[This article was published in CircusMagazine #38 – March 2014]
[Author: Brecht Hermans – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
The biggest artists come from humble beginnings. Born in Roeselare, in 1989, still the middle of nowhere in circus-land, Alexander Vantournhout taught himself to juggle. Not out of a passion for the art, but simply because he needed a hobby after his gymnastics club went bankrupt. The auto-didactic juggler would ten years later grow up to be a specialist in the single wheel with a singular vision of circus. But let us begin at the beginning.
At twelve years old you taught yourself how to juggle. How did you do it?
Alexander Vantournhout: “With videos, as there was no circus school in Roeselare in those days. I had to do it with videos and books that my father and I would go and buy once a year in Antwerp. Only when I was fifteen was a circus school started up in Roeselare. I could immediately give lessons there, which was a nice development.”
So you actually began circus as a hobby. At what moment did it become more than that?
“When I was sixteen I got a sort of scholarship, some support to make a street-show. Eva Kahan and Matthias Vermael from Circusplaneet co-directed the piece. That was a fifteen-twenty minute solo on the street. But then I felt it: this is what I want to do. A year later I was in the same festival as Dirk van Boxelaere, probably the first Belgian circus artist. I went up to him and asked him if he would help me with my next show. He said he would, and that became the performance ‘Tournée’. I couldn’t play it that many times because I got injured, but it was a very rich creative process. That was pretty much my first contact with professional circus. I rolled into it in a very natural way.”
Not bad, making your first performance at eighteen.
“For sure, but I have always been very radical. If I want something, I go for it two hundred percent. That was also the case at the time.”
A bit later you started school at ESAC. How did you prepare yourself for that?
“Before the entrance exams I started doing gymnastics again and I followed dance lessons. In that period I also had a lot of lessons from Hans Vanwynsberghe. He is a very intelligent juggler, who is even a bio-engineer. In the beginning he influenced me a lot. But four months before ESAC I decided I didn’t want to juggle. I didn’t find the clubs to be very interesting objects. So I chose for the single wheel.
Is that possible, to start at ESAC in a discipline you hardly know?
“Indeed, I began with the wheel at ESAC with very little knowledge. But since I had done a lot of sports as a kid, I was in good physical condition. I could work a long time, so I quickly made progress. That was probably my biggest quality going into my entrance exam.”
So you specialised in one discipline. Do you experience that as a limitation or is that focus essential if you want to excel in something?
“I actually always tried to do many things. So at ESAC along with the wheel I also studied juggling once a week. I was the only one who did that. It was looked down upon, The ESAC is like a music school: you are accepted as a violinist, so you do your whole program with one violin teacher. Luckily my teacher, Sven Demey, was very open. He didn’t mind that I studied juggling next to his lessons. Artistically he was also more engaged than the other teachers.”
That seems to me ideal for you. Your final project, ‘Don’t Run Away, John,’ was evidence of a singular artistic vision. The piece was performed in “a bare room, stripped of everything that is not essential”. A criticism of your training?
“Artistically, ESAC was very difficult for me. Most everything was taught in one style. My class was in addition dominated by French students, which also implies a certain style. I really had to rebel against the nouveau cirque and the narrative. The solo from my first year was already, sub-consciously, conceptual. The teachers tried to suppress that, but still, narrative was never my thing. If I look back now at ‘Don’t Run Away, John,’ I couldn’t put enough time into it. While I was studying at ESAC, I had already begun with the entrance exams for P.A.R.T.S. and next to that I was going for a selection with the dance company Ultima Vez. But I am happy with the choices I made. Even if my teachers didn’t like the number. They wanted me to change the music and the costumes. That is just about everything.”
How was it to go straight from ESAC to P.A.R.T.S.?
“For me P.A.R.T.S. was very frustrating because I am not a dancer. I landed among the ballerinas who had been dancing their whole lives. While they spent their whole lives training, I had learned some tricks that I repeated again and again. Physically the difference wasn’t so problematic, but mentally it was. I had real difficulties remembering choreographies. I often worked on in the evening and even in the summer to try to catch up. But after two years I had had enough and I stopped with the school.”
