One hundred white coffee cups on stage, strong and breakable, just like the two performers stepping among them. It’s one of the evocative images in ‘As long as we’ from Toon Van Gramberen and Hanna Mampuys. After ‘TYPO’, a creation from the collective Deux sans Trois, the duo has continued as There There Company.
[This article was published in CircusMagazine #53 – December 2017]
[Author: Lene Van Langenhove – Translation: Craig Weston – Picture: Bart Grietens – all rights reserved]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
‘As long as we’ reflects their search for what circus can mean, what is left if we take away the element of entertainment. More interesting than the perfectly performed figure is how that figure comes to be: the success and the failure, the moments of doubt and conflict. Hand-to-hand acrobatics lend themselves perfectly to reflections on balance and trust, support and letting go. But why have the artists chosen the form they have? And how did they get involved in circus in the first place?
Toon Van Gramberen: “Hanna did a workshop once in acro porté and since I was also interested we enrolled together in the circus school in Leuven.”
Hanna Mampuys: “Before that I was dancing. Once I became acquainted with the circus, I immediately felt that this was what I had always wanted to do. At some point, half as a joke, Toon put our names down for a street theatre festival. We then put a very simple street act together.”
Van Gramberen: “Hanna had a lot of stage experience with fABULEUS (youth theatre and dance company in Leuven), for me it was the first time in front of an audience, but I got some nice reactions. It felt good, so we continued. Three years later we played ‘TYPO’ with Deux sans Trois at the City of Wings festival in Ieper, and that was really what started things rolling.”
Mampuys: “That was a turning point. With virtually no budget the four of us had made a performance. Our musician was still in school, it was all pretty intense. We took the leap, if no one liked it, then we would have to seriously question the role that circus could still play in our lives.”
Van Gramberen: “From that point on things went pretty quickly.”
You have toured that show the past three years?
Van Gramberen: “Yes, in June 2017 we played ‘TYPO’ for the last time. We played it for three seasons in the street and two seasons in the theatre.”
What made you decide to continue with just the two of you?
Mampuys: “The journey that we had taken with Deux sans Trois was incredibly educational. I think all four of us had different desires. At some point Toon and I realised we wanted to go on creatively as a duo, and wanted to make something in which we could further explore our particular way of working.”
Van Gramberen: “‘TYPO’ is a typical first performance from a circus collective: it’s all about who we are and what we can do together. The performance is clearly divided into acts where different techniques come in play. Then there was the live music coming from Jef and everything was well blended together.”
What inspired you to create ‘As long as we’?
Mampuys: “Something that both of us are obsessed and even frightened by, is the idea of routine. Our lives are fairly hectic, but when we look around us we see a lot of people who live in very tight patterns. Everyone has routines, and sometimes you want to break that up, for instance by going on vacation, but you still hold on to those patterns because they give you a sense of security. At the beginning of this creation process we talked to all sorts of people, and afterwards, in the studio, we realised that we also had a lot of routines ourselves. And that’s ok. Along the way we added another layer to the performance, but much of the initial material came from that starting point of ‘routine’. The scene in which I stand on Toon’s feet, not touching the ground myself, comes from the idea of holding tightly to that tiny spot and not asking yourself what would happen if you let go.”
Van Gramberen: “The coffee cups on stage is a nod to the routine of drinking coffee. That’s the only theatrical element that didn’t get dropped along the way. Getting rid of the ballast, at some point we even wondered if those cups were necessary.”
Would you describe the way you develop material as organic?
Mampuys: “Now with just the two of us, we started to disagree. Discovering the differences between us actually helped us succeed in going deeper in our work. With my background as choreographer I tend to make something and only afterwards look at what it contains, while Toon just wants to improvise. Sometimes that was confronting, but in the end it’s brought us even closer.”
Van Gramberen: “Finally we combined both ways of working: sometimes we would improvise around something that we had already performed a few times, sometimes we would repeat things we had taken from improvisation and it became something resembling a choreography.”
Would it be different if you weren’t a couple? It’s a pleasure to watch how well you know each another on stage.
Van Gramberen: “A duo that isn’t a couple could also play this play. Duos who train together in acro porté know each other through and through.”
Yes, technically, but what I like about ‘As long as we’ is that it’s more than just presenting technique. I didn’t know beforehand that you were a couple, but I wondered if you were as I watched the performance.
Van Gramberen: “In starting this process we often heard: ‘Great that it’s so personal, that it’s really about you’. That was the last thing we wanted, but if you are a couple and you make something then chances are being a couple becomes part of the equation. In the end we just accepted it: it is unavoidably about us. By accepting that we suddenly dared go much further into the material of the play, which comes over as something very personal.”
As spectator what you see are two people who treat each other with tenderness. Whether or not they are a couple in real life, doesn’t really matter.
Mampuys: “Exactly, and that is what we were aiming for. Of course we know each other through and through, but it’s not only about us, it is about intimacy in general.”
And about vulnerability and keeping each other in balance?
Mampuys: “Absolutely. We realised that a lot of elements that are always there with acro porté – like trust, giving yourself to another, taking care and searching for balance – also play a huge role in human interaction, so through the one we tried to talk about the other.”
