Circus as the Time and Space for Thinking
The Thinking Time
It is a Saturday morning. Thirty-year old Finnish magician Kalle Hakkarainen is sitting at a part baroque/part mdf table covered with fruit and sweets at the office of the New Circus Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, surrounded by an international group of journalists. In a flash of inspiration, they want to know whether he is nostalgic or not?
The night before Hakkarainen had presented a technologically elaborate performance about a tiredness-induced car crash under the title Nopeussokeus (Speed Blindness/Motion Blindness) to a relatively underwhelmed, though sufficiently hypnotized, audience. The hypnotic effect was largely the work of the music and sound designer Samuli Kosminen in combination with Hakkarainen’s own visual projections conjuring up the onset of sleep at the wheel of a moving car. In just under thirty minutes, the piece had set out to explore the moment of fatal impact from different points of view, though the moment at times seemed to stretch into infinity or fold back into itself in a dream-like way, leaving the artist’s intention generally unclear and the critics generally indifferent.
It all begins to make a lot more sense when in this impromptu press conference Hakkarainen reveals his departure points. Largely disillusioned by contemporary magic, the Finnish wiz kid often resorts to history books for his inspiration. It was the claim that drama and magic cannot be successfully combined, made by the English magician David Devant about a century ago, that prompted Hakkarainen to attempt such a feat. A newspaper article about a woman in a car crash provided a dramaturgical framework for the reinvention of an old trick in which a rope can be seen to penetrate the body of the performer. And a poem about car ‘motion blindness’ by Harry Salmenniemi provided additional semantic content for Hakkarainen’s projections.
‘I like to create a time and space for people to think’, Hakkarainen declares. It might have been some sleight of hand that made me miss what he said in response to the question of nostalgia, but it certainly prompted me to think about it too, in more ways than one.
There is the dimension provided by the history and the form of circus itself. Only two nights before we had seen Le Cirque Invisible – the third edition of a repertoire, created (in 1990) by Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Victoria Chaplin who had in fact been working together since 1969. Threaded through this show is a sense of homeliness and enchantment, which could easily cast any audience member into his or her five-year old self. Whether it’s Thierrée’s Christmas Day-style close up magic or Chaplin’s spells which turn common household items into mythical creatures and elaborate wearable musical instruments – this is the kind of spectacle that thrives on poeticizing the mundane in a simple, child-like way. An inherent emphasis on eccentric playfulness and mesmerizing inventiveness rather than sheer technical prowess, despite the fact that its acts are decades old, results in a show which is timeless rather than dated and therefore nostalgic in its form more so than its content. I felt the way a five year old might feel at any point in time, rather than the way I felt when I was actually five years old watching a dancing elephant in a big top and waiting impatiently for the clowns or the trapeze lady in sequins to come back again.
So then there is also the personal dimension. I am a domiciled Brit, at this moment in time on a visit to Croatia – a country which was once part of what I considered home. Incidentally, on my flight here I was reading a book which informed me that nostalgia was in fact a term invented by a seventeenth century Swiss doctor to designate a malady of extreme longing (algia) for a return home (nostos). Even though in the twenty-first century the phenomenon of nostalgia, with its intrinsic tendency to sentimentalize the past, has acquired connotations that can be seen as politically problematic, it is nevertheless a condition that must also be somehow validated. Not least because, traditionally, members of the circus – whether personally nostalgic or not – are very often displaced persons themselves, and so are, increasingly, a lot of the rest of us. Rather helpfully though, writer Svetlana Boym attempts to redefine nostalgia not as a conservative longing for a particular place in the past, but as a desire to escape the given time-space continuum ‘sideways’ – as ‘a strategy for [the displaced persons’] survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming’ (http://www.iasc-culture.org/eNews/2007_10/9.2CBoym.pdf, p.9). This understanding of nostalgia makes it possible to make sense of much more than that. But more of that – later.
The Thinking Place - context
This time and space for thinking, it is worth noting perhaps, was taking place on day three of the ‘middle part’ of the Zagreb New Circus Festival 2012. Taking the form of the classic circus act of a lady being sawn into three parts, the eighth edition of the international festival which had began spontaneously thanks to the endeavours and personal savings of the former journalist Ivan Kralj in 2005, was on this occasion programmed in three distinct sections some weeks apart. As in most previous years, there was an element of making virtue out of necessity in coming up with the three part programming concept, as Kralj wished to include a number of artists with availabilities very far apart. Out of this also emerged the theme of ‘new magic’ for this year’s festival, and the festival brochure is suitably arranged to function as a magic trick. Due to limited means and a lack of support, in previous years, the festival has taken the form of a ‘one day festival’, or a mock election campaign in the year when it coincided with general elections. As a result the festival has acquired a considerable audience following even though it also maintains a certain underground mystique. In the absence of adequate local support, Kralj has struggled to bring it to a close, and has programmed the last festival event for this year to take place on the much publicized doomsday of 21.12.12.
