In this episode of the Handstandcast Emmet and Mikael go into Mikael’s creative process with Váld (RWD Circus). They discuss Mikael’s thoughts as to why he wanted to do this, the creative process in general, the limitations of handstands when performing, as well as influences from various other genres of performance art.
We hope you enjoy!
S1E21 – An Insight into Mikael’s Performing Side of Life
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Transcript of Episode 21: An Insight into Mikael’s Performing Side of Life
EL: Welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my co-host Mikael Kristiansen. How’s it going Mikael?
MK: Not too bad. Just got back from a massive research artistic creation period. Still kind of beat up, both physically and mentally, but pretty good.
EL: Nice. Just to give people a run down of what we’re going to do today, Mikael’s been working on this project, which he is going to tell you a bit about. I am going to interrogate him slightly about the project, and artistic process, and other stuff that goes into making something.
For me, because I’ve been looking in from the outside of this project, it’s been very interesting. As I understand it, Mikael and the team he’s working with – the company – are trying to basically come up with a new creative way of doing handstands. They are all mega beasts on their hands, the highest technical level. As you get really good with these things, you kind of get bored with just plain technique. All handstand acts are very similar in a way, I suppose. What they’ve been trying to do is make something new and interesting; a new creative dialogue, I suppose, for hand balance.
MK: That kind of sums up what we’re trying to do in a decent way.
EL: Why don’t you tell us a bit about the starting point for the project, or how you came up with trying to do this?
MK: The starting point was really separate from what we do now, in one sense. In 2015 I think, I was watching various handstand acts. I was performing a lot with the show Knitting Piece that I was in, and really felt the same kind of alienation that a lot of hand balancers feel from their discipline, in terms of the method of display and way of doing handstands. With all circus, and particularly in handstands, the presentation method is, on one side, explicitly athletic and practically gymnastics in its execution. Stand on your hands, learn these techniques, get really good at them. Get so good at them that you can perform them on stage, and then try to fit that into some sort of context. You’re either exploring an artistic concept, or making some sort of narrative or task that needs to be done, or a specific aesthetic or mood, or so on.
I remember I was looking through a lot and noticed I didn’t like anything. It’s not because people were making bad art. I was constantly questioning the reason for standing on your hands when on stage. What are you trying to say? What are you trying to do with it?
I was making this dumb little analysis, pretending I didn’t know anything about handstands. I would look at various acts, and go: for how many handstands would the act keep me invested? I would make this curve. The person is on stage. They present themselves in whatever way they’re doing. At some point they enter into a handstand. At that point I would try to figure out, how many times could they actually repeat this thing of standing upside down, and for how long before I start dwindling my interest?
I would notice I would often skip through the act to see, what does this person do? What technical things do they do? What you’re doing then is looking at gymnastics. He did this one, that one, this one, that one. Then I know the general skill level of the person. Done. There’s not much more to be seen.
I started to get into that mode because I’d seen so many acts.
EL: If you’ve watched a lot of handstand acts, there’s a formula I remember from circus school. Someone would come out, they have a character defined by their costume more than anything else. Whatever it is: I’m a guitar player, a drunk, a ballerina. It’s something archetypal. Archetypical? Someone can leave a voice note on how to say that word.
But yeah, they come out, and you get this in a lot of circus acts. They come out and go, here is my character defined by my costume and some slight mannerisms. Then the second, the apparatus. Then they start doing the skill. All the mannerisms of the character disappear. This is a common circus style that is hopefully fading. It’s very pantomime-ish.
MK: It’s very difficult to go away from as well. It is an interesting discussion in the broader sense of performance and circus. Why do we want to go away from it?
When I was in circus school, we discussed this a lot. We’re actually doing circus and trying to find loads and loads of reasons to go away from this thing, the actual skill thing we’re doing, the particularities of the circus. We’re trying to find a reason for them to exist by doing something else. That is an open ended discussion in terms of taste and loads of things for me. It’s not necessarily saying it’s bad or good. I found, as a person, this got less and less interesting. I’d find that after 4 to 5 handstands the interest would dwindle, especially when it comes to one arms.
