In this episode of the Handstand Factory Handstandcast, Emmet and Mikael discuss their experiences in Circus school, their opinions on current circus trends, as well as tips for any prospective listeners about getting into circus school: what qualities are best? how should you prepare?
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S1E13 – Circus School
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Transcript of Episode 13: Circus School
MK: Hello, and welcome back to the Handstand Cast with your Host Mikael Kristiansen and…
EL: Emmet Louis.
MK: What’s today’s topic?
EL: We’re going to diverge slightly from handstands and look at Circus School, have a chat about everything that goes into circus school, how do you get in to circus school, what is circus school?
MK: What do you get out of circus school?
EL: How do you get out of circus school is always a good one as well. A lot of people I know are still in circus school, never kind of left and are still working there after 15 years.
MK: The mentality stays with you too.
EL: People I know from when I was in circus school are still in circus school. I think they’re really enjoying it.
Where do we start with circus schools? I think for myself, I went to two different circus schools. I went to Circomedia in Bristol, as what is called a prep school. Then I did a degree at what is now the National Centre of Circus Arts. What about you Mikael?
MK: I only did the DOCH in Stockholm, University of Dance and Circus. At that point when I started, I didn’t know about any other circus schools. I applied to the only one I knew of, and was lucky enough to get in on the first try. That’s kind of rare I guess, but hey, happy enough it happened.
EL: I suppose we explain that in circus school you have two strands. You have third level education I suppose. You have a prep school, and this is for people who are interested in circus, but wouldn’t get into a normal one on the first try round, either you come from gymnastics or dance and never have done any circus, so you have to get experience of circus. Or maybe you’ve done theatre or other performance arts and want experience.
The interesting thing is a lot of people just do a one year preparatory school, and turn pro, and have a very known career based off this.
When I think back to it, I know more people you have lasted 5 or 10 years as a pro from a one year course, then people who have quit who had a degree. It’s an interesting…there’s more than one route to becoming a professional.
MK: It’s largely a connection and skill based industry. You have the network and are actually capable of doing your thing. I do know professionals as well who never did school, but built strong enough stage skills and an act, and basically went from there.
Like you say, these two types of circus school, the prep and professional schools – it’s not really a clear distinction, like there is with high school versus university. The various schools definitely profile themselves differently, taking in different people depending on that.
Obviously the main difference is the professional schools are aiming to create stage ready and performance ready artists within 3 or even 4 years of education. You’re practically going to be ready for performing after. Some people are ready after prep school, it depends on their backgrounds, but that’s not necessarily the main goal of the school.
EL: A lot of them will be called One Year Performance Program, or Preparatory Program, to prepare you for the audition for the main school. It’s also, a lot of schools history show they started with a one year prep program, and as they got more established and were able to prove to funding boards in their country that they were capable of doing a one year Level 7 or 8 qualification, whatever system we’re using here, that they would then get the funding and next levels to run a degree program. That’s what happened with Circomedia.
When I was there there was a 3 months course, just an introduction to circus, a one year course that finished with a show. It was pretty good, Circomedia is underrated, I think. Maybe I’m out of the loop on how good it is now, but at the time it was quite underrated in some aspects.
It had a continuation second year, which was access to the space to create an act, and a bit of mentoring to create an act or show if you were a troupe. This is useful for some people. Now I think they have a full 3 year degree.
This could be an English specific thing, but the degree was split into two halves. You would do years 1 and 2 as a foundation degree, which might just be an English thing. Your third year would be your Bachelors degree. So a lot of people would do Circomedia for two years, audition to come into the third year at Circus Space, then do a final year to get a B.A.
That might be England specific.
MK: That might be interesting for our listeners, especially those practically more interested in circus school, thinking about doing it at one point – check out the website called FEDEC-
EL: Federation European de École Cirque?
MK: It’s basically a Federation of the various Circus schools, I think mainly in Europe…
EL: Not all, but practically all the European schools will be signed up as a board member, and then they have honorary members that are outside of Europe. Any school that’s kind of big would be an honorary member of FEDEC. It’s interesting because they share a lot of collaboration, teacher training in various schools. If one teacher is really good at teeter board, then all the teachers go train with him for a week, this kind of thing. It’s an interesting European project.
MK: It’s worth checking out their website if you’re interested in getting an orientation of where there are schools, and what kind they are. I remember when I started getting into circus in 2008, when I started doing classes with my first coach in Oslo. We trained at a culture house. They had some circus teaching kids, then took in this guy from the United States I’ve mentioned in previous podcasts. He was teaching there for a while, and I saw that, from breakdancing, I was pretty strong so it was quick to learn. I did have the shoulders and all that for approaching high level hand balancing reasonably early on.
When he was going to leave Oslo, I just wanted to go to circus school, and of course the first one I thought of was the one he’d attended years ago, that was ENC, National Circus School in Montreal.
But at that point, I’d spent too much money of the Norwegian study loan to justify for myself – and possibly for the government too – to go to circus school in Montreal. The thing is, I don’t actually think that school was verified by the Norwegian government for study loan, so it would have been a pain in the ass to go there, with tuition fees, living costs, all that.
At that point, I just finished my Anthropology bachelors, and was like, I need to do something. I’m very happy I didn’t know about FEDEC or anything at that point, because I was completely green and knew it except handstand skills.
If I’d known about it, I’d probably have researched FEDEC and seen, prep school, that’s what i need. I would have applied there, but didn’t know anything except ENC and then read about DOCH in Stockholm. I was like, oh shit, DOCH in Stockholm is also a dance university, so probably supported by the Norwegian study loan system – let’s go!
There’s so many other schools I would have definitely chosen to know I was prepared, but hey, I got in. That was fortunate for me.