Was your period at P.A.R.T.S. then especially a question of physical training?
“No, you also get mental training. There is a lot of brainwork required. The approach to the body is very anatomical. Also, on a theoretical level, completely different skills are expected than those in the circus. Everyone there knew the history of dance by heart. I had a basic knowledge of art, but there was a lot of catching up that I had to do. I had to make a sudden jump from a French circus context to a Flemish-American philosophy. As dancer you must to be able to make that jump. But it took me a while to come to grips with it.”
What did you do after P.A.R.T.S.?
“First I took some time to digest my two learning experiences, and part of that time I spent abroad. In New York I worked with Steve Paxton, the creator of contact-improvisation. Then in Norway I worked as a physical actor, playing in a production of ‘A Clockwork Orange’. That was then something completely different. And then I started to teach at ACaPA in Tilburg and at ESAC.”
Do you enjoy the teaching?
“I like doing it. Preferably group lessons and preferably the artistic side of things. It is fine to pass on knowledge, but I would really love once to give lessons in a discipline I don’t know myself. Trapeze for instance. But try proposing that to a director of a circus school. Being a teacher of the wheel means a lot of waiting. You have to wait until the students have overcome their fear and are ready to take on your corrections. There is also little curiosity. The wheel has become a discipline and is no longer an object one experiments with. In my time that was still the case. Circus schools have become conservatories: it is about conserving particular disciplines. There are less and less new developments. Programmers of circus and the audience don’t see the difference between the original and the reproduction. The circus spectator doesn’t recognise a language of movement, they don’t realise if something is brand new. In dance such things are easier to analyse. That is frustrating. I have a feeling I am not given enough credit for the quest I have taken on.”
The structure of your performance ‘Caprices’ is built on the three elements that for you are essential to circus: virtuosity, the object and danger. Where does that definition come from?
“Oh…that’s an incomplete definition. I think the definition of circus is: the quest to be noticed. Or the frame of notoriety. Conventional circus is made up of those three elements. If they are not present, it is not circus.”
And if all three elements are present, is it by definition circus?
“Yes, I think so. Someone who stands up on the handlebars of his bicycle and impresses someone else, that to me is circus. Or on a skateboard. As long as it is not a reproduction. Perhaps that is still circus, but I find it much less interesting. The search for something unknown is important. I am writing a book about my own views. It is an ongoing research, but linked to this performance. It all began with ‘Caprices.’”
That virtuosity is somehow self-evident. But how about the danger? Does it have to be dangerous for the artist, or does it have to seem dangerous to the spectator?
“I came to my present definition from the standpoint of the spectator, but the danger must be real for the person doing it. Actually it is very easy to put something dangerous on stage. You don’t have to do much to achieve a maximum effect. Also with danger, things don’t have to get very rational. I like that. It makes circus so accessible. Someone realises: that is dangerous. You experience it with your whole body, not just your brains. In circus danger is always controlled danger, and that is important. I know what will happen if it goes wrong. That is a totally other danger than a free-runner who runs over the tops of buildings. In circus there is much more technique. As a performer what’s interesting about danger is that you cannot run away from yourself. You cannot be someone else or something else. You represent yourself in a very intimate way. In virtuosity you also have that. There is not a lot of room to interpret or perform. It is the performance aspect of yourself. You do not play a roll, there is no possibility for theatre.
What is the next step in your research?
“I want to perform again. With more emotions. Something in the style of Xavier Le Roy or Phia Ménard. ‘Caprices’ is very choreographic. But first I will play that performance. Even if I know that I won’t be able to sell more than twenty performances. ‘Caprices’ was not made to be commercial. To begin with, I can’t play two days in a row, because afterwards I have so much pain in my neck. I hang from my neck just a bit too long. But I also want the audience to experience something they have not yet seen. Ok, I am young and radical. But the older I get, the more even-tempered and accessible my performances will become.”