Transcript of Episode 7: Circus Hobo Life
MK: Welcome back to Handstand Factory Handstandcast, with myself, Mikael Kristiansen, and Emmet Louis.
What’s our topic today, Emmet?
EL: Our topic today is a fun topic. We’re going to take a break from the technical discussion and have a chat about the circus hobo life. What’s that like, how do we actually live, circus school, performing life – the things people might be interested in hearing about.
How do we start? How about, what was the strangest gig you ever did?
MK: I actually need to think a little about that. I haven’t done anything really depraved, but I’ve done a couple of weird ones. I had some body paint.
The first one that strikes me – oh my fucking god, yeah, that one was pretty rough: I was in circus school, and me and a friend of mine, Isak Arvidsson, @balancingisak on Instagram, got asked to do a gig done by a larger Swedish company. They had an event for some massive German insurance company, for really rich people.
EL: This is the double whammy of depravity right there: insurance company, and German.
MK: They had hired State House in Stockholm, which is massive, enormous. They hired the entire thing for a party where they were going to announce who got the big bonuses, and all that crap.
They had this very romantic idea of a Scandinavian forest, and nature, so had cut down tons of trees and put them inside there. They also put these little trays full of moss next to each chair, so they could touch it and feel like they were in the forest.
The theme of the entire party was the five senses. In between each act and part, there were video clips of a lady walking in the forest. There would be some poetic text about her in German. For example, for vision, you would see everything in black and white, except her eyes in blue that would see something. It was about her seeing things.
It was super duper cringe, it was so bad. Then there was smell, and they were supposed to smell the pine trees, and people walked on stilts.
But me and my friend Isak were going to do handstand and hand to hand, and were supposed to be forest nymphs.
I have the pictures and they are horrendous, but we were dressed up in these candle tights that were super tiny. We had to wear two layers of the same tights to not be see-through.
EL: You should have just worn one pair, or it’s not depraved enough.
MK: We were shirtless, with body paint, had this massive fire thing across the chest. We had loads of glitter across the face, and they had glued these feathers onto our eyebrows that stuck out like 20cm on each side.
The guy who did the make up is a super boss, very known in Sweden for doing shit like that, and was very good. But we looked fucking disgraceful; it was ridiculous. Then we were supposed to do this handstand act, and be the sunrise.
I don’t even remember what sense we were, but we were sunrise. A couple of Swedish ladies were singing at the same time, with these high pitched voices that related to, and I’m not sure how real it is, but apparently back in the day, young ladies would sing in the mountains to get the sheep to come.
Anyway, they were singing, we did some shitty handstands, then finished with some hand to hand. It was pretty damn dreadful.
Then I went to Helsinki the next day to teach. At the end of the workshop they were like, it was great, but why is your face full of glitter? I was like, “dark side of show business.”
EL: That’s a good one. I’m not sure how much detail I can give for mine.
I was living in London at the time. I got a call at 7pm, “are you available for a gig in two hours?” I was like yeah, let’s go. It was some asian tour I’d never heard of.
I get there and find out the Brit Awards were on. It was an after party hosted by Lindsay Lohan for the Brit Awards. This would have been when she was at her peak of whatever was going on personally. The backstory was that New York Fashion Week was going on, and she wasn’t welcome there. So she came over and hosted a ‘save the rainforest’ themed party in London after the Brit Awards.
It was on short notice. That would have been interesting to see who would go to it who was invited to the Brit Awards. She wasn’t actually invited to the Brit Awards, but pretended like she was. We got there, and it was clear the agent organizing it was just some fucking chancer, someone who makes it up as they go along.
Fine, not too much of a problem, we deal with this kind of people. The producer just asked me, are you okay with this and us maybe getting sued? But it’s ok, I had no contract and no proof this ever happened. Also they didn’t pay me for it…that’s another story.
Anyway, Lindsay, if you’re tuning in, I’d like my fee please. This Brit Award party had invited Z-List London celebrities to show up to this.