I would say it’s definitely a good place to look; there are loads of school, especially all over Europe. France has a million billion. Belgium, Denmark…
EL: France, Spain, UK…
MK: It’s something you won’t hear about unless you go looking for it. The FEDEC is the portal where you get a reasonable amount of knowledge about it. That leads me into thinking about both wanting to ask you because I don’t know, and it’s probably interesting for our listeners as well: how does one get into these circus schools? How was it for you, the auditioning process and all that?
EL: I went in with Circomedia, I was incredibly green, I knew someone who was going to audition. She was like you should go. Fine, fuck it, I’ll go. I just turned up at the audition. At this stage, the only circus I’d been doing is juggling, fire performances. I did not have a concept that there were other things to circus, other things to learn, other than knowing about aerial and things. I didn’t understand what contemporary circus was compared to … crusty…the reverse of contemporary. Traditional circus with elephants and stuff.
At that point I was like, ah, I’m earning a bit of money doing fire performances and juggling, so I’ll give this a go. I went over, auditioned with my friend Rory, as well as this other friend who will remain unmentionable. Me and Rory got in, they didn’t.
It was a bit of a culture shock. Rory and I were pretty crusty back then, to be honest. He had massive green dreadlocks, just for context. The two guys you would try to buy drugs off at a party, that kind of general look. Put it that way.
We went over there, and Bristol was awesome. I’ll talk about the school itself a bit later, but the audition process for Bristol was: went in, they had some dance, all the auction structures are very similar. A bit of dance, a bit of acrobatics, basic tumbling, hold handstands, things like that. Some conditioning tests: pull ups, push ups, and then a 3 minute performance at the end.
Done all that, over the course of one day. It was very condensed, now that I’ve done Circus Space, helped a lot of people get into circus school at this stage, coached people for it. It’s a rare type of one day audition. We got second list, on the waiting list. Someone didn’t take the place, so we got it, and that started the circus adventure.
To contrast this with Circus Space – Circomedia was very informal, no scoring system, nobody really watching your thing, no quality control. We went to Circus Space, a year later, after doing the course. I stopped doing Circomedia for financial reasons and didn’t finish it fully. I auditioned and got into Circus Space the next September.
At Circus Space the auction process was over two days. It was very formal, people with clip boards. If you were doing a dance part with the dance teacher, there were two people in the room marking you down on how you were doing. Everything was scored, the conditioning was scored in repetitions and form. It was like, 14 pullups, but then your score on repetition quality was based on 1-5. Same with dish hold, same with tumbling, all that stuff.
I’m sure they had a weighting system on that.
On top of that they had an interview process with a board of 5-6 people. The interview process is make or break for a lot of people. What people don’t get is it’s a vocational school to make a performer. A lot of people go in and say, they don’t know enough about performance, contemporary circus, what’s going on, who’s who. They might not have an artistic opinion. It doesn’t have to be a strong one. If you’re 19 or 20 or that kind of age, you still need to have an opinion and show you’re kind of clued in. A lot of people might say, I’m really into gymnastics so I want to make it my thing, or I like the training. That’s not enough to get you in, past this interview process.
Then you have a performance in front of everyone as well for 3 minutes. It’s an incredibly stressful performance, if I have to say so. When I perform I try to interact with the audience a little, break the fourth wall, as you call it. You get nothing off this crowd because they all hate you, because you might be taking their place.
What about DOCH, what was the audition process like there?
MK: lt was massive. I was surprised when I went there. I think they do similar things now, though it’s changed a decent bit since I was there. At least we applied with a video. I remember leading up to it, it was extremely stressful.
I was going to travel to Brazil with my ex girlfriend when I was living in Oslo. Just before that I was sitting there finishing the video audition tape, for them to select the people to come to the actual audition. I was doing this at the culture house where I worked. I was sitting there finishing everything, recording it on the CD, making sure everything was in order. You had to tell a bit about yourself, show some training, show an act, and so on on the video.
I did all that and compiled all my papers and all that crap, and I left. I remember I took the bus, and had the folder with me, or so I thought. I go, get off the bus, and holy fucking shit, I don’t have my folder. Where is it? Holy fucking god, I’m leaving tomorrow morning to Brazil. This is not happening right now.
Total panic. Luckily my forgetful ass had just left it right there by the computer, thank god. Forever grateful for that moment, because that was basically the make or break for me getting into circus school.
The actual audition was five days. It was huge in terms of the amount of things we had to do. Similar to what you described, the first day we were doing conditioning and dance. I’d been breakdancing, but breaking is very…distinct in its style. It’s very context based. Breaking happens in the circles, the cyphers, and practice sessions. It’s very its own thing. I never tried to do some choreography that someone else made me do. I couldn’t take choreography for the life of me. I was so embarrassed. It was dreadful. It was just simple dumb steps across the floor, and I just couldn’t get it right. I mean, it wasn’t difficult at all. I started doing it, feel I’m doing it wrong, get super self conscious, feel like an idiot, keep being more of an idiot because I can’t place my legs right. It was horrible.
Then we had to do something in a group, where we got some tasks. I didn’t know what I was doing, but got through it somehow. Then we had conditioning classes after and some stretching.
Conditioning was similar to what you said, I think we had to do basic stuff, like max dips, max pullups, handstand for….they had different categories. If you could do more than 20 dips you could continue, but there wasn’t much of a point. If you could do 20 pull ups it was fine. If you could stand on your hands for more than a minute it was fine.
We had a cool one where we had to do an obstacle course in handstand. Me and a couple of other guys were joking around. Then we did stretching which I was not great at. That was the first time I saw Sacha, Alexander Gavrilov, the guy that became my teacher. A very stern, Russian looking man. He didn’t say anything, he had one of his old students from Spain doing all the speaking. They were whispering in the corner, and they wrote notes and stuff.
Sacha would look at our splits, and so on, then put us by the doorframe and have us flex our shoulders as far up as we could. He saw that mine kind of went past the doorframe, and he just made a nod sound, and it was done.
