Adriaan van der Staay, 23-29 October 2014, Paris/Leiden.
The reason that my friend, the theater-maker Ong Keng Sen, wanted to go to Toulouse and Auch was his sudden interest in the circus. He was looking for ways to enrich the pallet of the theater. And the very special tradition of the circus could perhaps flow into the wider public venue of performance.
Pyrenean Auch over the years has become the shopping mall of French and foreign circus. So there he went to look for something new and exciting. He returned to Singapore with an interest in the work of the French painter Daniel Buren in the world of circus.
When I joined him in several circus performances per diem, my role was somewhat different – more philosophical. What was the wider cultural mission of the circus, what mission was it fulfilling today?
Perhaps I will come up with an full essay on all of this later on, but for the moment here are a few pointers.
1. The body
In the first place circus is corporeal, of the body, like sport. This makes it a short-lived career, like dance in the arts. Acrobats need young muscles, young eyes, hearts and above all: the confidence of youth.
So the sadness of aging pervades the craft. There are always new talents outshining the old masters. There are always yesterday’s stars trying to prolong their career. And failing.
But for a few days I could feast my eyes on the parade, mostly outside the tents, of muscular shoulders, dancing steps, sparkling eyes and a pervasive physical energy. This youthful gathering, a small nomadic invasion of an old fortress city along the river Gers, had something invigorating, not so much by its culture but by the participants themselves. I also must confess my attraction to the Olympic Games, as a celebration of a world without death.
Around this naïve, optimistic, ambitious tribe of young people making circus, the vultures of capitalism circle. In practice they would come from state-sponsored capitalism, with profit blending into nationalism. But let us not speak of that for the moment and stay with the acrobats.
Many acrobats come directly from circus schools. One cannot expect them to be fountainheads of wisdom already. But even in the small world of their body-craft, they, the best, have learned lessons.
The most profound one is the lesson of endeavor. Someone who climbs a rope, which is both possible and difficult, as generations of old-fashioned sailors learnt, is spending his energy, however youthful, on something sadly restricted. At the end of the rope there is no solace. Moreover the rope may fail and so betray you. Your body has to befriend the rope, has to know how to grasp it with unseen feet, know how to find it back after a somersault, recognize its steady swing. But it is only the moment of challenging the friendship with the rope that counts in circus. It is a one-sided experience.
About this the most impressive statement came from a young acrobat and his classical violinist friend. He, the acrobat, would take endless precautions, lay out mattresses underneath, test the ropes but finally would have to decide to climb up. It seemed a fascination he could not resist. The comical aspect was that he would always fail. The rope would slip or break, or he himself would fall. But undeterred he would try again, search for another rope and climb again and fail again.
The citation from Albert Camus and his Myth of Sisyphus, shown by the violinist towards the end of the show, was most touching. “We have to think of a happy Sisyphus”. The audience is asked to leave while he, the acrobat, is still climbing. But, thinking of catharsis and Aristotle, his burden is now also borne by the visitors. They are all climbing their own ropes.
This was widely seen as the best performance.
(Le Vide, by Fragan Gehlker, Alexis Auffray, created in 2011).
It is not only the rope that fails, but also the body. There were at least two performances that took the handicapped body as a challenge.
One was rather obvious. There were three dancers, one female, two male of whom one, Ali, had only one leg. This was made bearable, in its endless permutations, by a Balkan quartet, playing and singing Ottoman Greek balladic sequences in support. The virtuosity of the one-legged dancer was commendable, the ways of going around the difficulty and exploiting it for good measure were admirable. But basically the handicap was spirited away. This was not so in the other performance.
A Nordic type and a Mediterranean type are sitting on a bare platform, as on a raft on a dark sea. It only gradually becomes clear that the theme is not the coming together of these two different characters stranded on a lonely island. One of the dancers is lame. The other dancer imitates, but also supports and complements him. The acrobatic ballet is long and the endless variations of mutual misunderstandings and suspicions and befriending become lengthy. But the dedication of the dance or performance to a famous acrobat who indeed had paralyzed legs, gives it a bite. The body may be destiny, but one can live with one’s handicap.
(No limits, Matias Pilet, Alexandre Fournier, choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb, in honour of the lame dancer Fabrice Champion, 2013).
The dependence on the body is also a dependence on the body of others, of one another. This other body may fail and the result will also be your failure. So it becomes a moving cliché that the strength of the other is your own. And that his decline is your decline.