On higher level of skill, one arms are what people present. The fact remains that the amount…the basic thing you are presenting on stage when presenting handstands is virtuosity. I am good at doing this thing. You’re displaying control. I can control the situation. You are displaying various beautiful geometry you can create with your body in various senses.
The fact is that this beautiful geometry is very limited in what it can do. There are rather few types of positions. I broadly define it in four categories of regular handstand technique, if we are not talking about contortion: the straight shapes, the flags, the figa types, and the press types.
All of them make it a specific type of body shape. The rest is just variations and transitions within that framework. So there isn’t that much to do.
After you’ve seen a bunch of variations, how much are you actually adding performance into the mood, energy or atmosphere? I did a Figa, then one minute later I do a Figa with my legs closed. The geometry is very similar; there isn’t much to see in terms of the visual side of things. But for me as a hand balancer, and other hand balancers, we know this is a higher level of skill. I will give it a higher level of praise.
In the real performative context, this isn’t how it works. People have no idea. And if you analyze it, what are you doing that legs together Figa for? Are you just trying to gather social currency by displaying, I’m a bit better than the next guy, and a bit cool because of that?
That was one thing that made me want to try to do something else with it. This was an ongoing struggle I had to go through – what am I trying to achieve with this skill? Of course you can go deep in that with any discipline, or anything, and end up basically a reductionist nowhere.
But, to get to the point, I wanted to explore what the hell happens when you take a bunch of people and you do handstands all the time? It’s basically subverting the expectations. If you look at the Chinese circus act as the polar opposite, there you have a person on their hands all the time, doing nothing else. They slam through all the positions on one arm, change to the other and keep repeating for 4.5 minutes. It is absolutely amazing on a physical level, but reaches a flatline very early. You have no breaks, so you have no time to take in what is going on. It becomes uninteresting. You set the bar unbelievably high and then go nowhere from there. It’s crazy, but it doesn’t travel. It doesn’t evolve.
I wanted to see that if that is what happens with one person, what happens when you take a group of people? What if you’re not focusing on the solo individual and the virtuosity and the skill presentation of this one person?
Basically in 2015, I applied for some money in Sweden for doing a project I called Handstand Forest. It’s artistic research with a bunch of hand balancers. So I gathered a bunch of people, some from Stockholm and some from abroad, and we basically, nine of us in total, took a week to play around. We tried out various concepts. We were trying to create practices, as they speak a lot about in dance. Instead of trying to do a trick or sequence, it’s more finding a way of working or practicing together within a certain framework.
That was the beginning. From there, we created a bunch of these practices and started giving them names to identify moving with a certain quality, or relating to each other in a specific way. We would create these kinds of communications, or ways of communicating upside down so you could have an idea of what was going on in the room around you.
We were going to have a presentation, and were really wondering what we were going to do about this and present it. I remember waking up and I looked at the upper corner of the ceiling in the room I was sleeping in. It was at my ex girlfriend’s place in an old student apartment, so it was sort of moldy up in the corner. That mold made this entire rush of imagery go through my head.
The imagery sequence that went through my head was me basically imagining this wooden panel that would stand for 200 years. First it would start to mold, then rot and warp. In the end it degenerated and became dirt, which is obviously what happens with decay and decomposition. Then I started thinking, what if this is what we are doing with our handstands, from these very straight and rigid shapes that have a specific purpose and very clear technique, to decay and growth?
Suddenly we started to come up with a bunch of metaphors. Those started to inform our practices as well. We found a concept called rooting, a game of grabbing onto someone in handstand. I started manipulating them as if our hands were roots, tons of things like that we began playing with.
EL: Can I just talk in a bit about that, because you said some very interesting things that people might miss? One of the things you just pointed out there, whether you’re informed of them or not, is the concept of decay and internal metaphor. It comes up a lot in Butoh from Japan. It’s one of the founding things, and what I find interesting about Butoh after doing a bit more research on it lately, is they have very strict rigid, informed and technical practices to establish certain ways of walking or holding the body. It’s very similar to handstand, where they search for this infinite perfection. But then the dance is created via an internal metaphor. This is a key in Butoh. One of the big ones is: you’re a flower and you start wilting. Obviously you don’t want to pantomime being a big flower, a tree, a seed…it’s more, what is your internal imagery that that flower collapsing from the inside downwards as it decays or breaks down? How does that inform your standing posture and slowly go down?
