentation. Relatively new to CircusNext are hereby the laboratories offered to artists who fall just short of the status of laureate, but in whose potential the jury still believes. They too are offered the necessary stimulus to continue their research.
Of course the picture is not an entirely rosy one. There do exist some negative aspects to a project like CircusNext. The public presentations in Paris are an important path to considerably expanding one’s network as an artist (and if you score in those presentations you’ll be guaranteed a whole range of performance possibilities), but the consequent importance of that moment creates an inordinate pressure to succeed; the last thing you need when you are in the middle of a creation process. Julie Descamps, part of the team at Circuscentrum and member of the jury of CircusNext, puts it this way: “A bit of pressure is healthy, but when they are presenting 20 minutes in Paris in front of what amounts to the entire sector, then you can reassure laureates all you want to ‘Stay calm, it is only about a work in progress’, but of course you know yourself that it’s about much more than that.”
And above all: the presentations as a final cadence to CircusNext put the emphasis very much on the result rather than the process. Bauke Lievens, laureate in 2014 together with Alexander Vantournhout: “The public presentations seem to be highly focused on diffusion and programmers, and less on the needs of the artists and the specific demands of each artistic process. To my mind, CircusNext is generally too focused on the result and too little on facilitating and lending structure to the creative process. The ease with which a production can tour, and its ‘sell-ability’ seem to be the primary criteria. That is contradictory for a platform which explicitly claims to be all about the creative process.”
The process of creating a new piece of work is unpredictable: Sometimes everything goes just as you dreamed it would and you just race ahead, sometimes you lose a wheel and virtually have to start again from zero. If you then find yourself in a framework where different international observers are following your every move, and the presentation of your work to the general public is looming as a ‘grand finale’, you will have to be someone who gets on very well with stress and possesses some real self-confidence to thrive under those conditions. It is more and more common for circus companies not to set a date for the premiere, precisely in order to maintain the freedom to come out in public with new work only once it is truly ready. It may not be very convenient for cultural houses and festivals who like to confirm their programs a year in advance (as well as lining up a premiere or two in that program), but it is an essential step for the sake of creativity.
It is time for a thorough analysis of one of the most important European circus projects in recent years, and that’s also the intention. This coming season (2016-2017) there will not be a call for new projects, but rather a ‘European Season of Circus Arts’, in which performances from various laureates will be shown in several different countries. Simultaneous to that event, a period of major reflection will occur upon the new accreditation period which, if all goes according to plan, will start in 2018. Cécile Provôt: “One lead is to apply to the European Commission’s Platform program in order to showcase newly identified emerging authors across the European territory and to support them in their careers’ internationalization. Another lead is to deepen our support to artistic research and laboratories, our European cooperation and concerted support scheme to creation, and our companionship all the way to the show creations.”
For Bauke Lievens it is very clear: “In the future, CircusNext has to focus less on the result, and rather try to raise awareness of the fact that artistic creation is a process, in which success and failure are inherent. That can happen through debates, workshops – also for those who are selected – and through additional support. Placing the emphasis on the process will open the door wider for experimentation, failure and research. And the resulting performances will in the end be more innovative than what we are getting now in the present system.”
It’s crucial to continue to put the artist in the centre of the discussion. Julie Descamps: “Without artists, no CircusNext, no Circuscentrum, no festivals. It’s the artists who will determine the direction that circus will take. An organisation like CircusNext has to search together with them for the best ways to offer support, and which deficiencies in the sector need to be addressed. We can and must challenge and stimulate the artists, but in the end it’s they who create the work.”
How was your experience with CircusNext?
“In hindsight, the many twenty-minute presentations were very productive in our creative process. It was through those presentations that we came in contact with many interesting programmers, and it was partially thanks to their feedback that we could continually improve the shape of the performance. For instance, it was in Great Yarmouth (UK) that we first tried out our false ending, and the audience remained in their seats for almost an hour after the performance. From that experience we could quickly conclude the things that had to change or improve. The downside: although there was respect for artistic sensitivity, it was almost impossible to reflect the evolution of our working process on paper. That whole aspect was very bogged down. For example, Bauke (Lievens) couldn’t be credited as co-author of the piece, because I had made the initial application myself. In dance or theatre it is not unusual that a collective begins with a creation without knowing if it will finally become a solo, duet or quartet. Equally which role will finally go to whom, is often unclear during the creative process.”
In your opinion, how must CircusNext evolve?
“Perhaps in the future CircusNext can concentrate less on diffusion. Just as in ‘zen archery’, where one begins with the idea that ‘the more doggedly you try to shoot a bullseye – for the sake of hitting the goal– the less chance you have of succeeding.’ I think that the laboratories offered, the three-to-five day workshops, can be further developed. For instance, we could have a laboratory around longevity, mobility and movement awareness. It might be a way of reducing the attrition rate among talented circus artists, many of whom have to end their careers much too early due to injuries.”
How does one make a fantastic performance? Which do’s and don’ts would you pass on to young makers?
“Don’t be afraid to be the weirdo in your circus school, your collective, your society, … Therein lies the power of circus. Sometimes I ask myself while teaching a class: what if a circus artist were to take on another object as main discipline from the very first day (for instance a stick, spoon or toothpick)? That would be an example of a weirdo among those who practice our art. Having said that: in art there are no rules, so above all, do your own thing.”
