A dancing symphony for one acrobat, two speakers, a score of tiny ‘sound-boxes’ and 100 very special backpacks: ‘Murmur’ balances on the border between acrobatics and sound. The new performance for toddlers from Grensgeval is an artistic venture as exciting for adults as it is for children, and that’s what it’s all about for Hanne Vandersteene and Mahlu Mertens: “We are not out to make a play where the adults say: ‘Oh, so fun …for my kid!’ The adults have to share in the fascination.”
In their debut ‘PLOCK!’, inspired by the work of the action painter Jackson Pollock, acrobat Camiel Corneille takes on a world of brushes and splotches of paint (even using at one point a kid as a human paint brush). If ‘PLOCK!’ was for Hanne and Mahlu a cross-over between circus and the visual arts, then ‘Murmur’ is also a walk along the border, this time with the realm of sound. Together with Stijn Dickel from Aifoon, an art organisation devoted to the art of listening and sound, they have created an arena in which Camiel straps himself into battle with two enormous loudspeakers, while at the same time embracing the natural world, audible through the electronica, and sharing it with the audience.
“Stijn has a huge database of sounds — ask him for the sound of a seagull and he can give you fifteen — but we collected tons of new sounds as well. We must have gotten some pretty strange looks during the first days of our residency in Neerpelt, when you were more likely to find us hunting-gathering sounds in the woods and the buildings of Dommelhof, armed with our headphones and microphones, than holed up in our rehearsal room,” laughs Hanne. “For those who don’t realise, there are the almost unrecognisable sounds of a rain-pipe and the lift in Dommelhof hidden in the performance. Here in Oostend we’ve included the sound of a playground not far from the cultural center the Grote Post.”
At the theatre entrance of the Grote Post there are eighty four-year-olds, chattering loudly above one another, impatiently waiting for the try-out of ‘Murmur’. “Circus, we are going to the circus!” says one enthusiastic little boy with an air of knowing what he’s talking about. “Have you ever been to the circus?” I ask. He shakes his head. “I have a book about circus at home,” he says, “about an elephant and a lion.” But there’s not an elephant or a lion in sight when they enter the theatre. However there are backpacks that everyone is asked to put on. I can feel the first doubts seeping in, not only from the children but also from the teachers present. This is not going to be the circus they came for. When Camiel enters the piste, you can hear from one of his pockets the crisp sound of footsteps, from the other pocket you can hear the sloshing of water, from the sweatband around his wrist purrs a kitten. The children are as surprised as he is by the micro-cosmos on his body. But then it’s not only his body making sound. Is that the racing of cars or a swarm of bees I hear? Our backpacks are also full of life.
‘Every disadvantage has its advantage,’ goes the quote from the football legend Johan Cruijff. “And you could say the same thing about the origins of ‘Murmur’,” Mahlu explains. “In one scene of ‘PLOCK!’ Camiel was moving around with speakers on his body. When Mieke Versyp, our dramaturge, said that she thought we should throw that scene out because it didn’t fit with the other material, we were initially quite frustrated, but in the end the decision turned out to be a blessing, because it led to this new piece. Stijn experiments a lot with moving sound and that intrigued us: how can we make a composition that is born out of the movement rather than — usually the case in dance — movement based on sound.”
‘Murmur’ mixes industrial sounds with nature. That makes the piece a powerful ecological statement: Camiel and the audience carry with them the sounds that make up the world. “These days technology tends to get a pretty bad name. We — and especially young people — are often seen as techno-zombies, while there is also a lot of beauty in that entanglement,” says Mahlu. “Just consider the world of protheses or all of the social contact that technology brings. We want to bring that beauty to the performance.” One idea they found very inspiring was the principle of a swarm; how a group of individuals can bond so intensely that they begin to form one movement together. Like starlings in flight, the backpacks tie the audience to each other. According to Mahlu, who doctored at the University of Gent in eco-literature, you could see ‘Murmur’ as a symbol of post-humanism. “In humanism animals and objects were there to serve humankind. Now — and especially in light of the impending climate crisis we are facing — we cannot deny that we as a species are part of a world and form one network, together with animals and with objects. The separation between humans, animals and objects is much less definitive that we imagined.”
If we zoom in for a moment that philosophy can be found not only in the research of Grensgeval but in the work of countless other contemporary circus-makers: the performer not only controls but also surrenders to the object, in the same action. “How can we build a relation of mutual respect between the circus performer and the object, and to what extent can we give that object a soul, its own will, even a particular mood? A toddler who holds their soundbox, cheeping like a young bird, in their hands, like a nest that may break. How beautiful is that?! One child, during a tryout in La Brèche (an important circus organisation in France, red.) even asked: ‘Was that magic that came out of my backpack?’ Children are much more prone to give way to their imaginations than adults,” Hanne finds. Mahlu laughs. “You may say that, Hanne, that adults don’t have that kind of imagination anymore, but count the number of adults who scream at their computers when they don’t do what we want them to. The only difference is perhaps that we realise it’s not going to do much good.”
“Choose me, choose me!” shout out the potential volunteers, who can’t help but jump up off their benches. Camiel purposefully chooses one of the shyer boys, holds a soundbox against his chest, and the sound of breathing is the reassuring result. When the same sound emanates from the chest of an adult on the other side of the audience the result immediately takes on an erotic subtext. ‘Beauty is in the ear of the beholder’.