Van Gramberen: “The performance begins as a training session. We start with getting dressed and immediately go into the ‘spectacular trick’, which in circus is usually kept for the end of the show. We just start with that.”
Mampuys: “Also because we realise that our circus technique forms us, it determines how we are with each other.”
Van Gramberen: “The performance evolves from the formality of the training session, where technique and precision are essential, to the more tender and the more organic. Our own personalities start to shine through as the piece unfolds.”
When you take away the tape which marks the square in which you do the training, you also figuratively break open the frame.
Van Gramberen: “That square symbolises our training room, our little world. That stupid room you go to every day, to repeat your exercises, sometimes not really knowing anymore the point of it all.”
Mampuys: “That zone also symbolises a mental state, that you can only reach if all the conditions for working together have been met: you aren’t tired or in a bad mood and you are ready to give your best, 100 percent, and to trust your partner.”
Van Gramberen: “The line in our performance may lead from form to intimacy, but you can already can see the intimacy in the form, and the form is still there at the end. Because we work and live together you cannot separate the one from the other. If at home we decorate the Christmas tree, Hanna just crawls up on my shoulders. It’s handy.”
There is quite a lot of movement material in your performance that reminded me of contemporary dance.
Van Gramberen: “I actually don’t think that I dance in the performance, but we hear that quite often. Dance has claimed such a large territory of movement that people describe almost every style of movement as dance.”
Mampuys: “I do think that a lot of people call it dance because the structure of the performance is very similar to that of a dance piece, and there is no narrative.”
Van Gramberen: “In our little circus world the discussion is often about what circus is, whether technique is essential or not. I think that we have to claim more territory and stop labelling performances as circus-theatre or circus-dance each time a circus performer brings us anything beyond their standard tricks. It is just circus. Circus is not necessarily about performing one trick after another. A lot of people ask us how we could make an acro-porté piece an hour long with just the two of us on stage. Well, there is a lot you can do on stage beside tricks.”
Mampuys: “Up until a few months ago I had the tendency to describe what I did as ‘physical theatre’ or ‘dance’. If you say you do circus, you create certain expectations. But for me, dance and circus are impossible to separate from one another, and they’re both physical.”
How do you keep things fresh and avoid falling into repetition?
Mampuys: “We really wanted to do something different this time around. But actually I could never imagine us making something just because it might work. Creation is a real adventure, you learn new things each time and carry those things with you to the next one.”
Van Gramberen: “Because the piece was to a large degree born out of improvisation, it demands an open spirit and concentration in order to react to what’s happening. If Hanna sets her foot a different way, the way she reacts to me, … if you really keep to your honest reactions, the performance lives.”
Each creation process has its moments of intensity. What kind of obstacles did you come up against?
Mampuys: “At a certain point I was really asking myself if what we were doing could still be considered circus. We haven’t done a circus school and don’t have top technique. The fact that we are self-taught, was really an obstacle. And Toon didn’t care, he just thought we should make what we wanted to, even if it didn’t involve any circus technique. We often went back and forth on that. I definitely wanted to make a circus performance. Then Toon would ask what that meant, circus. I was afraid that we weren’t legitimate enough to make a performance with so little technique. I was afraid that people would say that it was no longer circus.”
Do you feel that you are not taken seriously enough, as self-made artists? Haven’t you built up a lot of street credibility in the past years?
Van Gramberen: “Yes, that’s how I feel about it. If you remain true to yourself and what you want to do, you can stand behind it one hundred percent. And if nobody likes it, too bad, but at least it’s your own thing.”
Mampuys: “I had more problems with that. One moment I could get super enthusiastic, and the next moment lose myself in doubt: “Who do we think we are?!”
Van Gramberen: “Doubt is healthy, you have to continue to put yourself into question, but you can’t let it get out of control.”
So what is circus? Did you finally come up with an answer?
Mampuys: “We still talk about that every day, starting at the breakfast table.”
Van Gramberen: “There are a thousand possible visions of circus. We don’t have to agree with each another. A choreographer can let someone hop around on one leg and say that for him it is the essence of dance, and no one would take offense.”
A few years ago there was a lot of discussion about the differences between dance and performance. That discussion happened, and then it concluded. With circus the discussion seems to go on much longer.
Van Gramberen: “Yes, because we are so close to the métier. Circus needs the same openness as dance, which includes tango and ballet and contemporary. You no longer have to exhibit a particular degree of virtuosity to be considered a dancer. Some of us are breaking down barriers, artists like Alexander Vantournhout and Circus Katoen, who make performances about something beyond the virtuosity of the tricks. Things are starting to change, but we are still in a conservative cramp which is trying to keep circus ‘pure’.”
Mampuys: “That’s precisely what’s interesting, that makers have different ideas about circus and that you can see that in their creations. The realisation that you don’t have to agree, we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Do you then choose for the label ‘circus’ because more than ‘theatre’ or ‘dance’ it gives you the chance to go in any direction you please?
Mampuys: “No, these days the label of ‘circus’ doesn’t give you much freedom at all.”
Van Gramberen: “That depends. For audience and organisers ‘circus’ remains a bit difficult, but for ourselves as makers, and for those who are interested in contemporary circus it gives you a lot of freedom. Which brings us back to the initial question of what, indeed, is the essence of circus?”