[This article was published in CircusMagazine #45 – December 2015]
[Author: Liv Laveyne – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
2015 was a good year for circus in Flanders, with some old favorites and fresh new talent. It was also the year of the first Flemish Cultural Prize for Circus and a year where the government once again firmly expressed its belief in this developing art form. In short, a year where it became apparent that circus in Flanders is capable of much, but also that there’s a lot of work left to do.
2015 actually began in 2014. In November of that year Alexander Vantournhout presented a public try-out of his new piece ‘ANECKXANDER’. The try-out was a big hit and received a standing ovation. The triumph continued into 2015 with a premiere of the work in PERPLX, and subsequently the jury and public’s prize at TAZ, the theatre festival Theater aan Zee, which for the first time paid its highest tribute not to young theatre, but to young circus talent. Because circus… what’s in a name? Vantournhout’s ‘ANECKXANDER’ is a groundbreaking performance in many ways. It was not only a rare fusion of dance, performance and circus. More than anything it was an ode to the beauty of the imperfect body. The naked body. Yes, even if nudity is common to other performance arts, in circus it is extremely rare. Strange, because what is circus other than the physical body up against its own limitations, and the continuing desire to surpass those limitations? With the help of dramaturge Bauke Lievens, Vantournhout brought us a grippingly personal and universal portrait. Beginning with the imperfections of his own body (neck too long, forearms and legs too short) he added ‘prostheses’ (a ruffle collar, boxing gloves, platform shoes) and worked these elements into a repetitive choreography that with the struggle for perfection opened the door to failure and self-effacing humor. Ecce homo, here is the man. ‘ANECKXANDER’ proved to contemporary circus in Flanders that there is a motherlode to be tapped in cross-over creation (Vantournhout studied both at ESAC and P.A.R.T.S.) and a well developed dramaturgy (going beyond the role of ‘outside eye’ and working from the inside out). Not the little story (pretending) or circus trick (doing), but rather the truth of the performer himself (being), is the focus.
It was this same truth of the performer that made ‘Fidelis Fortibus’, the solo project of Danny Ronaldo, so moving. Standing alone in the ring, Danny the clown. Around him the graves of the fallen artists from the old traveling circus. Only the relics remain, a reference to his own past. In a daring silent performance Danny Ronaldo reanimates those objects, and single-handedly brings the dead back to life, in order to arrive at something new. Here again the strength lies in a strong personality, Danny Ronaldo, joining forces with the insights of theatre maker and coach Lotte van den Berg. Truthful purity. If in ‘Fidelis Fortibus’ that purity was steeped in the bittersweet of the tragic, then it was the task of Cie Ea Eo, to show us ‘All the fun’, but also all the work. (It’s not for nothing that the original title was ‘All the fun is happening somewhere else’). The company researched the collective, rivalry, and the dynamic of the group, in a juggling performance that flirted with contact-sport, fitness, play and ritual. Following up their international success; ‘m2’, this was a worthy successor, more honest and less acted (even if the verbal bla-bla could have been left out as far as we were concerned). If in his preceding performance ‘L’Autre’, Claudio Stellato played around with what appears to be and what actually is, in his new performance ‘La Cosa’ he left that riddle behind for the purity of wood and the human body, and how the one may work destructively and constructively upon the other. It delivered at moments an exciting performance from which the splinters literally flew, but in the end failed to leave a lasting impression. (In that category, a performance like ‘BOS’ from the young theatre group Cie Snor, which also worked with wooden constructions, was much more fascinating in its fragility). Of a completely different level of sincerity, (audience-friendly, which in this case should not be interpreted as something pejorative) were the performances of Kurt Demey / Rode Boom and Bert & Fred. The former brought with ‘Evidences Inconnues’ a poetic play full of mentalistic tricks, truthfully performed in the theatre or outdoors. A performance of inclusion which transformed us, the audience, into a unique collective. With ‘8 years, 5 months, 4 weeks, 2 days’ Bert & Fred brought us the story of their relationship, on stage and off. If in its initial stage the performance was pure hardcore (a la Abramovic), with knife-throwing and darts, in the end the makers went in search of the playful humor in those dangerous moments, thereby falling from time to time into the trap of play-acting.