So it’s very interesting that you hit that. I did one weekend class with an Italian guy in Butoh. It was really good, and described as the only European who can actually do Butoh, and I don’t know enough to assess that completely. He was using all these metaphors, and that rotting was one of the first ones. He described Butoh as being two dances, the dance of light, and the dance of dark.
The dance of light is very straight up what you see is what you get. You have technique, choreography, and it’s inspired by these. Then you have Butoh and other dance forms as the dance of dark – an internal metaphor that would probably not become clear to the person. Or an internal story or script that the dances and company will know. It probably won’t become obvious to the audience at any stage, but they’re still watching it. You’re trying to transfer this sense of vibrancy or emotion or atmosphere that is generated by this.
Butoh comes from post war Japan, a lot of the imagery is quite disturbing. A lot of people say it’s initially to deal with the psychological trauma of the nuclear bombs being dropped.
So it’s interesting that you have a bunch of mega technical beasts, where everyone can basically do everything, all the basic repertoire. But then you’re like, we’re actually going to take these and turn them into metaphors, into something.
MK: There is a lot of that thinking in contemporary dance and physical dance, circus and so on, where you use these internal representations to basically colour the way that you move and act.
I remember when I started circus people were talking about telling your story, your piece, and so on. I thought it needed to have a narrative, but it doesn’t. I think the story that matters can be a narrative, but what matters is you’re able to fill your performative state with something, so that it’s not just empty choreography that you repeat movements you’ve done a hundred times. That is also necessary, but those movements can be coloured by the state you’re in. Being able to do that often takes these practices from improv, for example, where you immerse yourself in that state for long enough that you get to know it, and can trigger it by will.
To continue on to what actually became the Vald project and the company Right Way Down – the things I spoke about were the precursor to the Vald project. Essentially, I was thinking about this for many years. We were talking with some of the people that ended up being in the project. From 2015 to 2018, I got fed up with myself not doing anything about it. I told the others, fuck it, let’s try to do this. Five people I had worked with in that first group of the Handstand Forest Research were all vastly different people, with loads of different interests in both our handstands and in general. We had loads of complementary attributes, so I basically invited them to be part of this project and create this company together.
One of the basic tenets of this project is I did not want to be the director of this company. That was never the intention; I wanted us to create together. I think all these people are brilliant fucking artists, and we’ll list and mention them in the description.
Basically the project would be a lot less rich if I were calling the shots. I certainly had some ideas, and for me it’s been very important that it’s not about ownership, and that it’s for people to be able to try out things they want. We’re many voices in this. If it’s going to be a group effort it needs to be a proper one.
Essentially it was me, a girl named Sunniva Byvard from Denmark from DOCH (Everyone is from DOCH), Lisa Angberg, Isak Arvidsson – those two are from Sweden. It’s Matt Pasquet and Imogen Huzel from the UK. That’s everyone.
Everyone is really different in their approaches and ways of working, and we used that as a strength. As we formed the company we started discussing which direction we wanted to take this in. We wanted to make a stage show that would be capable of touring larger stages. I applied for money to do this as Sweden has good grant applications for creating your own projects. This is the Scandinavian or Nordic style of making circus nowadays. So many people I know…it’s kind of the norm in Sweden that people work in companies and do all sorts of things. Most people I know eventually apply for money, work for a few years like we did to get money. They start creating their own projects that they tour. It can be on smaller or larger scales. Ours is on a larger scale of course, because we are six people on stage. This requires a substantial amount of money to create a project. You want everyone to be able to have paid creation periods, and so on.
We did get a substantial sum of money and co production with a bunch of spaces like the Dance Initiative in Northern Sweden. We got support and co production by them, and a place called Dynamo Workspace. We were supported by Berlin Collective, as well as a place in Sweden. Basically, various places and institutions have supported us with either space to rehearse and create, or funds, or help with eventual touring and production.
