Circo Roma, Borgerhout, Belgium; 2nd November 2013
In Dutch company Tent Circustheater‘s latest production, the ‘Net‘ of the title is physicalised in the giant structure which dominates the stage, but is also a reference to the safety nets we each create for ourselves to navigate the world. The piece pushes at the edges of our comfort zones, and raises issues of conformity and individuality through the acrobatics and contortions of the seven performers.
From the opening moments we see the company playing with appearances – the relaxed bodies which reveal themselves through the overhead squares of canvas mesh are in fact hiding the muscle tensions that allow them to seem unbound by gravity’s pull.
The performers gaze out at us, and begin to explore the open space below them in an evolution of swings and inverted crossings. Even without the flashy presentation so often associated with circus, the technical training of the ensemble is evident; Minka Parkinnen has a superb line – a credit, no doubt, to her ‘hard-core Russian trainer’ in the competitive Norrköpings Youth Circus which she joined at 7 years old – and the smooth control exhibited by Milan Seegers as he slowly descends from the ceiling to perform on aerial stirrups is made to appear effortless. Seegers’ knowing gaze and birdlike watchfulness do not permit us to forget our shared presence in the real world of this ornate proscenium arch theatre and its 85 years of history; whatever transpires here, we are clearly a part of it.
As Seegers returns to the roof of the netted construction, the space is further opened up by Yolaine Dooms, who climbs headfirst over her hanging colleagues in a reversed castell pillar, and then drops to the mats below. The gridded walls become routes to the stage below, and the company – whose layered costumes in shades of teal and maroon hint both at vintage circus imagery and contemporary fashion – make a prominent show of removing the crash-mats that had provided a security blanket to their aerial beginnings (cleverly lending a sense of heightened risk to the work that follows later).
As the performers prepare to explore this life they have landed in, we see personalities begin to emerge and, as Anders Kallesoe Jensen is left alone onstage, his apparent resignation becomes a dogged persistence; his chinese pole a symbol of hazy far-off goals to be reached. Jensen’s earnest intention gives this section a clarity of meaning that is not consistently present; throughout ‘Net’ we are shown vignettes of individual stories, but no apparent unifying thread of relationship between the characters on-stage.
In keeping with classical circus composition, the vignettes take the form of ‘acts’, signified by instrumental soundtrack accompaniment and tied together with unaccompanied ensemble transitions, often utilising Jirin Meilgaard as the unassuming fall-guy absorbed with his rubiks cube.
Whilst the men in the performance seem to fully embrace their own idiosyncrasies, the women return again and again to socially conditioned images of sexuality – with varying degrees of irony.
A routine where a masked body appears to elongate beyond normal human range is ineffective, as the delicate female limbs fail to create a believable illusion with Meilgaard’s bearded face; but the choreography of a missed trick between Dooms and her trapeze partner Eva Schubach is impeccable, with a gripping development that leaves Dooms to suffer the consequences of her pursuit for control.
The synchronised contortion of Parkinnen and Seegers is a million miles away from the sterile automatons often presented by glossy troupes of oriental girls, and it develops into a competitive power-play duet that reveals the strange dark side lurking within us all; the pair receive plenty of applause for their surreal posturing, despite director Laura van Hal‘s best attempts to make transitions as sharp as possible and minimise the clapping response so typical in classical circus.
Van Hal’s second project with Tent, ‘Net’ continues to follow her explorations into ‘functional circus’ – a term she has coined to refer to circus where there are no tricks for the sake of tricks, but where each movement is logically derived from the atmosphere or emotion of the show moment. As a performer with a dance and circus background herself, Van Hal understands the technical aspects of acrobatic performance in a way that often causes a stumbling block for theatre directors hired to work with circus artists. Parkinnen, who is one of the company’s co-founders, explains that their work is a move away from the formalities of technique, and towards the inherent storytelling potential of the movements; ‘Everything has meaning and feeling’.
In the ensemble choreography of lifts and banquines, the girls pose and smile, iconicising themselves, as Schubach proudly bears a pillar of two upon her shoulders, and Clara Groeger walks across her fellow artists’ heads. Confident now in this world they arrived in an hour ago, the performers take the netted walls into their own hands at last, manipulating their environment for their own ends.
When Groeger tries and fails to embrace a conventional feminine persona, a proffered alternative results in an acrobatic orgy of strewn clothing. She and Jensen find their vitality in truthful release, pushing, pulling and throwing each other around the stage – including a visually arresting straight-jacketed somersault from Groeger. At times I am distracted from the duo’s action by the comic antics of Parkinnen and Dooms trying on layers of costume and, entertaining as it may be, I cannot help feeling that I’ve seen the dressing-up game all before – whilst a familiar device within devised theatre over the last 15 years, however, contemporary circus is only just beginning to learn this language.
Nevertheless, as the party atmosphere grows, the familiar takes a dark turn, and the excellent clowning talents of Dooms – who has been a stand-out comic presence through the show – are bought to the fore. The brilliance of her righteous anger and helplessness in the face of injustice gives a powerful emotional hit, leaving us disconcerted at the sudden blackout as we wonder what to make of it all.
The touring version of this show began its development as a 30-minute commission from Circus Elleboog – a well-established youth-circus in Amsterdam – to celebrate the opening of their new training space in 2012. As well as the core cast, the initial project also offered work-experience to trainee performers, reflecting one of Tent’s founding tenets: to be a high-end contemporary circus company for the Netherlands, offering opportunities to graduates from the two new circus schools (Codarts in Rotterdam and ACaPA in Tilburg, who opened in 2006 and 2007 respectively). The employment opportunities for contemporary artists in the Netherlands are fewer than in other countries where the artform is more developed, and the auditions for ‘Net‘ saw almost the entire graduating year try out.
Plans for the future include provision of free training space and masterclasses for all artists working with the company and, with their recently purchased training space in Amsterdam, the Tent team are well on their way – despite being such a young company, formed only in 2010. Already their performers say that they are a better employer than many, providing communal warm-up time, and good organisation.
Under Van Hal’s direction, the ensemble rehearsed in a collaborative manner, devising material from their own skills based upon concepts provided in workshop exercises. Rosa Boon, another of the company’s four founding members (who also include Cahit Metin and Hanneke Meijers), describes the artistic vision as an attempt to renew the traditional concept of circus, by experimenting with combinations of art forms whilst maintaining high technical levels.
In the Netherlands it is still difficult for people to understand what it means to be a circus artist today. The response will usually be ‘Do you work with elephants?’, followed by ‘Do you mean like Cirque Du Soleil?’ Contortionist Seegers recognises that, whilst different people are often drawn towards different types of performance style, there should be no distinctive barrier separating the contemporary from the classic. His colleague Dooms agrees, acknowledging that the most important thing in any type of performance is to believe in what you’re doing; ‘If you don’t believe it yourself, the audience won’t believe it either’.
Minka Parkinnen adds that, most often, the image presented of what circus is, comes not from the artists themselves at the forefront of making work, but from media, mythologies and members of the public. ‘Our hope’, she tells me, ‘Is that in the coming years, people open their eyes a bit more, and see the breadth of what circus can entail.’