If you’ve ever done celebrity or VIP parties, they always have a really good gift bag at the end of the night. It’s great when you’re performing since you get this gift bag. If you’re a Z-List celebrity who’s on the up, you know about these gift bags, so they were turning up to this.
Your agreed fee is your gift bag.
We turned up and were like, what do you want us to do? They said, circus.
That’s very fucking vague…what do you want us to do? Circus.
There were about six of us I knew from the London scene. We brought some fire stuff, so decided to do some fire as people were coming in, for the photo ops. Done that, then we were like, what else do you want us to do?
They’d agreed a pretty good fee, four hours for some walkabout stuff. So we did the fire stuff, some photos in costume, that kind of thing.
Then we got to go upstairs to the party, where things began to go a bit strangely. I’m going to have to diverge into some non-PC terms, because I’m not sure of the actual terms here. They had hired a troupe of…I don’t want to sound offensive, but short people, dwarves…not trying to offend anyone, as I’m just unsure how to say it.
They had dressed them up in Gimp costumes: latex, leather, bondage masks, everything. The whole gimmick of these people was putting them on stage as strippers, doing some sort of fetish show. Then there were lots of models there, some of whom are probably famous now, though we won’t say who. Their whole thing was putting their legs up on the stage, and the shorter people would hump their legs very vigorously.
We were doing our walkabout performances, which is when you’re in costume, you might have some props, and are walking in the crowd single or in groups. You’re just mingling and doing some things, providing some ambience.
The weird thing about this party was it was a charity event for rainforests, but everyone was invited for free to make a show of things for Lindsay Lohan. They had to try and raise money somehow. The deal was there was a free bar, which was excellent, and free food.
But, you had to pay 2 grand to sit down. There were loads of chairs and booths, but it was 2 grand if you were sitting down, and you needed a special band.
No one was sitting down because everyone was a Z List London celebrity from 12 years ago.
Some minor members of the Royal Family, and I don’t know how much they care about embarrassing themselves were there. I wish I had taken photos. You were banned from taking photos, and there were bouncers fucking on it. If your camera came out – going back to the almost-pre camera phone days – Bam, you would have had three bouncers on you immediately.
The host turned up at about 3am, just for context. We stuck around at the party, getting free drinks. She turned up at 3am, auctioned off some stuff. I think they were handing out iPhones, but nobody was bidding on the auction as everyone was cheap. What would have cost 5,6,700 quid back then instead sold for 150 quid. It was a bit of an embarrassment, but you got a cheap phone. Someone won a date off Lindsay, which I’m sure never got paid.
I left with my goodie bag, which was actually pretty good. I got a bottle of designer vodka, some cereal, some headache tablets, some cosmetics to try out…
When I sent the company that organized it the invoice, suddenly they were declared bankrupt about two weeks after the event. This is a semi common practice in London. You’ll have event companies that set up for events, run the event, then declare themselves bankrupt before the invoices come in, and just shaft everyone.
It happened a lot in London. The same person would have Epic Party 2001. Then suddenly, Epic Party 2002, Ltd., has now been set up.
MK: There’s loads of shady events like that. I really haven’t done that much event work. Stockholm is not particularly crazy for these things. I’ve heard loads of stories I haven’t experienced, like that one.
EL: We had an interesting parallel circus world career. Most of my circus career was events, corporate functions, this kind of thing. Most of yours was shows-
MK: I’ve been mainly in larger productions, for most of my career. That was one thing I thought that some people listening would be interested in – how did we end up in this? What happened?
EL: How did you fail so badly at life?
MK: Where did it really start? My first handstand ever, I must have been around 17 or 18. I used to be a pretty out of shape kid, the out of shape guy in class. I was good at Magic cards and video games. I knew all the Magic cards, the encyclopedia people would ask about combinations. I had a massive registry in my head. I had a black deck that crushed everyone, and my friend had a white one that crushed everyone 50-50, and it was fucking boring.
My friend did have a black lotus back then, and should have saved it. He got like 300 euros for it, but now it’s probably worth thousands.
