New Year, New Circus?

Cie MPTA/Mathurin Bolze with ‘A Bas Bruit’
IMAGE: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

January in the UK always signals the visual theatre feast that is London International Mime Festival.  On a flying visit into London I was hoping to catch French Compagnie MPTA /Mathurin Bolze with A Bas Bruit, which is one of two productions billed as ‘using circus skills’, and also incorporates film and dance (unfortunately, I’m still searching for a ticket – if you have one spare, please let me know!).  I definitely will be seeing Vortex, by Compagnie Non Nova, as I’m providing a review for the Puppet Centre Trust’s Animations Online.  

This particular show, however, has been causing me a lot of thought over what work should appear on this blog over the next year.  Company founder and performer, Phia Ménard, began her performance career as a juggler (and as a man) but, as her work has developed – always focusing around the idea of transformation – it has moved further and further away from the typical object manipulations associated with juggling, or with circus.  Nevertheless, when I saw L’Aprés-midi d’un Foehn – Version 1 at Edinburgh Fringe last summer, it struck me that the juggling was still a founding principle, but at a distance removed from the human hand.  The plastic carrier bags are juggled by air currents, which are the element nominally controlled by the performer.

Vortex‘, by Cie Non Nova
IMAGE: Jean-Luc Beaujault

So, is it appropriate to cover under The Circus Diaries?  As Ménard herself shies away from distinctive definitions to categorise her work, she does not call this piece ‘circus’, any more than Aurélien Bory did with Sans Objetand yet, the two artists are both associated with circus arts and their development by many people.

Am I to keep the scope of this website broad, encompassing everything others consider under the banner of circus, or should I focus more on finding my own particular understanding of what circus means to me? And, indeed, would that be possible without considering other people’s interpretations also?

Just as the meaning of ‘theatre’ is now broader than simply ‘a play’, so is ‘circus’ now more than only ‘a circus’.  To investigate the artistic field, I must investigate more than just circuses themselves.

So here is the interview with Ménard that I prepared ahead of seeing Vortex this weekend:

You performed for many years as a juggler, before expanding the scope of your work.  How do you feel your juggling skills inform your creative processes and ideas today ?

Juggling is a really important creative tool for me as it fuels my imagination.  In my creative process today,  I no longer incorporate juggling with objects, but it still feeds into the way I work with material and the world around us.  I’m interested in creating a different relationship between actors and their audience, so I try to work with materials that create interactions between the actors and their spectators.

The first impression with the work is that the wind is manipulating the objects.  That is, of course, true but it is humans manipulating the ‘unjuggleable’ air currents.  Who is the puppeteer?

I don’t know if it’s the puppeteer that interests me in this work.  I am very sensitive to the idea of dispossession, that of the human being who can’t escape the human condition.  In Vortex, the relationship between the artist and the puppet is a one of jealousy, the idea of not being able to enjoy the freedom of escaping its condition.  In L’Après-Midi d’Un Foehn, the puppeteer plays the role of manipulator, set apart from the elements, and the tamer of an uncontrollable gale.  This is what interests me; the visible control of an object which the puppeteer doesn’t control!

L’Apres-midi d’un Foehn and Vortex are both part of the I.C.E project, and presented in tandem; have the ideas from the first been developed further into the second, or are the two presented together for another reason?

Both these projects were born out of the L’Après-midi d’un Foehn Version 1 which was created in October 2008, for the Natural History Museum of Nantes. The shows are inseparable more for commerical reasons than artistic.  I.C.E. stands for Injonglabilité Complémentaire des Elements –  or ‘Complementary Unjuggleability of the Elements’ – and is a project of exploration into our relationship with the tranformational elements of water, ice, vapour and air, manipulating that which is considered unmanipulable.  The three wind plays all adopted the same starting point: the construction of a plastic shape that is given movement by wind.  They can be seen in any order, and the main connection between them is the use of wind and plastic.

How did you first begin your experiments with wind?

I started this research by experimenting with using wind as currents of air to move material.  I was working with ice, and desired to move the blocks using air currents.  Through the force of this research I arrived at the idea for Vortex, generated by six fans.

L’Après-midi d’un Foehn is advertised as ‘for children’ – that is an interesting categorisation!  What prompted that decision? Does that mean Vortex is not for children?

For me, the categorising of my work is just something that happens in the business. I try to create work without worrying about how it will be defined.  This is the only way to remain free to think creatively.   L’Après midi d’un Foehn wasn’t intended for an audience of children any more than Vortex was created solely for adults.  The way they have been categorised is purely a distinction made by the industry, which is a real shame because it seems to divide them somehow.  I  feel that the plays I create are not didactic objects, and do not have boundaries.  I find the cultural practise of categorisation for the public damaging, in the sense that it compartmentalises artistic forms.

What have been the most magical moments for you working on the two pieces?

For me the most magical moments have been, are, and always will be, watching the wind control the plastic materials.  At each performance, new unexpected behaviour appears, reminding me of a magical interaction that is also very simple: some plastic and some wind.

As part of the I.C.E. project you have experimented already with air, ice and water as elements – do you think you will turn eventually to fire?

The fire is not an element which interests me, because it has strong attractive effects and the transformational possibilities are restricted, which also restricts its potential for the imagination!  Air requires a particular sort of focus in order to accept its existence and can only be noticed in its movement.

*First written for Animations Online

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