Then on day two, I think that’s when we had a running test. All those kinds of physical things that weren’t even that relevant. Especially the running test, they said it was more to see general conditioning, and see if people bother actually running, or just walk half of it.
There was a massively tall juggler who outran absolutely everyone. He outran the shit out of everyone in that one, it was ridiculous.
Then the third day, basically – maybe it was the second day – everyone was presenting the acts. There were 80 people at the auditions; they were just machine gunning out all of the acts.
EL: Hold on, did you say there were 80 people at the audition?
MK: Yeah, I think we were 300 that had applied that year. DOCH had just started blooming in popularity around that time. I was really shocked when I came to the audition. That’s the first memory of the audition. I get off the subway, see some guy with a unicycle on his back. Okay, I’m probably following that guy. The first audition process was on the university campus in the middle of Stockholm. I was like, okay, definitely following that guy.
We went up, got numbers, then go into a studio. I started stretching, there’s a bunch of people there. I turn around, and there’s a guy standing on one arm. Oh shit, so there are other hand balancers are applying. I just assumed like, okay, Sweden, a bunch of Fins, some people from Denmark. It was all over the place.
I asked the guy, oh you’re doing hand balancing too? He said, “No, I’m a base.” Oh, okay. Who are these people?
I turn around and see a guy from Barcelona. He has the most beautiful one arm straddle you’ve ever seen. What the hell am I doing here? These people are nuts. I could do one arms myself, but these guys are schooled. They have been doing this for a while. I was just some guy who could stand on his hands reasonably well.
Back to day two, we were doing all the acts. That’s when I really started to understand, I bit off from way too big of an apple here. Some of those acts were legit. The level was super high. There was one group that applied as a troupe of six. Six guys from France, and they had been doing a prep school in France outside of Paris. Before that, some of them had been in a school in Montpellier.
These guys were proper. Their technique was crazy high. Their artistic expression and stage…level of confidence on stage was…these guys could have been working professionally, at that point. I think in certain regards they could have.
EL: To segue back to that one, you definitely had people who could have been working. There was one girl at my audition who came, mega bendy, splits, overspills in all directions. Mega conditioned, 15 chin ups, 20 leg lifts, stuff like this. Her silks act was impeccable. They said it to her in the audition – we’re not going to give you a place, because you should just be pro already. They straight up said, there’s no point giving you a place, there’s nothing you can do here.
MK: It was almost like that, primarily with that group. There were several in my class, some of them had been working professionally as well, a couple of jugglers and so on. But during that day when I sat there hammering out acts again and again, I was super impressed.
All I had was a quite traditional style hand balancing act, with piano music. At the time it was the best I could come up with. I had no tools for creativity. I didn’t know how to work on stage. I got more and more interested. There is a lot of depth to this. People were able to be extremely interesting, with much less technique. I had basically just put in all my badass stuff I possibly could in the act. That’s all I had.
To be fair, I was probably the strongest hand balancer, in terms of the vocabulary I was able to bang out. It definitely didn’t look as good as other guys who were way cleaner. But I could get away with a bunch of things, I could do a full flag even though it was pretty rough, and so on.
I just put in a lot of stuff. Most of it worked in the act, but certainly not all of it. I remember I saw another guy named Isaak who I’m actually working with now in a company.
I saw his act and remember it very well to this day. He was using blocks, and he could one arm easily by the time he did the audition. He was using a bunch of books on the floor, and manipulating them, sliding them around and creating a ‘floor is lava’ game with the blocks. He was doing a lot of interesting walking on them in circles. The cool thing is he ended with a one arm. He gathered all the blocks, put them all on top of the others, and then did a one arm. That one arm is really interesting. It had a build up.I just did a two arm, some leg movements. Next, one arm one arm one arm, go down, one arm one arm one arm, crocodile, finished. That was basically what I did. Sure it was fine, but he was able to get a lot more out of what he did.
I’ve been rambling a lot, but the worst thing on the audition was day 3. We were doing a creative task in the morning, some theatre stuff. I’d never done theatre. It was fine though, we got a bunch of objects and had to do a thing, a group piece including all the objects. I think it was 3 juggling balls, a newspaper, a couple of post cards, and a broom, something like that. We had to put something together.
You present, and immediately after you’re done, the jury says ok, now you need to do the same task. Except, all of you are hysterically happy, because you just 5000E a month for the rest of your life. Go!
You just had to go, you didn’t know what the hell was happening. It was ridiculous. All the groups got different things. One group got this one task where everyone had to be David Attenborough, talking about some animal in the forest. It was a clusterfuck, and fantastic. After that, they had to do the cut.
They cut from 80 to 40 people, it was miserable. Loads of crying. I was very happy because the number 3 was still on the list.
EL: It’s harsh they did a cut thing. In Circus Space they just don’t do the cut. Some schools do this thing where they cut the group down, from whatever, 50% every day. Some have a 5 day audition. Start with 100, whittle it down. Circus Space just did 2 days of auditions, but maybe 4-5 auditions throughout the year, to get the numbers in. Your place is based off first entry, wait list, or goodbye.
MK: They had waiting lists in Stockholm too.
EL: Circus Space is nice. If you don’t make it in they actually give a list of things you should improve on. A lot of other schools don’t do that.
It’s kind of interesting for circus school, people come with this expectation. You get an interesting mix at the auditions. The schools will take people who have never done any circus, no discipline whatsoever, and give them one. They have this philosophy where they teach you one thing. Either a discipline, or to perform. A lot of them don’t think you can do two things.
If you come in, there were definitely dancers, and one physical theatre person who got in in my year. They had never done circus before, had just been working doing theatre, or in dance, and decided fuck it, I want to take up circus.
They took them in, said we’ll teach you this discipline. They were very strong performers, good stage presence, very interesting. If you’re listening to this and thinking about circus school, but just dabbling in handstands, but have a background in something else, there is still hope for you.
