The Trapeze Artist

In this essay assignment for Module 4 of the inaugural DOCH online research course on contemporary circus, Jana Korb discusses her ongoing practice-research…

I am writing about my ongoing research about the existential of the art of the trapeze. I have been researching this for at least 15 years now – from even before I started to be an aerialist. At the moment I am about to create a new production (my fifth one with this material) – still vague, but the seed is here already.

The story Erstes Leid (‘First Sorrow‘) by Franz Kafka has been living with me from the very beginning when I started training acrobatics and aerials. Briefly, it is a short story about a trapeze artist for whom his art is so existential and essential that he never comes down from the trapeze. He lives up there, and is being supported in this from his impresario and colleagues. In the end, one trapeze is not enough anymore, and he needs a second one. In short, a really kafkaesque – existentialist, hopeless and extreme – story about an artist.

Until now I have done four different shows with it:
1. My very first circus show was a reading of this story while doing partner acrobalance with my partner Anja Gessenhardt. We premiered in 1999 (before we were professionals), and perform it until now every once in a while.

2. In 2000 we created a full length show – again a duet – with this story, but also worked with other existentialist circus literature (Jean Genet‘s Le Funambule and Heinrich Böll’s Ansichten eines Clowns). While our first show was centered around the idea of reading a great story while moving and performing acrobatics, in this second show we started researching the notion of the story: we found that many writers take the circus artist as representative for a “real” artist, an artist who is driven to create, an artist who cannot ever think about anything else than his art and who would do anything to keep creating. Our show consisted of three scenes combining acrobalance, fire eating, performing on broken glass and martial arts. It was quite rough and cruel – and very extreme. On one hand our research consisted of reading and discussing literature and reading about concepts of what an artist is. On the other hand we felt we had to research rougher styles of acrobatics, and started working with fakir techniques and martial arts.
We performed a few times only, but the audience loved it – we seemed to have touched a nerve in post-“Wende” Eastern Berlin.

3. After I started training as an aerialist in 2000, we always had the idea to revisit the story by Kafka and to create a trapeze piece about the trapeze artist. But we never came around to it. In the meanwhile we stopped working together (fortunately we now have a new project together since 2012) and I had other projects and aerial companies.
But when the residency and arts space Villa Kuriosum was founded in 2010, they started with their Charivari Circus Festival and created their own concept of a freak show. So I became one of their freaks, the trapeze artist who lives on her trapeze. I did long time performances – being on the trapeze for three to six hours – during the freak show cabarets, during their circus parades, or just during the day.
It was live performance and research at once. I never did this in the training space – and it became essential for me that nobody should see me on the ground during the festivals. The festival people built me a litter with a trapeze bar, so I could be carried around to partake in other festival activities.

4. From this freak show experience, which was Berlin subculture per se, arose my wish to put all this research into a circus piece for theaters: to create a show of approximately 30min. with light design, dramaturgy etc. So I created Erstes Leid in 2013, a trapeze solo. My director was my first partner, Anja Gessenhardt!
I have been performing this show in different variations and in different languages (English, German, Czech). At the moment I am working on a French version, with help of dramaturge Amaranta Osorio.
It develops, from I being my freak self and reading on the trapeze, to becoming Kafka’s trapeze artist, who is eternally waiting for the second trapeze to arrive. In between I am myself and show how I train. I combine fixed choreographies, spoken (and read) word, and improvised training sequences – I really work on tricks and choreos that I don’t master yet.
The piece is beautiful, but not radical enough (artistically). So I am not satisfied. But I have decided, that I would keep this piece, and go on researching to create something new.
(Just as a side note: Anja is creating a chinese pole solo at the moment, from the perspective of the trapeze artist’s impresario. So our plan is to perform a Kafka trilogy: our acrobatic duet, my trapeze solo and her pole solo.)

So here I am now. With research of over 15 years. And after living as a professional aerialist for almost 15 years.
And I feel, I am at the beginning again.

My current research plan involves:
– to (again) research existential elements of the trapeze – to avoid falling, falling, hanging by fingers, not using hands/palms, standing on the trapeze without hands… I think, as aerialists we have to find our equivalent to jugglers’ drops – could it be falling?
– to try even longer sessions of long term performance.
– I have been timing myself: how long can I hang by my hands, on one hand, by my feet, in kneehang, on one knee, how long can I stand without holding onto the ropes etc. etc.
– to read more about Kafka and his circus obsession, as well as trying to really grasp Jean Genet’s Funambule (this novel has not been well received in the literature world – but I find its material very rich despite its kitschiness)
– I watch and research other aerial art and contemporary aerial circus. I try to find out about their research and creation processes. Try to meet them. But also I am very taken with contemporary juggling at the moment – a circus art so utterly different from my own – very intriguing!
– I want to define the difference between myself (a contemporary trapeze artist), the freak (pretending to live on the trapeze, while being myself) and Kafka’s trapeze artist (a fictional character), and want to know exactly when I am and when I act (for this Bauke Lievens’ open letter really touches a point – at the moment it has rather dishevelled me, but that is good…)
– I need to eliminate the text, the spoken word. I need to see, how the story works, when I don’t tell it.
When I showed part of my research at a master class with Julia Christ last year, this was her suggestion – I was in defiance ever since, because I love this text so much, and it has been with me for so long. But I know I have to try – this would be MY RISK to take, and well, no circus without risk, right?
– and (this is also hard) I need to research the moments, when I am tired of being an aerialist, when I think about my future after being too old to perform as an aerialist etc. In Kafka’s world the trapeze artist would die on the trapeze. But then Kafka’s characters never grow old.

At the moment I am picturing some kind of lecture performance. But of course I don’t know yet. When I saw Extreme Symbiosis half a year ago, it was very much the approach of what I had been picturing for my piece. But well, I saw it now. So I have to go further.

This kind of research works very well for me, in my context. I cannot take the time to research for six or so months and do nothing else (although I would love to). I need to earn money, since I fund all my productions myself.
But this is just the practical reason. Part of the research process comes from my actual life as an aerialist in the German event and variete circuit, and also from my aerial teaching work. I know what a trapeze artist is, I live as a trapeze artist, I am a trapeze artist. But I still need to grasp it, reflect upon it and put it into language (verbal, physical…)

It is a very self centered and self reflective research. Quite psychological and maybe very 90s. But apart from my other projects, I am really enjoying this process, and it helps me understand my art and myself being an artist.