We have started to create the project ourselves. It’s now in the mid stage. When you create these kinds of shows, you look for residencies, which are places that primarily offer a space to stay and create or rehearse in. Sometimes you get funds as well. Possibly you get other production needs.
EL: This is quite a common way in Europe. There is government support for various art agencies. It’s very interesting as a process. First you prove you can do something. When you’re a bit serious you get a bit of money. When they see you deliver with that small amount of money, they give you more money. You can get quite substantial amounts of money. I know people in Ireland who have got a quarter million for productions. They start off with 500E.
Often it’s not a commercial project from the arts agency; they don’t expect you to make a return. It’s great if you do, or if you make something that can be commercialized, or a touring or gallery show, and sell some art. But one thing is they want to see you actually make work from it. I think it takes a lot of pressure away from the artist with this kind of support.
MK: There are a lot of difficulties as well, in terms of the precariousness of the artist’s situation in general. The fact that it exists here is good; it means there is a possibility for people to have a vision, work on it, and create something over time. For Vald’s sake, and Vald is the name of the show that the company Right Way Down is creating, we’ve done a few residencies. We worked on it for a few weeks at a time. We gathered a crew, which was a mess since we’re all artists doing several things in companies at a time.
Vald means forest in german. It’s a name we took basically to have a name for the project. We need a name for the fucking show, what do we do? Let’s just call it something. We were working a lot with the metaphorical landscape we began with in 2015. This was basically taken further. We started to create various concepts, scenes, moods and so on, to be able to use as the exploration. The exploration itself also stems from the fact that hand balancer bodies are extremely specifically trained. We essentially have four legs; that’s a bit of the point.
I want the audience to sometimes forget we’re standing on our hands, to create a double layer of performance. You’re looking at something with a very high level of virtuosity. Even if we’re standing on two arms creating imagery with that, it becomes such a self evident thing.
In the same way as the Chinese circus acts – I take it for granted because the person is so good on their hands. You forget the point, that they’re actually doing something physically impressive, but in a different way than the Chinese artist does, who does additively more and more technique. I wanted it to be a level of reflection where you forget, remember again, then forget. That’s an ongoing thing in the show. You suddenly go, holy fucking hell, this is really impressive and incredible. Then you can allow yourself to forget that and be taken by the mood, concept, atmosphere, character, or whatever we’re doing on stage. This is one thing we’ve tried to do.
We’ve created loads of group scenes. We just finished a residency in Denmark where Dynamo Workspace is. It’s an incredible space for creation. They have a festival and do tons of different circus things. If you’re in Denmark and don’t know about them, definitely check them out. Loads of great stuff there.
We were there for two weeks. The funny thing is, and now I go more into the challenges of creating work. We came together with this common idea of creating this group cohesion and dynamic. We created so much material around that, which was great, but we also wanted to get the individuals to show in this show. There’s so much done by everyone at the same time that we wanted the individual to show, but it got a bit lost. This is what I find really interesting.
A difficulty of creating is you begin in a direction, then go very deep and invest very strongly into this idea, or a certain way you want it to move, or a narrative you want to follow, a specific thing you want the audience to experience or the show to say. You absorb yourself into those ideas. As with all biased things you tend to forget about other things.
In Denmark we invited a good friend of all of ours, a guy named Tom Brand who works in the circus company Svalbard. He’s a brilliant rope climber and has great movement artistry. He has a great eye to capture and see dynamics on stage. He gave us loads of challenges and basically challenged a lot of our concepts. Ok, you are now trying to achieve X and Y energy on stage, but what you’re actually expressing to the outside is something else.
We knew we were doing that too; we needed someone outside to give us this. In the industry they call it an outside eye, a person who comes in and looks at what you do, so you get an idea of what the hell is actually going on. What are we actually doing? In our heads we think, this is really great because this scene comes after and creates this energy – but is it really? You create a blindness through an investment in the concepts. It’s necessary to go for those things, but you also need someone on the outside to challenge it. That has been the latest stage of what we’ve done so far.
EL: You think you’re painting red, but you’re actually painting blue. There’s always this thing. I’m sure even people listening in who are starting handstands can agree with the simple thing where you think you’re pointing your toes. You’re not. You need that outside eye.