Your job is to entertain people, more than anything else.
MK: To clarify for listeners, I just said something about prep school…ignore that. I think that going back to that difference between the prep and professional schools, I’ve seen a lot of prep schools, and even some professional schools in the first year, have the tendency to focus on giving you a wider base of things. Several prep schools have this philosophy of, you come in, have an interest, try a bunch of things, and then specialize. Very many of the professional schools, as part of the audition process, and the interview you talked about in yours, and in my audition, is the question of: what do you want to do? What are your goals with it? What is the artistic direction you want to take?
They know at professional level schools that you can’t specialize in everything. You kind of need to trim it down to one, or a couple, of disciplines. You have the possibility to get good enough at to be at the level you need to to work with it. That doesn’t mean, and it’s important to mention, that the development of an artist in circus school isn’t just developing the craziest raw vocabulary of tricks you possibly can.
There are many paths with this. For me this is where it becomes interesting. We talked before about the idea of perfection, the federation, and the concepts we apply in ourselves, where whatever you do it isn’t good enough.
EL: I remember having a heated discussion. At Circus Space you come in, don’t have a discipline, and pick one where you’re there. I remember I wanted to do Cyr wheel, and would be one of the first people in Europe to do it, if they’d allowed me. The head of acrobatics at the time was kind of dismissive, going no, your tumbling isn’t strong enough. You should be a mega beast at tumbling. My point was no, I want to look at it like object manipulation, which is one of my strong suites.
This would be complete unique as object manipulation. They said no, it’s not done like that. He had a crazy requirement, you had to do a double back and front on the floor. It just doesn’t make sense. There is the federation where they think only certain bodies can do certain schools, which is kind of interesting as well.
I’ve been in the business for so long now. Your job is to entertain people, this is what people forget in circus. There’s people I know who did disciplines and their skill level is atrociously low, but they’re damn entertaining. They have had work for 20 years.
There are other people with ultra high skill levels, but the performance quality of a plank. They’re out of work in 2 years, or working in a cafe.
MK: I think the artistic development of things, whether specific technique or perfomative practices or concepts, it’s a classic thing you see in so many fields. It becomes an either/or thing. Either technique is your thing, or the artistic vision is what you should do. There is space for all of these things. In breaking I’ve seen that a lot. Some people like to do all the crazy badass moves, and some like to keep it closer to how breaking was in the 80s. There’s space for both of them, that ultimately makes it richer.
I think it’s really great that some people, if you do have ultimate talent, being one of the ten people in the world to do some absolutely crazy stuff, then yeah sure, go for it. You’re one of the few that can do that. If you aren’t there’s tons of other ways to do great stuff on stage. That puts the art into it. I think that having these demands that your technique needs to look like X or Y…in reality, especially in circus context, it’s absolutely fucking nonsense.
What it does is it enforces the federation, the ‘you need to do the one arm exactly like this or it’s not good enough.’
EL: Hold on, we need to pause for a second to say, we’re not actually talking about the FEDEC federation, we’re talking about the “federation” in your head that tells you your one arm needs to be aligned perfectly, and your shapes must look identical to someone else who done them 20 years ago the exact same way.
MK: It’s the idea in your head where you film your set, look at it, and go, that wasn’t good enough because you see some sort of detail. It’s that speaking to you, the collective idea there is a specific way to do all these things. To be fair, it has some points, some things are good to know who they work.
Speaking from a perspective of creativity, it’s more hindering than anything else. You’ll spend so many hours judging yourself, depending on those parameters and criteria, rather than doing things you find interesting.
EL: Developing your own sense of aesthetic awareness and stage presence. Being able to make choices, is what it comes down to. I want it to look like this, because I find that nice. Other people in the audience will probably like it because I think it’s nice. It does simply come down to that in some ways.
MK: Speaking about circus school, a lot of being in it is exactly that. There’s a lot of discussion, back and forth, creative tasks. These things where you try things, get tools and abilities, and ultimately context to try these things again and again. For me that was the most important thing in circus school.
I remember, even at the end of school, the last term, when we were going to do our finishing acts and the final presentation of the pieces, I still got the same feedback as the first year. It was terrifying, so bad, I felt super bad. You’re doing the same thing. It was hammered down, hearing the same shit I had been doing before. I wasn’t doing it before, but I had this one tendency. It was painful to take this in, and ultimately, you need to try to transform those tendencies. I call them stage ticks you have, or always tend to go in a certain direction.
It was really good, because over time that changed how I look at what I was doing. In terms of how I view performativity has to do with self communication. You have to come in secure about yourself in the context, like any other context.
Put me on stage with a big mathematics problem and I’m going to be very nervous and don’t know what to do with it. I’m not good at mathematics. It’s going to be the same thing. If you’re very comfortable with public speaking it’s going to feel fine. If you’re not comfortable doing hand balancing on stage, at the beginning you are going to shake, and shake, and fall. Your heart rate is going to double and you’re going to fall again. Terrible, because everyone saw you falling. You’re going to hate yourself for a few days, then pick yourself up, and repeat…the same mistakes.
EL: For myself, obviously I picked up a lot of skills in circus school. I went into it not even knowing that performing in circus had an abstract theoretical background and life to itself. A lot of circus school in Europe use physical theatre as their main theatre philosophy.
For those who don’t know, physical theatre is a form of theatre, a lot of French circus schools use it, and it also dates back to Commedia dell’arte. In circus you don’t speak or create characters; you create physicality that makes your character. You have a lot of mask work to start out with, neutral masks that progress onto half and quarter masks.
Also the idea of mimicry, building up your character by how it moves, then using the movement to generate material. Very interesting, but I was thrown in the deep end.