During one traditional, but widely appreciated performance, by Cie XY, I was struck with the consciously enhanced role of the old acrobat. He was clearly older than the rest, perhaps their teacher. But he was given some of the most difficult and dangerous tasks, like catching a flying girl on his shoulders while he himself was already perched on the shoulders of two other men. It meant not only pitting experience against chance, but also trust against mistrust.
The whole performance of the group was pervaded by the ethics of solidarity. So it was congruous that after the acclamation by the audience one of the acrobats stepped forward to read a manifesto, ending with the words: “Seul tu peux aller plus vite, mais ensemble tu vas plus loin.” You may go faster when alone, but together you get further. I asked some old hands of the circuscraft whether this declaration was unique, but no, I was told, it had become quite common.
KS questioned this phenomenon. Should performance not be able to politically speak for itself?
For me as a European it shows that the disappearance of a common public cause has left the individual with a fundamental loneliness. Today there exists a wish to transcend the austere plight of Sisyphus by something else than philosophical fortitude. The age of existentialism is over.
The people of the circus try to find this transcendence through the creation of a concrete family of artists, a temporary company. It resembles the extended structures they create with their bodies. This is an appealing form of artistic socialism, that is not so much ideological, as lived.
It is easy to dismiss this as romanticism. As a Teutonic nostalgia for a Gemeinschaft of living together in times of Gesellschaft. Or as the phantom resurrection of communism. Yet it seems to come out of a deeper layer that provides a steady recruitment of youngsters in search of a common and meaningful life.
I also associate this more social than cultural solidarity with its negative: the uniformity of us versus the others. Clichés in that sense abound in present-day circus circles. The mutually competing bodies are hidden in anonymous workmen’s or office clothes. It sets them apart, but on an outcast level. Even a certain self-pity will creep in, with its attitudes of victimhood. An unnecessary grubbiness and vagrantism seems to be fashionable.
One also notes a contemporary fascination with aggression, dogfights, catch as catch can, the ambush. The fear of betrayal is paramount. Psychologically Les damnés de la terre of Frantz Fanon of 1961 are never far away. But this fear of the other is happily balanced by the natural optimism of youth.
Several performances we witnessed were about the non-acrobat, the non-human, the enemy condition.
In Toulouse we saw an interplay between two men (dressed in bureaucratic uniforms) and a machine. The Robot was at the center of the play, the two acrobats were only co-actors. It failed for me and made the audience remain passive. One saw the robotic monster interacting with humans, always the game losers, without any emotional link or response. A truly nihilistic work.
There also was (where did we see it?) a circus-ballet in which white balls were kept afloat in the air in changing esthetic patterns. It was reasonably impersonal, but not perfectly executed. Chinese acrobats would master this effect better. But perhaps the slight human imperfections in the face of impersonal forces was intentional? At the end, the basic law of gravity was demonstrated by a machine, the balls swinging in a kind of perpetuum mobile, but moving on their own, not interfered by human intervention. This was impressive, but like a scientific experiment would be fascinating. It was no longer based on the human body. And thus no longer circus, but like its counterpart in nature, a dance of atoms.
Daniel Buren, the visual ribbon artist, has been involved in circus for a while. This may seem surprising for such an intellectual artist, but the technical director of his shows explained that the artist was deeply involved in the process. His distance to the central tenet of the circus, the body and human endeavor, explains the lukewarm reception by the true tifosi of circus, the professional circus-watchers. They said it was interesting as a format, but had no content.
There may be some truth in this, but yet one was left with the feeling that Buren had somehow grappled more with the essence of circus than many traditional circus-makers.
His approach was undoubtedly from the outside. Coming from situationists street art and installations he was intellectually probing the parameters of the circus. The tent was the first given questioned by him.
His cabanons, square huts with a circular piste inside, were meant to split the monopoly of the one tent into a polyphony of at least three places, each with the same program but in a different order. This clever idea made it possible to follow the echoes in neighboring venues of the parts of the program one had already seen and heard. As the players were moving from tent to tent one could frequently see them through one of the four openings of the cabanon. So, the traditional African singer of ritual praises, in his flowing sky-blue boubou, could be seen passing from one cabanon to another in the darkness outside, like a nightly bard.
