Twenty years after Circus Ronaldo was appointed a Cultural Ambassador for Flanders, Danny Ronaldo (49), the present artistic leader of Ronaldo, has received the highest honour to be had in Flanders, the Ultima for Circus. ‘My confidence can easily waver, so I see this prize as proof that my work means something to this world.’
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #58 – March 2019 // Author: Catherine Vuylsteke // Picture: Alexander Popelier // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
For decennia in Flanders and abroad, there’s no end to the superlatives when it comes to anything that’s been written about Danny Ronaldo. A few may remember him as August Patatje but many more will look back with nostalgia to Fili (1999), La Cucina dell’Arte (2002) or Circenses (2009). Perhaps they remember Amortale (2014), where new life was breathed into the traditional puppet theatre, or the unsurpassed Fidelis Fortibus, the first circus performance ever to be nominated for the Theaterfestival, in the summer of 2016.
‘As a creative artist Danny is one of the circus’ great architects. He manages to reinvent himself time and again, continues to grow while remaining ever himself. Most recently he’s taken a brand new generation of circus artists under his wing.’ It was with these words that the jury justified their decision this year to award the highest cultural prize in Flanders to Danny Ronaldo. Not only to him: Circus Ronaldo, by now into its seventh generation, was also explicitly mentioned, for its determining contribution to the reputation of Flemish circus. ‘Circus Ronaldo is a flagship… it has brought circus and theatre together into one harmonious art-form, creating a new space wherever it builds up its tent.’
For 48 years now Circus Ronaldo, father Johnny, mother Maria and their children Danny and David have crisscrossed Belgium, Europe and the world. They have reinvented themselves: a small family circus transformed into an innovative company which brings a varying combination of clowning, acrobatics, puppetry and commedia dell’arte to each new performance. Meanwhile Danny’s son Nanosh is starting to develop his own reputation, garnering positive reactions to the premiere last year of his first creation, SWING. The sweltering heat inside the tent couldn’t seem to quash the audience’ delight with the new production. Danny is presently working on a duo performance with his second son, Pepijn, based on their father-son relationship. To be recognised with an Ultima for Circus is an enormous honour, but what does a prize like that mean to a man like Danny Ronaldo? “My confidence can easily waver,” he says. “I take myself and the other members of the company into account, but also the public. And that impulse can create a lot of insecurity. This prize is a confirmation that my work has been recognised, and that it means something to this world.”
“In every discipline you have artists who place no importance whatsoever on the impact their work may have on the public. They do what they must, are moved from within. I respect that, but it doesn’t work for me. I absolutely need my audience, and in that I agree whole-heartedly with Bertold Brecht. He said that to have an ingenious theatre performance you not only needed exceptional actors and a brilliant director, but an equally excellent audience. Without them it won’t work.”
“On the other hand: this kind of prize is sort of dated. I believe that as a society we are more and more conscious of the fact that whatever we achieve is always thanks to one form of collaboration or another. That everyone contributes. Things can only work in the right place, with the right people and the right moment. Each of those ingredients is equally important.”
The Ultima includes a sum of 10,000 euros. How will you spend the money?
“That won’t be difficult: there’s never enough money. Traveling with a circus is more than just a simple idea: the fact is we are a cultural centre and a company rolled into one. A circus has its own performance space, and that brings all kinds of extra costs along with it. Just consider the upkeep of the trucks, the tent and the caravans. The real costs of a production are never covered with funding for a particular project. There is always so much more on top of that. The reality is you never have the money you actually need.”
Imagine they would leave it to you to decide on the next winner of the Ultima for Circus. Who would you choose?
“I’m happy I don’t have to make that choice. There is so much going on in our country. From young talented artists who more than deserve the encouragement to companies who sometimes are less well known in Flanders but have quite a reputation beyond our borders.”
On your website you express the opinion that the biggest threat to the circus is that its funding is from project to project rather than structural. That a performance can no longer take form in an organic way. It must please you to see that a form of structural funding is now on the way.
“I do see that the government is searching for possibilities and I get the impression that there is an evolution, but we have a long way to go. It wasn’t until 1978 that circus was even recognised as an art-form, while theatre has always had that status. Nobody can tell you how that actually happened. Some people blame such a late recognition on the fact that circus is a young discipline, but that’s an absurd argument. Circus is one of the oldest art-forms, and in the past we had several world-famous masters here in Flanders. Often they enjoyed more success internationally than they did here in Flanders, because there were more opportunities abroad.
That international appreciation is very important: take for example my solo production Fidelis Fortibus, which in Barcelona was declared the best performance of 2017. Something like that doesn’t go unnoticed, and it certainly contributed to me winning this prize now.
