[This article was published in CircusMagazine #46 – March 2016]
[Author: Bauke Lievens – Translation: Craig Weston – Pictures: Geert Roels]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Sébastien Wojdan is part of the loose collective Galapiat Cirque, whose roots are in Brittany. Their trademark is a mix of traditional circus and a quirky sampling of elements from ’60’s and ’70’s performance art. Shows like ‘Risque Zéro’ (2008), the hair-hanging duo ‘Capilotractées’ (2014) and ‘Marathon’ (2013) share as theme the limits of physical endurance and introduce the aspect of time as an element against which the circus body can be measured. Equally, Galapiat’s attempts to unite art with life resonate with the world of performance art. Galapiat stands for hardcore circus technique, but a technique stripped of the glitter and sequins we associate with purely traditional circus.
Compagnie Galapiat: a circus-collective
In 2008 Wojdan, now 35, was one of six newly graduated artists who together under the name Compagnie Galapiat created the much loved tent performance ‘Risque Zéro’. How did that collective creation ensue ? Wojdan: “We set out to write ‘Risque Zéro’ together, but a year into the process we could no longer stand each other. Everyone wanted to do everything, and that’s of course rather difficult. Finally we invited a director (Gilles Cailloux of Attention Fragile, n.v.d.r.) who came in and calmed us down. He redistributed the roles. And that was as much the strength as the weakness of ‘Risque Zéro’: it was seven shows in one. Yet, in the end, we did manage to write a story, together.”
In Flanders our artists ‘make’ performances, while French circus companies ‘write’ them. That is undoubtably an inheritance from the French theatre tradition, inextricable from great theatre writers like Molière and Racine. Their views on theatre continue to leave a trace in every branch of the (French) performing arts to this day. I hear you wondering, what role could ‘writing’ possibly have in the context of circus creation. Wojdan calls the writing process of ‘Risque Zéro’ a totally empirical affair: “We shared almost seven years of practice during our education [Centre National des Arts du Cirque in France, n.v.d.r. ] During that time we created a lot of material and that is the material with which we began. ‘Risque Zéro’ resembles a graduation performance — each of us got our solo-moment. Also the central theme of ‘risk’, our respective techniques and the reality of a group of people all contribute to that feeling. The performance was finally a scenic translation of our everyday dynamics and relationships.” By the same token, the performance became not only a reflection but also a projection of their daily collective reality.
After ten years of collective circus life, tent, caravans and lorries included, the creation of ‘Marathon’ was a solo adventure. What’s more, the working process was fed by years of juggling practice, also solo. “In life we are equally alone and together with others. I love both states of being. But the creation of ‘Marathon’ was incredible. I felt very free. In a collective one is obliged to make compromises along the way, you can be much more radical when you are working alone. It’s hard for me to explain, but ‘Marathon’ is an attempt to treat or to digest something very personal that happened to me long ago. Some people feel that. For me it was at any rate an exorcism of my personal little devils. How I could bring them to the surface, and transform them.”
This was also something new: if ‘Risque Zéro’ celebrated the exceptional physical and technical abilities of six circus performers, then ‘Marathon’ became a lonely act of attrition at a dizzying tempo, as well as an attempt to translate a personal quest to the circus ring. Wojdan himself calls it “a sort of hyperactivity; “as if you stick your head underwater for an hour and twenty minutes and then suddenly come up for breath.” ‘Marathon’‘s multitude of circus techniques (knife throwing, juggling, tightrope walking and object manipulation) and the classic number structure of the tricks that emerge, seems at first glance to jar with the idea of a search for personal demons.
Or perhaps technique and the accompanying image of a superman don’t stand contrary to the attempt to show the man behind the trick? At least not according to Wojdan: “When I do something technical on stage, that puts me in a hyper-fragile place. A place I find very interesting. In ‘Marathon‘ there are about one hundred tricks that could each go wrong. I could fail one hundred times. Be clumsy one hundred times. Even if I am trying each time to succeed.” The focus on the tension between failure and success is also relevant in the wider context of “a society where we are obliged to succeed. The message of ‘Marathon’ is completely the contrary: it is not because something doesn’t succeed that you don’t move forward.” Both the creation process and the resulting performance were attempts by him to ‘move forward’. Each are part of a process wherein a boy grows up, and “continues to repeat the same gestures and routines with different toys or objects, in the hope of coming up with something new.” It is the repetition time and again of the same actions that begins to transform both the objects and the boy. In other words, the circus ring of ‘Marathon’ is a battlefield for the striving man. Or this: “Circus is for us an arena in which we are the gladiators.”
But what can it mean if a solo artist or a circus collective places the focus on human ability? “When, as a circus artist, you succeed in something, when the trick works, that is very gratifying. It confirms your sense of worth. It valorizes. For the artist, art is first and foremost a form of therapy. Discovering circus did me a lot of good, at any rate. I think that many people get involved in circus in order to fill a personal void.” Paradoxically enough, the choice for an accelerating sequence of (seemingly) dangerous circus acts is a means for him to get closer to that same personal void, and come back to himself; “Sometimes I’m sad and I have a hard time hiding that when I am on stage. I would love to be free of that constraint. I would love not to think at all when I play and just be in the action. With the breakneck speed of ‘Marathon’ I can say to myself: just do what you have to do. Don’t play anything. Just throw your knife and continue, faster and faster.”
Autobiography: practice or performance?
A blurring of the lines between practice and performance is a phenomenon that continues to recur in contemporary circus creation. Because most circus authors are also circus artists, the personal value and individual pleasure one gets from practicing circus technique often becomes part of the artistic criteria one refers to during the creation process of a performance. It is an interesting tension which over the past years has brought a quality of autobiography to contemporary circus creation, and trend which ‘Marathon’ is clearly indebted to. At the same time, that tension can cause the dramaturgy of the performer (that which the artist experiences in one scene or another, and what those experiences mean to him) to be confused from time to time with the dramaturgy of the performance (the way that material is organized and arranged in order to make the experience and/or meaning readable to the spectator). ‘Marathon’ also shows the symptoms of that confusion. In a seemingly random, exponential sequence of all kinds of different circus techniques, where the pleasure in the performing is exclusive to the performer himself, the experience for the spectator is limited to witnessing a game of danger and virtuosity. The question then arises if circus technique is even capable of communicating anything beyond that virtuosity and (to a greater or lesser degree) the tradition of circus itself.
Wojdan himself wonders, after three years of touring ‘Marathon’, what circus can do beyond putting its technique in the spotlight. “What you stand for has everything to do with the environment in which you are standing. When I had just graduated from circus school I found it important to defend the things I did as circus. And, as a logical second step, to defend circus as art. Today I am not so sure those ideas are still so relevant to me. I have also stopped juggling. Now I find myself wondering just what it is I want to say, rather than immediately thinking in terms of the form things will take.” ‘Marathon’ is the story of what was, or what has been; as much the telling of a personal past as an artistic process of growth. “Now I am ready for the next step. It is not yet official, but I would love to make ‘Marathon 2’: from the present to the future and fantasy.” We already look forward to the sequel.