Which direction circus as an art form should be heading?
“More and more attention is given to the adapting of tricks or other elements in function of the performance itself. I like to call this trend ‘focus on circography’. Too often we see tricks being copied or a repertoire of existing tricks thrown together and stuffed into a different wrapping. Sometimes we forget that a trick, which has been well thought out, already comes with a lot of information, is expressive in itself and can be an intellectual or political action. It makes me think of Philip Petit for example, who at one point walked the tight wire between the Twin Towers. I would also like to encourage critics to master the particularities of circus vocabulary. In announcements, reports and reviews one must not speak only of the dramaturgy or the theatrical capabilities of the performers, but also describe more precisely the circus techniques themselves, since in the end it is that which gives circus its true colour.”
What, in your opinion, is the value of CircusNext in the European circus scene?
“CircusNext presents a great programme for developing contemporary circus arts in Europe by having a huge platform of most important institutions/spaces/people working together for quite some years now on making contemporary circus arts a strong and recognized performing art. Circus Next brings contemporary circus to not-developed-circus-countries, gives great visibility to young circus artists and their creations and built a great network in circus sector. For young artists, CircusNext gives them everything they need to finish their creations and present them to the audience – artistic, technical, financial and administrative help. It gives them visibility that insures future life for new performances.”
How did you experience CircusNext yourself? What specific benefits did it bring for you? And what were the negative aspects or outcomes?
“We said it before and we would repeat ourselves: CircusNext (JTCE in our time) was a life changer for ROOM 100. Being selected as CircusNext laureate with such a great reviews from jury members, audience and critics, allowed us to be full time circus artists, to do what we love as work and to live from it. In that time, being a laureate gave us the opportunity to work on our creation and finish it in peace, not being worried about financial aspects. It gave us time and financial freedom to fully dedicate ourselves to the creation. After our premiere in Paris in 2011, we continued performing in Europe and USA. It was six years ago – now we run a residency center in Split, Croatia (first of its kind in Ex Yugoslavia), we host international circus artists and present their works here, we organize workshops and run other projects to develop circus arts in Croatia. We are also finishing our third production in November 2016. For us, there is not a single negative aspect or outcome of JTCE or CircusNext.”
How should CircusNext evolve in the future? What changes should it make? And why?
“Having both experiences in CircusNext as laureate artists and co-president of the jury in 2013-2014, I believe CircusNext should be even more open-minded to young artists. I believe it is enormously difficult to judge performing projects only by written applications in the first round. Not all artists are good in administration stuff – writing about their projects and explaining what and why they would like to create a piece – and although they are obliged to submit a video, usually videos present different stages of creating performing materials… So I believe it would be crucial to give more opportunities to wider number of artists to present their work-in-progress on the stage and in front of the jury members. Also, I believe jury members should take bigger risks in choosing artists that are coming from non-developed-circus-countries as I believe there is a great deal of innovative approach, performing technique and circus thinking among those without formal education, those who don’t come from a structured and developed circus sector. I think those artists, while given a right chance, can bring lots to contemporary circus arts in Europe.”
How do you make a great performance? Which do’s and don’ts would you recommend to young circus authors?
“We would like to recommend to young circus authors to create performances that they can defend and they are strongly behind it. Lots of time, we experienced a situation where an artist/author cannot explain to the spectator what they were trying to present on stage, what it is about, what were their goals while creating… It’s not easy to create an intimate or spiritual performance. Mostly they are done by those who have experienced it on their own skin and those who know what they are talking about on the stage. It’s hard to fake it on the stage and when there is no reason to do it. Not all artists/authors are talented to create those kind of performances and that is just fine. If you would like to present your technical abilities and performing ideas and you don’t have a deep or touching story behind it, just do it like that. It is much more honest and mature then faking that there is a great philosophical thesis behind it. That kind of performances remain vague and shallow. Intimate or touching stories will come from life itself.
Also, as we see lots of groups splitting up (even from CircusNext laureates), it is crucial to surround yourself with good, honest and true-blue people.”
Circus is evolving quite fast. Which trends do you see? What crucial steps the circus sector still has to make in order to become a stronger art form?
“In the last several years, circus arts are being under a great influence of technology evolving in high speed. There are lots of groups and performances mixing new technologies in their work.
For me, coming and living in Croatia, it is hard to speak about the European circus scene and what steps should be taken in order to become a stronger art form. The situation in Croatia is so different than in Western Europe and Scandinavia so I don’t feel competent enough to talk about the situation in circus-developed-countries.
For Croatia a crucial thing that should be done is the recognition of circus arts as a genre of performing arts by the Croatian Ministry of Culture. That would lead to an opening of new fundings for circus arts, residency spaces, new performances, workshops… Another thing is formal education. At this moment there is not any kind of formal education in Croatia, so having either secondary and vocational or higher education (recognized by our Ministry of Education, Science and Sports) would be a great deal. In those conditions, when circus arts are a professional occupation, there are opportunities for artists and the audience, circus art would become a strong art form.”