Frequently the four openings were not closed. After the performance of an over the top traditional French ringmaster, whose sole role was to lambast the figure of Buren as a fake, that he was nothing but stripes, telling that the emperor was without clothes, he would enter again from East and West, North and South, flitting through the center of the place, while another act was being prepared. In all this both the illusion and the centrality of circus was questioned and amplified.
This intellectual probing of the conditions of circus was also strengthened by the reduction of the number of actors. Most of the acts were one person shows. So the full attention concentrated on individual endeavor. In a way this was a lonely theatre in which the small audience was confronted with a personal struggle. It prolonged the “problem of the rope” of a previous show, and its implications. Buren showed himself not only to be a visual but also a theatrical minimalist.
The endeavor itself was also reduced in scope. In our case the first performance was a simple combat with the restrictions of space. A woman would enter into a piece of gauze, kept together by rather narrow rings. She could extend or diminish the space around her, but could never escape from its limitations. As a physical endeavor it was not very exacting, but as a demonstration of the context of circus it worked for me.
The banality of circus is, that its limits are real. Another woman, black, would balance on and with a heavy pole in animal simplicity. A man, with an Afghan fierceness would roll a wheel through revolving panels. Two Mexican dudes would execute physical prowesses to their own delighted surprise.
A last deconstructionist aspect should be mentioned. Buren made the point that the conditions the acrobats face, are of their own making. The woman with the gauze brought everything in her own basket and folded it back again in this to carry it away. The equilibrist affixed her own poles, the circles and squares of the Afghan were of his own moving. Both loneliness and achievement were individual, not collective.
So the content of circus was there, even if not expressed in a circuslike manner.
(Cie BurenCirque, Cabanons, Caserne Espagne, Auch 2014).
7. Global context
A further remark concerns a wider context. What does circus today reflect of the preoccupations of the present world? Here one enters the realm of personal priorities and evaluations, not of speculations.
Basically to me it seems that present-day culture is infused with the sense of loss. Culture today frequently recreates in its imaginations that which is no longer certain. It gives the illusion that wild, untamed, pristine nature is still there, just as it is being destroyed by the day. It plays out heroic combats in a world of mass destruction by ever more devastating weaponry and anonymous control. It sings of solitary love in a world of megacities. It celebrates bodily prowess in the sports just as the body is being replaced by machines. Its mission and content is to create a veil of illusion.
This is witnessed by the enormous scale of the production of culture. Soon news, as untrue entertainment, will be the same worldwide. All will be watching the same distracting pictures on their handheld computers, provided by a few monopolies. The global monopolies are not of the future, but are presently and suddenly here and now. But perhaps the most simple indicator of change is the disappearance of craft.
For a long time craft has been the pride of the common man. It meant dexterity of the body matched to the teachings of the imagination. It was within reach of both the animality and the spirituality of Everyman. This is no longer so. Capitalism together with technology is driving the crafts, but also common man as such, out of the picture. The picture may be utopic to the optimist, dystopic to the pessimist, but it is rather obvious to the impartial spectator. The machine age is here to stay and only the rich will keep something of the past world around them. The non-rich will be placated by illusions, to compensate them for their losses.
In this wider context the circus is a repository of past prides. It celebrates the body, which is a gift of nature, it schools youth in temporary crafts, it despises illusions, it hankers after some form of community. It is not to be bought. Or made by machines.
There was one tender piece of circus we saw outside of the framework of Auch, in a theatre of Toulouse. It had the whimsical title of Mazùt, which seems to mean ‘change’ in Greek and Russian, but is also associated with mazout, a product of the petrochemical industry and with “zut alors”, the verbal shrug of the shoulder of French daily life. It too may mean nothing at all.
Anyway, it meant a circus of a man, a woman and a dog. The dog wandered in and out of the play, the two players in and out of animality and modernity. The woman was a professional singer, and some of the songs reminded you of the long tradition of singing on both sides of the Pyrenees. Beautiful music was made by catching water-drops in tin containers. The powerful man would suddenly become a horse. The woman and the man were clearly in love with each other, and the dog was content to be part of a household. There was craftsmanship in the theatricals and acrobatics, though not too much, and some wit. There was not so much the burden of a wider complex society to cope with, as a whiff of a new beginning.
(Baro d’Evel cirk cie, Catalan/French, Blaï Mateu Trias/Camille Decourtye, Mazùt/Bestias, Montpellier/Toulouse 2014).