The two pieces that Grensgeval has created to date are designed for a very young audience from four years old and up. But during the tryout it occurs to me that ‘PLOCK!’ as well as ‘Murmur’, placed in a slightly different context, could just as easily be considered as abstract conceptual performance art.
In one of the quieter moments, one girl starts to get impatient, squirming back and forth in her seat. “Where is the clown, this isn’t circus!” she exclaims, trying to rile up the little spectator next to her. She gets a ‘shhhhh!’ back from her neighbour, deep in concentration. “Is this supposed to be theatre?!” she tries again, but soon forgets her question as her attention goes back to the action before her. Grensgeval managed to shake up all of the parochial expectations of that four year old spectator, and our adult expectations suffer a similar fate.
Hanne laughs when I tell her what happened. “You know, I take that as a compliment, that they experienced something that they couldn’t label. We fiddle around with the clichés and staid ideas lodged in the heads of young and old. We really are a ‘grensgeval’ (a borderline case): we play for children and adults, one may call it children’s theatre, the other circus, another object theatre. Sometimes adults ask us: ‘Isn’t your work a bit too experimental for such young children?’ but for me that’s the advantage of working for really young children: their fantasy is boundless so we can go as abstract as we want. They don’t care if things make ‘sense’, or what something ‘means’, they just go at it with their own unbridled imagination. They are still in that wonderful phase, right before the ‘my drawing is a failure because it doesn’t really look like what I was drawing’ stage of life.” Mahlu continues, “The great thing is that it works for all ages, but in different ways. Speaking of the sound in the backpacks, the youngest ones will tell you afterward: ‘There was a car in my backpack!’, while the older kids will enjoy being smart and tell you, ‘there was a speaker in my backpack.”
After the tryout comes the evaluation. What worked well, what didn’t, and why? Can we make the ending be more powerful? And once we’ve worked them up, how do you get the children to quiet down again, since being able to hear the sounds is crucial to this performance. Hanne and Mahlu don’t approach these doubts and questions as a typical directors duo. They don’t always agree, they are not two peas in a pod. They don’t complete each others’ sentence, and it’s not one of them who has the ideas and the other one who agrees. Yes, they are a duo, but their process is more like composing through point and counterpoint: when one of them is convinced of something, the other constructively puts that in question, when one is ready to come to a conclusion, the other pleas for keeping the options open. Everything in a healthy balance.
“Hanne is much more intuitive and starts from the bigger picture. I tend to approach things form the opposite direction, starting from the question: where do we want to end up?” explains Mahlu. “We compliment each other, we are searching for the same thing, but we take different routes to get there. In the preparation phase, we are in dialogue and we are equal, but once we go to work we adopt a daily hierarchy. One day I take the lead, the next day I follow Hanne. One proposes, while the other observes.” “That’s what works best, not only for us, but also for the people we are working with, we’ve realised. We can both be pretty stubborn and overbearing, so if we try to take over at the same time we’re guaranteed to blow a fuse in Camiel or Stijn’s head,” Hanne laughs. “Once we reach the final phase of the work, the final construction of the performance, we have different roles. I am responsible for the ‘vertical dramaturgy’, the composition of the individual scenes, while Mahlu is ‘horizontal dramaturge’, and is responsible for the shape of the entire piece.”
Their partnership goes back to their schooldays. They met each other at the Toneelacademie of Maastricht, but their first collaboration was a complete disaster and they solemnly swore never to work together again. However, their mutual admiration for each other’s work didn’t go away, and in the end, they decided to collaborateonce again on their final graduation project. Hannes penchant for the physical combined with Mahlu’s rational approach to things turned out to be very fruitful, and together they started the company Grensgeval. The name didn’t come by accident: it was clear from the beginning that they wanted to explore the limits of different disciplines, and to work for an audience of children and adults.
“As a child I went to the ateliers of the Kopergietery, and that playfulness, the wonder of children’s theatre, never went away,” Hanne recounts. “From the very beginning I was more fascinated by physical play than by the spoken word. Later, I did my entrance exams for theatre school, and when we had to prepare a text by Elia Canetti, I scrapped most of the text and did something with rollerskates and a bunch of objects. I have a love-hate relationship with text. Words can be so beautiful and so inspiring, but once that inspiration has been translated into something physical, the words are no longer necessary and I want to get rid of them as soon as possible.” Once again we see the point and counterpoint in the directors duo – Mahlu is a gifted poet whose first volume of verse, ‘Ik tape je bed’ has recently been received with acclaim.
“During our participation in the ‘Coach-the-coach’ program, (an initiative by the Circuscentrum in collaboration with the Kopergietery, in which circus artists exchange ideas with artists from other disciplines, red.) we had many discussions with circus artists,” Hanne recounts. “After my years in theatre school, where the emphasis was placed primarily on the text, the physical language of circus felt to me like a homecoming. Circus is a very special hybrid art form, with a great openness and generosity that I sometimes find lacking in other art forms. For me circus is the most exciting art form today.” Mahlu is especially drawn to what she calls the ‘inclination’ of circus artists: a sort of self-reliance, without a lot of fuss or pretension. But having said that, she believes that circus for children still has a long way to go. “Traditionally, circus was always seen as family entertainment. In the past fifteen years circus in Flanders has been emancipated, taking on its present-day status as a contemporary art form, but in that evolution, circus has become something which now leans toward an adult audience. So it’s time to complete the circle, and to see how we in circus can further develop the art form for children again.”
This article was published in Dutch in Circusmagazine #61 – December 2019 // Author: Liv Laveyne // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information