As our slow moving crowd makes its way into the theatre space at Kopergietery Rabot for Grensgeval’s latest show, KORROL, the children in front of me are handed cylinders of concrete to carry in to the performance area. One brave lad asks instead to take a large sphere, more than a foot in diameter of heavy concrete. With a shrug, the performer passes the cylinder on to the next child and allows the boy to push the heavy ball inch by inch into the curtained off area of the large hall, where the main performance will take place. This ethos of trust and respect for the autonomy of even the youngest audience members to safely regulate their own limits of play runs through the show, and culminates in a second impromptu performance for the adults amongst us as the children invade the stage at the end of the formal showing to try out the various props for themselves. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
KORROL is the third in a trilogy of shows from Grensgeval that focus on a sensory experience of playful experimentation in the realms of different arts forms. Plock! (which I saw with my mum in 2018) featured painting, murmur highlights sound composition, and KORROL is based in architecture. The sort of architecture you begin as a child playing with building blocks and seeing what marvels you can create. All three of the shows have worked to various degrees with sound artists Aifoon, and all three feature a single acrobat. In KORROL today this is Jakob Lohmann.
As we enter the space, he directs the children to place their concrete shapes into a configuration that pleases him, dressed in a flamboyant pink jacket and spats that bring an air of flamenco extravagance to the grey tuxedo-striped tracksuit trousers and matching waistcoat that he wears beneath. Like the eccentric artist of popular imagination, he is clearly focused on a goal of creation, even though the aims of that creation aren’t made clear to us. Our job is to assist, and to playfully admire. It’s just like helping my almost-3 year old daughter build ‘cities’ with her wooden blocks at home. Except the blocks are HEAVY, and this is made tangible to us as the youngsters heave their pieces into place before joining their grown-ups in the rows of seats that form a square around the performance area.
Behind the rows of seat, white panels are suspended from the ceiling, cast with soft ombre lighting in pink and peach that mellows the hard edges of concrete onstage and hints at more conventional playroom decor. The panels are also brought into the sound design by Stijn Dickel of Aifoon, lending extra vibrancy to the physical objects. Aifoon – pronounced iPhone, but drawn from the Japanese word meaning love and harmony, and the Ancient Greek word meaning sound – create work with a focus on the experience of listening, and in KORROL this is most obvious in the amplified noises that come from the lifting and placing of the various concrete shapes, which are then manipulated to enrich the soundscape. Very few words are spoken – some ‘wow’s, a request for help, a ‘super’ or two, and enquiries to the audience about whether another block should be added to the various constructions we see built and rebuilt around the space. Communication happens through direct visual and non-verbal connection.
During the festival week, I found myself at one point speaking to the Grensgeval producer, who described their use of nonsense words and sounds as a deliberate strategy to democratise the level of understanding between children and adults. In this world, the power dynamic that so often sets adults up as dominant, with their greater vocabularies and desire to explain meaning, is flattened. What I witness in KORROL is a genuine process of empowerment for the children amongst us. And, by extension, a loosening of control among the adults as we shed some of our conformity to conventional expectations of what children can manage. I’m reminded of the Forest Schools ethos that advocates for supported exploratory risk taking and develops confidence and self-esteem through child-led, hands-on experiences.
This write-up might sound a bit academic, but the heart of KORROL is simple play. How do these shapes go together? What balances where? How are my movements impeded by the blocks? How can they support me into new acrobatic shapes? The addition of human pieces into the sculptural mileu is gently and carefully introduced, as Lohmann reacts with gentle and genuine joy to the audience responses, gradually encouraging further and further participation until his final vision is realised.
There are times when the sense of physical risk to delicate bones and fleshy bodies makes me wince, like Lohmann’s catwalk strut and clowned pratfalls with feet embedded in concrete shoes. Even more so when the children take to the stage demonstrating their own joy in testing their physical capacity through experimental play. The show is very brave, and I’m sure the company’s risk assessments must be intense. Injury seems inevitable… and yet the children surprise us with their own understanding of their limits and possibilities. It’s a valuable experience for us grown-ups as much as for them.
The development of unique objects for circus experimentation is an ongoing trajectory for Grensgeval. Beyond the rings and blocks of KORROL – some hollowed out to fit handles or head holes, some joined with strips of flexing metal – a recent research project has resulted in a new and developing lexicon for articulating the nature of collaborative objects. A small book of the research, called Dating Objects and Devoted Obsession*, was launched during the Smells Like Circus professional programme, suggesting Unwilling Objects, Egomaniac Objects, and Generous Objects, amongst others. It seems apt that they include the term generous, as this is an excellent description of KORROL. There is no egomaniac here, and we find ourselves very willing objects in the creative endeavour.
*There is no online link to this research at time of writing, but if you are interested in a copy of the book I sugest you get in touch with the company.