You get an emotional and physical response to what you’re performing. You think that response you’re putting into your tricks is there, but it’s not coming across, or in the right way. It’s really interesting to hear this show and tell bit. I’ve been enough of an outside eye in similar places. People go, what did you think? Well, actually….
Just to segue back to the show, I was wondering if you could pick one of the sequences in the piece, and talk us through a bit about it and what’s behind it. I hope people go see the show. I know you had a trailer up. There’s two things I can remember from the trailer. One was the mass of people on the floor. Then someone bursting out into a handstand.
Another one, everyone was on canes, moving slightly de-synced.
Maybe for me, the people coming out of the floor – I can explain the imagery I got out of it, and you can tell me how right or wrong I was. What it looked like was a blob, maybe water or some kind of liquid that was coalescing. Every now and then when water swirls up, either a wave or column of water will shoot up then fall back into it. That’s what I was getting from the imagery. I don’t know if you still have that scene, but maybe you guys can say what you were playing with, or what came of it.
MK: First of all, now I’m wondering…The blob is in the show, but not actually in the trailer. I’m wondering if you remember the blob from another presentation I specifically sent you. This is for our readers, in case you watch the trailer and ask where the hell this image Emmet is talking about is.
It might be in the trailer; I just don’t remember. The blob is certainly in the act. This really comes down to a lot of the metaphorical framework we’re working with in the show.
The blob is used a lot and something we created a practice around. We created a breathing and movement practice within the blob to make sure we can feel each other. A lot of this show has a very…precious quality to it, in the sense that if we’re in the blob and all breathe together in the same timing, it looks great. If one person doesn’t it’s very jarring and the eye immediately goes to the thing that isn’t really fitting with it. For the scene itself, this was really the idea of growth and evolution and this unshaped form that is growing. It doesn’t really have any specific shape to it. It’s not trying to look like anything, it’s simply there. We basically took inspiration from things evolving.
The first inspiration for that blob came from envisioning the primordial ooze years ago, imagining the something abstract entity of liquid something that evolves and changes. Somehow something else is created out of it. A lot of the material in the first part of the show, as it is now, deals with this kind of evolutionary thing. We were really trying to have a showing and not telling approach. We didn’t want spoon feeding of, we’re this, now we’re that. If we’re doing that, we’re forcing the audience to swallow what we give them.
What I’ve been very happy about, and you started talking about water and waves. Other people talked about grass growing in a sped up time lapse. People come out and give us a lot of this imagery that isn’t the same, but it’s similar and there’s a certain scope or angle that things are viewed from, more or less. That is what we want, to make it associative and potent in that sense, rather than a direct spoon feeding. The imagery displays and hints towards things, so it’s also up to a person’s own imagination.
Also when we worked with our outside eye Tom, that was something he stressed a lot. As performers we had to find in each scene what it meant for us. I look at performance as sub communication. It’s basic human communication, just on a stage with certain rules, creating a social contract that says I perform for you, in the audience. If we’re just doing choreo and feeling nothing, we can’t bring the same kind of investment into each movement or little thing we do. It’s funny because the audience notices these things. You don’t know you notice, but you do.
I think the best example of that is that when you see someone on stage who is uncomfortable, you will feel uncomfortable very quick. You won’t know why. It can be something as simple as a flicker of the eye, or slightly higher body tension in the arms of the person. You might not even put a finger on it unless you see a video several times in a row, but your body notices so quick. It’s the same when you see the investment in people. Finding that richness in ourselves as we perform is a Must in a piece like this. Of course there’s impressive techniques like you mentioned, with all the legs in the air, and the imagery we’re working with – flowery, balloony, blossoming things.
This is very “easy” for us to make look good. All we do is jump into handstand, time the legs, and everything looks great. That’s something we also understood. This is what we mastered and are really good at. We don’t need to work on the big picture as much; they’re basically about following the count of music, having a cue, or a communication in handstand so we do it at the right time. Finding the subtleties is where this work is.
I compare it a lot to contemporary dance in one sense with a lot of its working methods. The group has also been very clear that we really don’t want this to be, we are doing a contemporary dance show but we can handstand. That’s something we want to not do, and keep a specific circus approach to it.