Lack of recognition meant that the circus was forced for a long time into a particular role, companies had to do anything they could just to survive, it was a combination of carnival and commerce. And the commerce side of the equation has left its negative mark. You could ask yourself which came first: did the circus go commercial because there was no funding to be had, or was there no funding because the circus was a commercial model?”
Why was it so difficult for the circus to be recognised as a form of culture?
“The biggest problem is that there are a lot of very bad circus shows in this world. But the same could be said of theatre. The point is that circus is very fragile, the magic and the melancholy can easily be broken. True poetry is very breakable. Add to that the audience for so-called ‘high culture’ is in search of intellectual things, content, whereas circus is all about emotional intelligence. The content is in the tiny details, the ‘meaning’ is often the circus itself, not something you can read about in the program. As a result, younger companies often search for themes they can treat, they want to draw attention to the meaning of their work, but that is not always an improvement, and sometimes turns out to be an empty exercise.”
You yourself have gone through quite an evolution, were you ever afraid you would lose your audience along the way?
“When we were 16 or 17 years old my brother and I watched the circus going more and more commercial. Colourful, washable and child-friendly, in the genre of Bassie and Adriaan (famous Dutch tv-clowns in the 1980’s and 90’s, red.). At the same time we heard our parents’ stories of the things their grandparents did, a mix of circus and commedia dell’arte. That was true and authentic. So together we chose to travel our own path, as far away as possible from all the kitsch. The only problem was, we still had a tent to fill, which sometimes led to a head-on confrontation with our audience. Luckily for us there was Frans Brood Productions, who explained it was time to broaden our horizons and bring our work to the festivals, where there was an audience not the slightest bit interested in clowns with red noses but hungry for the kind of things we were making.
Of course commerce has far from disappeared. Recently I took my grandchild to Disney on Ice and got a real dose of it. It makes you restless. It’s incredible how they stimulate the need to buy things, how they abuse children’s sensitivity to earn a lot of money. I find it strange that this still exists, that as a standard family you can only be considered officially happy if you go to events like these on a regular basis.”
ESAC in Brussels is one of the best known circus schools in the world. Does that have an influence on the quality of the circus that is created here?
“Yes, and no. When I was young, there weren’t any schools. You had to find your own way, and it wasn’t easy. That said, the situation spawned a certain obsessional quality in those who went ahead and chose that path. There was a lot of integrity in their attempts to learn things, to become someone. I acknowledge without question the huge value of a school like ESAC. Their teaching programs make circus a much clearer choice and you learn a lot more about your possibilities. And there are more people choosing for the circus today. At the same time, every school has a certain style, you can see which school a performer comes from, it’s the stamp of a certain method.
What I notice is that the schools are all fixated on the body and physical training, while aspects like theatricality and play are much less important. If I listen to the stories of young people who have suffered heavy injuries that will hinder them for years to come, I ask myself if that concentration on the body is such a good thing. My son decided to follow a theatre course after high-school, and I do believe by doing so he will open other doors, and be offered new chances.”
Globalisation has brought with it the internationalisation of the circus and with it all sorts of new possibilities. How do you experience that trend?
“It’s not always an advantage. The fact that communication has become so fast and easy, means it’s no problem to arrange things with folks on the other side of the world, but it also means that the huge increase of communication has brought with it a lot of useless bureaucracy that often gets in the way of being an artist. That’s certainly the case for young groups that don’t have the means to hire someone to do their administration for them. An example. When we went to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, for ten performances in 1996, it was all arranged with 5 or 6 faxes. Today, for a standard performance in any of our neighbouring countries, or even here in Flanders, there are anything from 40 to 80 emails necessary before the event can take place. In the old days there was a confidence in the magic and the ability of a company to make things happen. Today everything has to be settled in advance.
There’s a similar evolution with the public as well. The most beautiful thing about an audience is their empathy and their curiosity, but now you see people checking Facebook ahead of time to find out what other people thought about the performance they are going to see. They want to see a trailer, to know ahead of time what they’ll be seeing and what it’s about. If they don’t consider the theme to be interesting, they won’t go to see it. But it doesn’t work that way. Because it’s all about having faith in the magic, and letting yourself be surprised.”
On the other hand these days you are often confronted as spectator or visitor by work of which you understand nothing if you haven’t done your research beforehand.
“That’s true, but that kind of work doesn’t interest me in the least. Neither circus nor art in general are about understanding. They are about feeling. Making a connection. If I have to study at length in order for that connection to be possible, then that’s not for me. I think that the new possibilities available to us the last few years have put us completely out of balance. We don’t understand yet how to use them. But we’re learning. I believe that the pendulum will swing back and we’ll find our balance. Or at least, I hope so.”