The delegation of ten international journalists to which I belonged on this visit to Zagreb featured representatives from France, Belgium, Romania, Germany, Finland, Spain and the UK, and we were privileged to also have a programme of talks and discussions framing our experience of the work we saw. Forming part of an EU-funded initiative designed to increase critical understanding of the genre of circus, the scheme named Unpack the Arts, run by Yohann Floch, is a two-year programme of 12 residencies which will have taken place at 12 different circus festivals around Europe. The Zagreb residency is the third in the first series.
Following day one of the residency which created a space for general introductions of the hosts and the guests, and day two which provided a useful overview of the ‘traditional’, ‘new’, ‘contemporary’ and several other proliferating circus trends, much of the day three therefore provided the time and space for thinking.
Unfortunately, Hakkarainen’s piece did not do this for me on its own terms without the artist revealing his cards, and therefore it might be seen to have failed in one of its key intentions. But then again, how many people would really expect this kind of a proposition from a circus piece? Thus, what this piece drew attention to was also a deliberate blurring of the boundaries of the genre to which it purportedly belonged. Hakkarainen confessed that he premiered this piece in an art gallery but has also performed it at theatre and dance festivals allowing it to be framed by the inherent viewing conventions of those genres as well.
On the night of its performance Nopeussokeus (Speed Blindness/Motion Blindness) was, interestingly, presented as the second part of a double bill with a seven-minute extract from a piece called Vibrations by the French ‘magie nouvelle’ company La Cie 14:20, which, in contrast, claimed ‘kinaesthetic empathy’ as the desired element of their relationship with the audience. Performed by a former Robert Wilson collaborator François Chat, and costumed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the extract named Gravitation was a rather anti-climactic etude featuring a gravity-defying stick. The characteristic slowing down of the motion of the piece was intended to change the perception of time and affect the breathing pattern of the audience apparently resorting to some of the principles of traditional magic which seek to manipulate the observer’s perception. Whether or not this would have worked for the piece as a whole was hard to tell from this short extract. However, what was clear was that both La Cie and Hakkarainen’ areas of motivation were a far cry from the simple childlike enchantment engineered by the likes of Le Cirque Invisible, or the appreciation of human virtuosity that may have marked more traditional circus forms. What do they all have in common then as circus companies, if anything at all?
Circus as a Thinking Space
In the afternoon of the third day of the residency, French critic Anne Quentin proposed that a distinguishing characteristic between circus and other performing arts is its conception of performance space as a three-dimensional quantity. Circus artists, in her view, defy gravity in a different way from dancers for example. In circus, the horizontal plane of the stage is conceptually replaced by the notion of space as ‘volume’. This is filtered through the three main aspects of circus: madness, balance and confinement. I wondered to what extent the word ‘madness’ was a suitable translation in this context of the more broad-ranging French ‘folie’ (until I subsequently read that Jean-Baptiste Thierrée attributes the origins of his work to his collaboration with Felix Guattari in the Clinique de la Borde). But bearing in mind the notion of ‘folie’ as a broad psychological malady, it could be argued that these three are the challenges encountered by a displaced person too: the threat of a loss of sanity (as found by the seventeenth century Swiss doctors), the necessity to maintain a balance between cultures, and the desire to escape the given time-space continuum ‘sideways’. In her book, Boym further noted that nostalgia was a diagnosis of the age of a ‘poetic science’, made at a time when the two disciplines were still intertwined and when the mind and the body were treated together. But as we enter a post-Cartesian age, it is no wonder that nowadays, having displaced itself from the big top into a black box, circus itself aims to be both the realm of the mind and the body – of mental activity and kinaesthetic empathy. That same afternoon, the Croatian critic Nataša Govedić emphasized the inherent ability of circus ‘to change the appearance of reality’. Could its current form of authorship be seen as ‘a strategy for survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming’?
It was the final performance of our residency that effectively brought into focus the potential of circus to integrate the cerebral and the kinaesthetic, the poetic and the philosophical, the ridiculous and the sublime. Performed by the Belgian-based Italian Claudio Stellato, this act with a man, two pieces of furniture and a red carpet, performed in complete silence, managed to achieve much more than some of its more elaborate, flashy, hi tech predecessors in this festival did. Taking another basic trick from the history book, the piece exploits the potential for slapstick humour contained within the relationship between a man and a seemingly self-willed object. At the other end of the scale this show contains a Beckettian suggestion that our whole life is an obsessive rehearsal of an escapism act – initially from the cradle, eventually from the coffin. Following a fifty-minute struggle, the closure arrives as our hero glides – magically – into thin air, elevated above his earthly concerns. The title of the piece, L’Autre, alludes to the dual – conscious and unconscious – nature of our endeavours, but also more literally to its technical dependence on another human behind the scenes, rather than on technology per se. So after all, what makes circus interesting is the wonder of being a human being – now, that’s something to think about, over and over again.