EL: This is a challenge circus is facing to define itself as a higher art form as it progresses. If we go back to the earliest days of circus it was, get the flying feat and sparkly costumes. No narrative, no drama. The only people who would have characters would be clowns.
MK: There is a bit of that in the Vaudeville era. You find some occasionally interesting things.
EL: One thing that always annoyed me in circus when doing shows was I had more dance directors directing circus shows than I did circus directors. Obviously there’s a limitation on circus directors, and many pieces I did in shows were bigger productions. So we had a budget and needed someone who could deliver, blah blah blah. But they were always coming in with this dance creative practice and vocabulary to try to put onto the circus artists.
Then you got circus artists doing a contemporary dance show. And yeah it’s impressive. Circus and dancers have physically impressive bodies and skills, but it’s always slightly jarring. I don’t know. Seeing circus artists doing choreography…
MK: I think it can be done nicely. I’ve seen loads of dance with circus artists be amazing. And circus artists becoming dancers, dancers becoming circus artists. It’s not a problem. But I think the thing is to, when beginning a creation, to be clear about what we are trying to do with it. I think there are things within the circus tradition that are valuable, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
With what we do, our fundamental starting point is everyone is super duper comfortable on their hands, because they’ve spent so much time on it in this artificial and strange environment of learning to master every single movement on their arms. Starting from there and exploring the options of these specific bodies, where all of us understand the reaches and limitations of what these bodies can do. But someone can come in and say, can you try this or that, things where someone who knows handstands wouldn’t ask those questions.
It’s like a friend of mine who does aerial straps. He told me about doing a massive production in a theatre with a theatre director. He was supposed to do flying straps really high above the audience at the end of the show. It was one week before premiere, and they bought this massive fuck-off motor to get him above the audience. He’s hanging up there doing his sequence and finishes one part. Then the director screams up to him and says, hey this is the part where I want you to fly around in a circle. He’s like, I’m hanging statically straight down. Where do you imagine me suddenly going to get this speed from?
The guy had an image he wanted to portray but didn’t understand the specificities of the discipline. Of course that is one specific example of rigging and a technical understanding, but it also comes to the bodies and particularities that can be looked into. That is one thing everyone in this project is very interested in. What we found is we need to be able to bring out the strengths of our group work, for example. We created so much group work, then found we need to find times for the individuals, not only to show each person. We don’t need to display each person as a sort of presentation line. It’s also for the eye of the audience.
If you look at an entire group moving together for 35 minutes, it becomes a flat line or blurry. You fall asleep. As our outside eye said, it’s finding ways to “wake up” the audience. It can be through subtle and interesting things. If everyone is in movement then stops suddenly, that’s a wake up. Something changed. If you’ve been working intrinsically in a group for 7 minutes, then boom, the group is suddenly not the focus anymore and you’re now watching one person – we want the ability to create those changes in the attention. That’s important. In terms of a circus show, of course we’re trying to create something – and it’s dumb to say – but we want something of high artistic quality, that is unique and special in its own way.
We also want it to be entertaining and interesting to watch. Loads of people are into these extremely process oriented performances where the performer does the same thing for 45 minutes. If you’re into that it’s great. It’s not particularly my cup of tea either –
EL: *deep, deep sigh*
MK: If I start losing attention in what’s going on, or want to look at my phone, or start thinking too long about what’s for dinner, the show is losing me. Having wake up calls and dynamic changes are really important. The fact is, we are working with practically only handstands for an almost one hour show. That is going to be very challenging at times to keep the attention, so we need to look elsewhere for dramaturgical development, compared to a classic circus show. You have different disciplines, so by definition, you have variation. Variation is a key tool for circus. The various disciplines also carry different levels of energy by default.
If you do an aerial hoop act it’s very unlikely that will have the same energy as a five person teeterboard act. There’s very different dynamics to it. I love the teeterboard as an example. In literally any show where that’s present, at that point in the dramaturgical curve when you want the energy to go sky high and create a crescendo or peak, you can simply put in an energetic teeterboard act in and you have it by default. People are flying 7m in the air. Sure you can do other types of teeterboard act, but in its inherent state it carries a lot of that.