When I went to CircoMedia, the physical theatre teacher, I hated him with a passion because he was a hard ass. To this day, a huge amount of my physicality, performance, bleeding into everything I do in life, comes from him. So thank you Bim if you’re listening, though probably not since you hated me as well.
It’s that kind of antagonistic relationship. I didn’t understand there’s a difference between getting criticized and getting critiqued. You can be incredibly harsh in a critique because it’s not personal, it’s very well meaning, you’re trying to help someone. He was a bit of a dick about it. You were, Bim, if you’re listening. It was also being thrown into this performance background where you’re doing stuff without really knowing what you’re doing. It’s all bad, but you think you’re doing it right. It’s this deep end performance side of things.
I had Bim, dear Bim, who was terrible. Then I went to Circus Space and had this incredible quality I didn’t know I had. I could turn on and off the performativity, just be normal, but stick me in front of an audience and I can turn it on, whatever it is. People who have been to my workshops will probably understand this. You just command the room. Thanks to Bim.
The other teachers in Circus Space, don’t get mer wrong as they’re really good, really good at their field, really good performers, directors, running companies – they just didn’t have what Bim had. The difference between good and great, I suppose.
It was interesting to have that juxtaposition. A lot of them came from the same school of physical theatre, like Lecoq, with his fucking drum. Oh my god, the drums.
Did you have the drums?
MK: Basically in school we had this one clown from Stockholm. He is basically a street performer, does a lot of burlesque clown stuff. He’s hilarious as a performer. I remember the first week we would do lots of energy level stuff. Speaking back to what you talked about in terms of physical theatre, a lot of that stuff has to do with being able to express emotions and states without speaking.
He would teach a lot in terms of intensity levels. Now we’re doing sadness, start at zero, increase to ten, then back to zero. It was to get the vocabulary or way to reference these, so you have something to start with.
If someone says to you, okay, play me a scene where you’re sad, you’re like, what do you mean? Where do I start with that?
While for performativity in general, to find this confidence…it’s a bit of a cliche, but creating your story on stage or act. It makes sense in one way, but where it actually does something is when those stories happen inside you. You brute force that emotion to happen in you, to some degree or other. As i said before, some communication comes through. The audience sees and perceives all these tiny gestures and motions, the ways your face expresses, your body expresses. This carries the performance. It took me a lot of time to understand when I was in school. We’d do several workshops on various teachers who would work with us on this. We would also do a lot of feedback sessions with the class and group where we watched each other, then got to hear how things came across. This is so important in terms of learning.
The critique, learning to take that. You do something, then someone tells you were it worked, where you lost them. It’s so easy to take it personally. Yeah but this and that! No, they were the audience and looked at you. You did a thing, they experienced something else.
Your job is to make them experience it. It’s being able to take that and transform it over time.
EL: Mick, one of the theatre teachers, who does clowning and comedy stuff, had this idea that you’re just playing a game on stage. It was always playing for him, a lot of play he’d encourage in classes. His whole thing was, if performing with a group of people, or even yourself, you’re playing a game. That’s what’s really interesting. It can be a happy, sad, hidden game. If you know what the game is strong enough, the other people will be interested to watch you play the game.
It’s a very good metaphor. Like watching someone play video games. If they’re good at it you get enthralled. Like watching someone play chess. Even if you’re not into it, there’s something to draw you in.
MK: Watching someone be really into something, you want to see, what’s the deal here. If you know, you’re convincing yourself of the context. That makes other people, from this sub communicative field, it creates an interest and engagement. I remember the strongest moment I ever had on stage was doing the finishing act at DOCH.
One specific move I did, I was on fucking fire that night. I blasted the act. It wasn’t like, I held my handstands solid for a second longer. It wasn’t that, I was just feeling super present. It felt like I was commanding the room in a ridiculous way.
EL: I’ve been in that state as well.
MK: I would jump down onto the floor into this crash move. I would slide my hand across the floor. I was thinking in my mind, every mother fucker in this room is looking at my hand, right now. Nothing else matters. I remember the director of the school came to me later that evening like, damn, you were really glowing tonight. I kind of knew. That’s also the thing with performance. You learn to kow that, to identify. You learn to understand that when you have that feeling that’s when you’re performing well.
I remember in dance with my first breaking teacher, he always said, when you feel cool that’s when you look cool. It’s really true.
Everyone has seen some drunk fucker at a nightclub. They don’t know how to “dance” but they look awesome because they’re just jamming it out. They have that feeling, regardless of what drug they’re on. It convinces.
EL: This comes back to the craft of performing. You can replicate this on demand regardless of what happens. You got stuck in London on the tube, someone puked on your bag slightly, then you have to prep and go onto stage. You have 10 minutes to get ready. This ability to turn it on is very interesting, to command the room like that. It’s an interesting process, and something you learn at circus school, and probably at theatre school and dance school as well.
This is one of the key things they actually teach you. I strongly believe if you take the talent pool of people they’d accept into circus school, and said, you have all the facilities but no teachers. In three years you have to come out and be a machine at your discipline. I’d say every single one of them would be the same skill level, unless it’s a really specialized discipline they’d never done before. They’re young, they can train 40h a week and will come out beasts. The performance and mentoring through this craft process is probably what would be missing, more so than the discipline thing.
One thing about performance states from school: we were doing some classes, some one to ones. You normally get one to ones in your discipline, someone in your discipline like a coach. I had one with the director. He set me a task to put all the stuff down, create a strange space in my head, then walk around it and describe what I saw, a David Attenborough kind of thing.
The first time, he said good, try again. The next time, I can remember the state because I use it much now. I managed to project the space, the whole cityscape I was describing so I was really in it. The room didn’t exist anymore for me. I couldn’t see it. I could see all the buildings I was describing and I blew his mind away with that. He said, I could see it, the building you were in. The state transferred between us.
I tried it again and it didn’t work and was terrible. For that one moment it was very clear.