More is not always better
Internationally, the big names couldn’t seem to live up to the expectations created by their earlier hits. There was little sign of the purity that made so many Belgian performances so attractive this year. With the international groups, instead of purity we got quantity. But more is not always better. The acrobats of Cie XY confirmed their talent for making human towers in ‘Il n’est pas encore minuit’, but the magic of the former ‘Le grand C’ seemed difficult to match. One could say the same for Casus, following up their impressive ‘Knee Deep’ with the tepid and rather unconvincing performance ‘Finding the silence’. Also ‘Azimut’, oddly enough a piece which has enjoyed an incredible reputation on the international circuit for years now, was received with notable indifference at c-Mine (an initiative of Circusfestival Neerpelt to present work for the first time in Genk). On paper this seemed like a match made in heaven; combining the esthetic of Aurélien Bory (maker of the intriguing, dark, mechanistic ‘Sans objet’), with the colorful Group acrobatique de Tanger. The performance offered lots of pretty pictures, but unfortunately our attention was mostly drawn to the state of the acrobats, being used like puppets, imprisoned in the canvas.
In the category ‘great bad ideas’, which is to say an interesting idea which doesn’t really deliver, we saw ‘Underart’ from Circus Cirkör (a messy bunch of kitsch), ‘Untitled_I will be there when you die’ from Allessandro Sciarroni (hypnotizing repetitive juggling for some, soporific artiness for yours truly). ‘Chateau Descartes’ from Galapiat (makers of the irresistible ‘Risque Zéro’) began with the great idea of a game of musical chairs, but in the end it turned out to be one long drawn out run to the final image of the performance. Adrian Schvarstein was inspired by the paintings of Breughel for his ‘Seasons’, but got stranded in Hobbit-land with folk music; the life and work of the common man spread over four seasons, with loads of circus tricks at all the wrong moments. Equally, Baro d’Evela, who brought us a most amazing piece about the meeting of man and beast;
‘Le sort du dedans‘, completely lost himself in the ensuing work, ‘Bestias’. What we got was an entire folk – a load of animals – but most of all an overdose of content and text that managed with agit-prop accuracy to shoot down any possibility of poetry. How we long for the Baro d’Evel performance that is hopefully still to come, an intimate duet, performed by the imposing artist Blaï Mateu Trias and his horse. Less would be so much more.
The proof of that was Henrik & Louise. The revelation of the circus festival in Neerpelt! As hand-to-hand duo and couple off-stage, they have been doing the same circus number for the last fifteen years. In ‘Extreme Symbiosis’ they look back on those years and ask themselves, with their aging acrobats’ bodies and a baby on the way: now what? The currently pregnant Louise and her partner Henrik each kept a diary about how it has been to work together. In the play they intersperse those projected texts with archive images of themselves on stage, while they themselves do nothing in front of the screen other than continuously warming up. In a moving finale they perform their success-number. Not with one another, but standing next to each other, giving us a beautifully suggestive, absurd choreography. Henrik & Louise managed to invent a new genre for the circus; the lecture performance. Pure and in the present.
No flourishing circus without good ground
If 2015 was the year of sincerity, may 2016 become the year of truth. A year wherein we set to the task of developing a more solid artistic support system during the creative process, where development and research can be seen once and for all as separate from the final product. Just as the ‘work-place’ already exists for other art forms. May it be a year where cross-overs produce new forms and content, where the art world embraces circus for more than just the presentation. May it be a year where nomadic circuses shake off their role of the ‘victim’, and the contemporary circus doesn’t betray it’s roots for the sake of artistic ambition, where nomadic and contemporary circuses take even more interest in one another, where professionalisation is not a dirty word, any more than bohemian attitude a reason for exclusion. May it be a year where the ateliers continue to warmly welcome new generations to the circus, purely for the hobby and perhaps for much much more, and where circus academies start to distinguish between the talents of their students, making it possible to choose between a curriculum for artistic creation and one for the performing artist. (Both are essential, evident in other performing arts in the difference between makers and actors, or choreographers and dancers). May it be a year in which new talent emerges, where the festivals continue to define their own unique profiles, and continue, as co-producers, to fulfill their essential supporting role in the artistic process,. May it be a year in which the government realizes how fragile the young field of circus is, giving it the water and nourishment it needs to flourish. The Flemish circus-land is developing, but that development can only continue with good fertile ground.
Now if that’s not a New Years Wish, I’ve never heard one!