While in a handstand, it has a slower contemplative display of control. It’s very hard to create something extremely dynamic and very different from other handstands. We are rather trying to manipulate that energy curve and tension curve through the show, by other means.
EL: We’ve had this in juggling for quite some time. Juggling has been the forefront. We’re doing shows of just juggling for 40, 60 minutes. You see companies that have dealt with these issues you’re discussing. We have a limitation imposed by the discipline. How do we work around it and stay true to the discipline without fake creating it? This is what interests me about your project; it’s breaking ground in hand balance because this kind of thing hasn’t been done before. In a pure hand balance show.
MK: I’ve seen large group acts and stuff, like Chinese style. I know Seven Fingers did a longer piece as part of a three part show that was hand balance related. I haven’t seen it but one guy, Matt, was performing in it and said the intention and qualities worked are very different in these two, which I think is great. Like I said, I haven’t seen their shows and don’t know anything about it, but it’s cool that we’re not doing the same as them.
EL: It’s an interesting starting point. I worked with the Gandinis at Circus Space, they have a lot of process they built up over the years with how they work with artists, communicate, divide the shows. It’s uniquely Gandini, every show has a Gandini flavour even if they have an outside director, because of all these processes they built up from their first beginnings back in the 90s, up to now. So it’s interesting that you guys are beginning to almost make a handstand performative dialogue and theory, maybe just unique to the company. We’ve done this before, showed that show, put it away for a while. Now we’re going to make a new show, maybe some of the artists won’t make it, you’ll have some new people, but you can indoctrinate them to your way of working and creating, and your performative states.
MK: I have no idea if this will be a one off, as the only hand balance kind of thing. That is impossible to know at this point. Referring back to what you said about juggling, I think it’s very relevant. Juggling has, possibly of all circus disciplines and many performative things in general, a wide array of things. It has the entire thing of object manipulation. If you change the object from a ring to a pillow, each object has so many particularities that you can constantly find new ways of doing things. Each thing has its texture and shape, and unique physical properties. I’ve been inspired by that. Also the juggling communities can be unique in circus schools, since there are so many people that aren’t doing circus that are jugglers and are really fucking good. But it seems that in juggling, people are very aware of its history. When new things come out, I often see from my limited knowledge that people know what’s been done before, and are pushing those limits.
My main source of juggling exposure has been the Stockholm environment, which has a distinct style. They’re absolutely crazy and there are loads of interesting things that came out of here. I’ve traveled to other places and seen completely different things. Oh shit, this is really different from the stuff I’m used to. I was basically only seeing a set number of extremely good jugglers working through their methods. I’ve seen it mainly from here, and my knowledge of juggling is rather limited.
But there’s so much exploration being done within that discipline, since you can’t change the parameters easily. While in hand balancing, there are very few parameters to manipulate.-
EL: Hm, I’m going to throw something at you here that you touched on at the start. In classical juggling you have three basic objects. One of the themes in the last decade was to find the fourth object. You have ball like objects, stick like objects like clubs, then ring like objects. These are your classical juggling props. At the start of the show you said, I divide my shapes into four basic categories – Figa, straight, flag and press type shapes.
So within that, you kind of have the limitations juggling has. Then, how do we come up with a way of making this interesting.
MK: When you speak about that my thoughts immediately go to breaking, break dancing. The first thing that struck my mind is the air baby stuff. You just need to look at Rubber Legs or any of those guys. The amount of variation they have in that area on one arm is staggering and absolutely ridiculous. It’s almost shameful for hand balancing that it hasn’t come up with more vocabulary compared to what a handful of people in breaking have done in just a few years.
Of course it’s not taking anything away from hand balancing, but it goes a little bit into that thing we talked about before. The practice and the tradition of the discipline kind of impose a certain way of thinking and working. It streamlines it into a hierarchal set of moves that have higher and higher social values in a sense, within a community. It’s kind of dumb, but most of human interaction is like that. I’m drinking more special coffee than the other guy.
EL: My coffee has more butter in it than your coffee.