I have a very clear memory of that process going on. It’s interesting to see, I was clearly seeing something imaginary. My state was strong enough that he could get it. These are the moments you’re looking for, semi peak moments in performance that give a hint of what is possible.
MK: I remember when I got into school, I would try to imagine how it was. I would never … what I imagined wasn’t how it is.
One of the best ways to associate to that kind of state is, it becomes a natural thing. It becomes easy, that’s when you know…like training, only one out of ten shows you will be fucking magic. You can get your consistency and general level very high. That general level, where you’re basically convincing everyone and they’re into what you’re doing. It’s so rehearsed, you’re so comfortable that it’s easy. The best way to associate to that is any activity that you do in your daily life, where you feel very comfortable and feel solid in that state. Whether that is as you’re writing your thesis and know exactly what to write, exactly how to express yourself. It’s that kind of thing; it needs to land in that intuitive part of you so it’s ingrained.
Everyone fucks up. I’ve been on stage several times and eaten shit in various ways. I remember this one time, this show I played a hundred times, probably 200 at that point. There’s this big scene where we’re running around and pushing this massive globe around. It was kind of cheesy, but fun. One of the other guys pushes the ball against me, and I’m like, I have no idea what I’m doing right now. The ball comes towards me, I just stand there looking at him. I pushed the ball back to him. He looked at me with these weird eyes like, what are you doing? He pushes it back to me again and I just stand there with no idea. I’d done it so many times before.
Then he walks over and does this hand gesture, reaches his hand to me clearly: grab my hand, this is what we’re doing now. I’m like, oh shit, we’re there. There were 3 parts to the act where the ball would come rolling from a certain diagonal on the stage. I thought we were on the second one, but it was the third one. It’s extremely blatantly obvious, but I just lost it.
It must have looked so dumb, because the crescendo of the music was running, and I’m just standing there, pushing the ball back to him slowly, then he pushes it back to me. This dead moment when it was supposed to be glorious. It happens.
That’s also the skill-
EL: You are able to die on stage and still recover from it.
MK: Exactly. You’re basically having spiritual hara-kiri right there on stage. Your organs are splurting out your stomach and you want to die but have to keep on going. I think that was also good about performance, getting that core level of confidence. By definition if you perform for long enough, you will have gone through so many states, where you perform and where you are absolutely soul crushed from being so garbage. You pick yourself up and keep going, or do the best thing ever, or have to puke but still have to go on stage, or so on. You go through all these things, get a deep sense that you can deal with this. This happened to me through circus school, but through the real work in the years after is where that fully established. But the foundational stuff for that was definitely in circus school.
When I went there I just wasn’t a performer, just a dude who could stand on his hands and thought he was cool. After 3 years there I remember when I did my first…maybe I talked about this, I did my first job in Montreal, with the Seven Fingers, Sept Doits de la Main. We were doing a warm up, they did this 0 to 10 emotion exercise, and did sadness. When the director got us to 9, I started crying. At 10 I was lying sobbing in the corner.
I was like kind of introspective, at that moment I was like, am I the guy who can command himself to cry? Seems like I am. This is cool.
It’s interesting to experience, on command. I was literally feeling the sadness, because I put it there myself. That’s what we were doing at the moment.
EL: That’s a segue for people listening, what about the academic side of circus school. It is a degree course, you have lectures as well on everything from performance to other stuff, business mainly.
I think one of the more interesting lectures we had at Circus Space was we had a…theatre academic is the only way I can describe it, someone who does theatre from an academic point of view. They were an exterior lecturer they hired for this course. We had them for first, second and third year. We had class on Wednesday with this person. The first two hours would be lecture about a certain style of theatre from the history: Shakespeare, Brecht, all these styles.
They’d talk about how it was staged, what sort of stage craft was used, directing techniques, script…the second half of the lectures was you had to make a performance in this style as well, so it had a practical and academic component. That was interesting for me as someone who had no theatre experience. Okay we’re going to do Brechtian theatre. He was very deconstructionist of his theatre style. He would break the fourth wall when people were about the play being contained in a house on stage. He would break the fourth wall, breaking the scenes down while people were still on stage, projecting the text onto the floor so people could read the script while it’s going on, these kinds of interesting deconstructionist themes.
We had the same for dance styles, like contemporary where we’d look at Martha Graham stuff for example. Very interesting for someone who didn’t have this as a background, because you’d go in and like with a historical Shakespeare performance, how was it done back in the day? It’s very interesting theatre. There’s a lot of jokes you don’t get because we don’t have the puns and vocabulary they had back then. A lot of it is a nod and wink to the audience you don’t get unless someone points it out and explains the joke. It’s still not funny anymore.
But getting the interest behind the performance, what’s going on and why do people make these choices about their stages? Why is it staged this way?
Samuel Beckett has a play I forget the name of, just 42 pages of scene directions with no script.
“This comes down from the ceiling.” “Man walks left.” “This comes in from the right.” Getting these experiences of cross disciplinary pollination. You’re not just looking at circus. Let’s face it, contemporary circus is a new concept, trying to establish itself as a high art, but doesn’t have its own abstract body of knowledge in performance, creative process…It’s borrowing and hijacking from itself.
What is circus, how do we make circus? That’s the interesting question posed – we have all these performance generating tools you got to explore in circus school through your discipline teachers. A lot of discipline teachers at this time probably would have been the start of the first generation of contemporary circus. A lot would have been trad circus people, or just picked it up along the way.
There hadn’t really…it’s more interesting now that I’m a bit mature and able to contemplate what was going on. At the time, there was really a struggle for how do you make circus work and what tools do you use?
MK: In my classes in school, we were discussing this very fiercely all the time. Several of the people would argue strongly with the teachers when we had academic subjects in those regards, often legitimately too, when discussing the idea of when contemporary circus came on and all that stuff.
Then you look back to Vaudeville era when people weren’t just presenting trick after trick. 1920s and so on, there’s loads of interesting stuff in terms of how it’s presented on stage. You could put it on stage now as part of a contemporary circus show.
I also became very interested, due to the french people in my class, this idea that because of the lack of academic structure of circus, which due to the university circuses like DOCH and ENC and NCCA…also in Belgium.
They have used a lot of texts, from dance and theatre, which I think is fine, it’s just enriching it. The discussion we had a lot in my class was that circus shouldn’t need to “escape” to dance or theatre to be valid. That is an arresting viewpoint. When you look at the tricks, the this, the that, and the conceptual and creative processes, it’s easy to say on one side that the tricks don’t matter and we should just create interesting concepts.
But what’s the circus in it? It becomes a complex question to answer, what is the circus in it? A lot of people argued that the concept of risk is very large and more pronounced in circus compared to-
EL: Sorry to jump on top of you, but we did a workshop with the director of a company Archaos, a leading one of the first wave of contemporary cirque. It was a 2 day weekend workshop dealing with risk using a multidisciplinary team. His whole point was that back in the day it was death defying circus. Watch this man hang from his teeth over a pit of lions while swinging through the air at high speed! All this crazy almost stunt stuff, but still had an artistic flair to it. It had a certain romantic idealized Greek, we are the muscle men of now, statuesque. We risk our statuesque physiques for your enjoyment.
MK: It’s classic old school, “the only man in the world that can do that.” That being the advertised thing you were asked as an audience to want to see, kind of.
EL: If you go back to the real history of circus, the Vaudeville era of circus, people had been making the equivalent of a hundred million a year doing circus. Up until cinema wiped Vaudeville away, circus stopped being as risky, particularly with aerial. Aerialists were the high rollers of the day. Circus started getting safer with crash mats, safety nets, using wires. Rightly so, because let’s face it, you don’t want to die too much for entertaining people.
His whole point was the only people who take the risks in circus are the ones people judge the most: jugglers. Their shame is immediately put in front of your face. The risk is, I will juggle 7 balls. I will drop them on the floor in front of you and feel my shame.
Hand balancers too, I suppose. For him this is where circus lost the riskiness. He wanted to find the way to inject this feeling that you’re not going to get out of the tent alive, or someone is going to die, but still keep it safe. It’s close to my heart, because their company get destroyed by Irish weather. The company had this amazing show with loads of equipment. They came to Ireland and the Irish weather kicked off. It destroyed loads of their equipment so that was the end of that show and the era of Archaos.
They’re still going. They paved the way, were doing aerials off a forklift at the time, that was potentially set on fire, all these kinds of things. They were trying to put the risk back in in different ways, without making it go too spectacle.
MK: I think there’s definitely something about the risk thing, definitely romanticized by circus. It clearly is a thing that all this success-failure, it’s part of what bleeds into the practice of hand balancing.
Oh no I failed, everyone saw me fail, now I must feel miserable. That entire thing is there, and of course, as you probably know, on stage as well, there are few things as hard to look at as when the juggler drops one, gets nervous, drops again, completely loses his shit, keeps trying to do the sequence. You see the person just melting down in front of you. It’s terrible, I’ve been there too with handstands. First time I went on stage I jumped up in tuck on the canes and fell straight over. That was my initiation into being on stage, falling straight down, my heart rate going up to 200.
EL: The first trapeze performance in Circomedia, we had to make a trapeze, static trapeze, very simple discipline. Simple-ish…not super simple, not to speak down on it.
We had this skill set we had to include into the discipline that was assessed, we had to make it artistic. I was like, I’m going to make a super artistic piece. I spent ages working out how to make a dramatic scene on trapeze, combining the technique. You know what? It just didn’t work; no one got it. I’m slowly falling off the trapeze badly. I was trying to make it look bad, but I think it just was bad. Fuck.
I remember one of the end of year shows at Circomedia, I was doing a silks performance, of all things, and got tangled in the silks. Silks is kind of like glorified curtains you swing out of. Some aerialist friends will kill me for saying that.
Something knotted like 10m up, or whatever the height is, 8m. It got tangled setting up a drop, and I was stuck there until the music slowly faded out and I could free myself.
That was fucking bad.
MK: Back to the risk thing and the identity of circus among the performing arts. At DOCH we did loads…DOCH has pushed the academic side of circus quite a lot. We did a lot of what they called artistic research, which is a term that I find to be both useful and useless in certain senses.
The idea of artistic research is an attempt at trying to make the creative process more approachable in an academic way. How I see it is more describing how various artistic processes might be very chaotic looking. You might think you want to go from point A to B to C, but go all over there place before arriving at point F instead.
Also the way you’re trying to document how your process went. Then you can look at other artists on how they come up with their idea, and develop ideas.
Useless is the wrong word but the way it might be less interesting for me is it becomes slightly arbitrary.
You could say, I’ve been stuck on this idea for 3 months now and I’ve scrapped it, and restarted. Is that artistic research, or I gave up because it didn’t work? I have a complicated relationships with the idea of artistic research, but it’s definitely very good in terms of a lot of seeing what can we do here, and for example, what is a discipline and what can you do within it?
The new show that I’m working on started as research, what stuff can we do without thinking that we have to put it on stage? It doesn’t need to be entertaining or interesting to someone else right now. Let’s see what we can do. Over time, of course, if you want to put something on stage and sell the show, at some point or other, you either need a very strong concept, or make it watchable by a large enough crowd of people. Then you can sell it, or it’s playing to a niche.
EL: Artistic research is a concept where you have space to…just do something. It doesn’t have to be presentable.
One mistake made in Circus Space was you had artistic research, and then you had to put on a show and tell of the research. Well, I didn’t think people were going to be watching that. It defeats it if it has to be shown and open to critique.