MK: It’s kind of ridiculous in that sense. It is what it is. I think it’s good to be aware of these things, especially when it comes to the creation. Ultimately performance comes, for me, to being down to be able to hold attention.
I remember one of the strongest and both worst and best dance shows I’ve ever seen was a piece, and I can’t remember who choreographed it. It was the graduation piece of the dance class at the school I was at. The first 20 minutes of the show was just all the dancers in a row really slowly opening their mouths. They were just opening their mouths for 20 minutes, in silence. You just sit there like, this is nothing. Then 10 minutes pass….is her mouth open? It actually is. 15 minutes: I get it. Actually something interesting happens. Then at 20 minutes, suddenly this dreadful horror movie-esque sound scape just slams you as everyone has their mouths super open and drooling down their faces. What the fuck! I remember jumping in this chair, more than in the horror movies. Then they started this other thing. A lot of people would find this show bad. And a few minutes ago I said I don’t like these things where people do the same for 45 minutes. Here they were able to keep my attention for long enough periods of time with a slight change, which then comes to this extremely jarring and terrifying change, into this other thing that is super violent, but also repetitive. The interesting part is it kept my attention through the piece, and I remember it very clearly to this day.
I think that is something that is very interesting, when it comes to performance in general: being able to hold the attention.
Bringing it back to hand balancing, are you contributing to the piece by doing another handstand at this point and time? Or are you just trying to show off that I can do this one too? I think that, going back to what I started talking about in the beginning of the podcast, when I was looking at all these acts years ago, I would often find it more interesting to see a person starting on two arms. You have a starting point. If we’re talking the energy curve, you start on two arms. Perhaps there’s a leg movement or stuff. They introduce a concept: I am standing on my hands and I display this to you.
Then they go up and perhaps do something that adds to it. Maybe it’s a one arm. Maybe they walk in a circle on their hands. There is an additive element to it. I am looking at the same concept but I am not seeing the same. Then they go up perhaps again to do some one arms. Things are getting rather impressive. Okay, the person is very skilled at this. They’ve displayed that, then go up a fourth time and continue to do one arms. Perhaps this time they do more complicated ones, then end by going into and finishing with a crocodile.
You’ve been up in four sequences, and then the question comes. You’re going up a fifth time, and what are you adding? You can do those couple of extra one arm shapes, but you kind of displayed your virtuosity, control and geometry twice on one arm already. We’re starting to see flattening of the interest curve, and perhaps even a decline. Maybe you do that fifth time, you do some one arms, and a really impressive one. Are you going to go up a sixth time? What are you adding then? That’s where it starts being absolutely zero.
I use this in my acts consciously too. On my last one arm, I usually do turning one arms. Not because it’s the hardest. It looks very visually impressive for the audience, but what it does is adds something, a new element. That’s why the turning crocodile is so valuable and impressive; it adds something. Suddenly there is a new dimension that goes into it.
You could remove a cane, do one cane, or go on the really high cane. You basically increase the risk, but more fundamentally, you’re adding to the attention. You’re giving the audience an extra reason for keeping their attention on you at this point in time. That’s where it’s important.
For their own sakes, I think people should be using very impressive techniques that they trained for years for. There’s a value to that. In the performative context, ask the questions: what am I adding? What am I contributing by doing this certain thing?
This is the question we constantly ask ourselves in Vald. What are we bringing forth here, whether in groups, duets, or solo?
EL: That was very interesting for me. I’ve been watching this thing from behind the scenes for quite some time, watching you do it, your process. It was good to get the overarching presentation of things. Awesome, thank you for that, Mikael.
So, a bit of house keeping as usual. Is there any set date for performances? When can we find out more about this company?
MK: It’s still TBA. We do have some premiere dates in France in February, but there’s loads of TBA things there. I would suggest to keep updated on the project by following us on Instagram, @RightWayDownCircus. Also, follow all the other glorious artists in it, namely Matt Pasquet, Sunniva Byvard, Imogen Huzel, Lisa Angberg and Isak Arvidsson.
EL: We need to link those, because everyone is going to be going, how the fuck do I spell those names?
Other than that, I’m really looking forward to seeing the show when it comes out.
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