MK: In the third year we had a longer artistic research process. We had to have, in the same way they do in certain academic, or most academic fields. You have an opponent asking you certain questions, the board asking you questions. Why did you make these choices, what were these leading you towards? I remember the woman leading it, Anna Sanchez, was really testing me on those questions. She kept using this one term and asking, isn’t this what you’re doing? I kept denying that term. of hers. I obviously wanted to use my terminology on this; it meant a certain thing to my research rather than formulating it in another way, which carried different connotations to me.
EL: There’s that interesting academic need to define things in certain terms, and then use academic relativity. It’s a problem in some things.
In a lot of fields, terms are described relative to other terms, which is good in some ways, but also academic ownership. “I’m doing this and it might lead somewhere else.” “No, no, you’re actually doing this. Someone else has done this.” But no, I’m not doing that, it might look like that to you, but it’s not, it’s different.
MK: That’s where the artistic research thing for me crashes. At one point I agree with what you say, but you could also see it as arbitrary. Why are we doing this in the first place? We’re just putting different words on the same thing, or the same words on different things. I do think it’s a valid and interesting field.
It’s important for more experienced artists to have a way to depart from a general practice, or the “old ways” of doing things. It’s discussable whether things are really old or new. There’s very few new things under the sun.
EL: How old is it? Have you let it ferment in the ground long enough before you dig it up and do it again?
This is the thing happening, segueing slightly off. In circus it died from the spectacle aspect and regrew into a contemporary thing. The contemporary thing is now becoming the large spectacle, with big companies like Cirque de Soleil, part of the contemporary scene, leading the way, and a couple of other bigger ones.
Now the whole circus scene is trying to…I think I’m seeing an older school vibe come into circus in some ways.
MK: Oh definitely. We should link the trailer of one of my favourite shows, called One Hundred Percent Circus by two friends I was in circus school with. It’s just them researching old school circus concepts and literally inverting it.
The guy who’s supposed to be the base, a massive man, flies. The tiny guy is the base. They’re playing a lot with these circus traditions, and what’s real and what’s not? The idea that the crocodile is very impressive but simple. All these “fake things”, you make things look simple. There’s definitely a resurgence and I think that’s healthy and interesting, to remember the actual tradition of where circus came from rather than having to say it needs to be this and this level of academic to be good enough. Or we need to go in the directions of dance and theatre to make it valid. If you put this all in a pot you have more things and it’s a richer culture. It’s more likely people will be both more interested in watching it, and in doing it. It’s certainly…I don’t see an either/or thing in that.
Since we’re kind of now going towards the end, this circles back to: how to get into circus school, and why, if you’re still interested. If you’re interested in doing it, there’s one thing that really, really sucks about it. Often there’s an age limit on certain of them. At certain schools there’s a limit, so use the FEDEC site to orient yourself, whether those are things you need to consider. Then the more skills you have within something, the better that is.
You should also know that, like we talked about with prep or professional schools, it’s good to know where you might fit in. I would say for anyone interested in actually going to circus school, if you could hit up some local theatre classes, or dance classes. Just get used to doing stuff you aren’t used to doing. They are going to fuck with you on such an audition, make you do things you likely haven’t done.
It’s not the same, if you have even a fraction of comfort trying new stuff, it is going to help you. Also, if you play instruments, have quirky weird things you like to do, incorporate it into your acts and how you present yourself, so you seem like someone who has something to give, instead of just being able to stand on your hands really well. There’s a lot of people who can stand on their hands really well.
EL: Assume you’re coming from a handstands background and want to take your handstands to a professional practice, and you want to go to circus school, you need to be able to do a bit of floor tumbling. Don’t need to do much but a back handspring would be pretty good.
If you have another discipline, this is what circus schools like. Like MIkael, I’m really good at breakdancing, I can do some handstands. Boom, interesting, they’ll take you.
If you came in really good at handstands, but not that interesting and done nothing else, and couldn’t do anything in theatre classes, they probably wouldn’t take you.
I remember at my school there was one dude at audition who wasn’t that strong, or that flexible, wasn’t really anything. But he was a machine at juggling. He was doing 5 club back crosses on stage, as part of the act and not even a grand finale trick. He was very creative, very unique stuff he invented himself. He didn’t get in; he just didn’t have enough oomph in the performance and the rest of the stuff was a bit flat.
That’s a pity, he ended up in the Belgium school but I expected that to be first choice, being very strong at that thing. You don’t have to be a good dancer, but you have to be comfortable dancing.
MK: Or at least comfortable trying. Circus school is so much about trying loads of things, you need to be able to say sure, let’s go with things. When I look back to my audition there was a lot of garbage, but I tried. I just knew, I need to try now. I am certainly a very different person because I did all those things.
Other than that I’d like to say it’s a very interesting thing to do, very life changing for me. The entire process through it massively changed me. It was definitely the 3 craziest and possibly best years of my life, in the sense that I came, had no idea. All the memories from circus school are still crystal clear, a very vivid experience through the entire time of everything going on. Very vibrant community of people that are pretty nuts in general, also very inspiring. It does attract a lot of people with crazy energies.
EL: If you can spend 3 years locked up with weirdos it’s pretty good, what more do you want? It’s much more fun than a normal degree.
I think we’re getting on to an hour and a half and should wrap it up there. It’s a topic we could probably come back to some other time as well.
We haven’t even covered strange teachers we met at circus school, not even the bad weird. We’ll save that for another topic I suppose. To wrap up, as usual if you’re listening and got this far in, thank you so much. If you have questions you can DM them to us on Instagram, use the contact form on the website. We try to add them to the Q&As and mini casts as we can. Other than that, thank you for tuning in. Thank you for turning up Mikael.
If you’re interested in doing a bit of training with us you can get our programs at https://www.handstandfactory.com/
We’d love to teach you and it does keep us talking to you.