Anyway, I started doing karate around 15. Of course it helped develop some coordination. I started break dancing around 18ish. That’s when I started to actually practice a bit.
Then I figured it’s good to stand on your hands if you are going to do this. I watched Freestyle Session 3, a jam from the states. Freestyle Session is still running. 3 was a legendary jam; there was a super crew there, some people from Europe, some from the States. Everyone knew they were going to crush it. They were just sick. I think this crew from California, Soul Control, gave some real hard challenge.
I remember seeing that VHS and saw Pablo Flores, the first guy who did two air flares. I saw him do flares and thought, holy fuck, I need to do that.
I was just a fat kid from the mountains in Norway, but thought, I need to do that. If I can’t do that, nothing matters.
I started to play around, and like everyone I started to mess around with windmills, of course. Windmill was the first big thing I wanted to learn. I did the classic pause play on the VHS, kicking the buttons to see how they did six steps, all that stuff. I just started to try to stand on my hands; I thought it made sense.
I moved to Oslo, did breakdancing there, hanging out with the B-Boys for several years. It never really was my thing to do battling; I was too insecure, and never dared to go for it. I never went for battles and stuff, but got pretty good at the things that I liked to do. I did a lot of handstand moves. I learned air babies, I learned stacks – these moves where you freeze frame, going up and down on elbows – all these kinds of motions.
And then in 2004, Battle of the Year, I was there in Braunschweig, Germany. The Gambler crew from Korea was there, and BB Darkness, this jacked motherfucker did a one arm stand, and I was like, holy shit what is this! I could do one arm hand hops at that point, but never seen anyone stand on one arm.
He did that, and I was like, damnnnnnn this is cool. I kind of just started messing around a bit with it, maybe around 2006. It was completely casual. I would just kick up to handstand, on finger tips on the other hand, wobble around for a few seconds. I never really practiced it or cared, I just thought it was a cool thing.
Then I met a circus performer from the states a few years later in 2008 that I did a class in Stockholm with. I just found this to be fun. I had gotten disillusioned with breaking, maybe it wasn’t my thing. I had finished my B.A. in Anthropology and was like, fuck, what do I do with my life?
Then I met him and saw, I’m good at this, and I’m already being on my hands. Here’s a career I can do with it. I trained with him, as Corey stayed in Oslo for about 6 months, training me and a couple of others. He left, and I trained a bit more, then started to look for circus schools. Back then I didn’t know Europe has loads of circus schools.
I knew of ENC in Montreal, and heard of this one called DOCH, School of Dance and Circus, in Stockholm. It was known as the University of Dance back then, but had circus education.
It was a private education back then. I think they started in 97, and was smaller, then in 2005 the University took over and absorbed the education into the dance university. So it was at that point, and I had heard the school wasn’t that great, obviously from people speaking out their ass – the school is pretty damn great.
I applied because I heard it sucked, so thought I could get in. I went to the audition, and was like, holy shit, what am I doing here? These people are crazy.
Somehow I got in. I remember being in the auditions very nervous, at the studio warming up. I turned around and one guy’s doing a one arm. Oh, so there are more people here applying for hand balancing that can one arm already. I did have a pretty solid one arm; it went fast developing it for me. It took a couple of weeks to more or less do it, because I had such a good understanding of being upside down. I started training with Corey.
I had the shoulders; I just needed to apply what I was told. At the audition, I asked the guy if he was applying for hand balancing too. He said, nah, I’m a base. Oh, okay. Then I look to the side and see a guy who ended up being my training partner for three years doing a one arm, and he has fucking beautiful splits and really good technique.
My technique at that point was a little bit janky. It was good, but I didn’t have the look of someone who had been in circus school. Of course all these guys had really great tumbling and acro, had done loads of theatre and were absolutely hilarious on stage.
I had zero experience; I’d never done a theatre class in my life. I was terrified.
Somehow I managed to make it through, and there was 3 years under Alexander Gavrilov at the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm.
How about you?
EL: We had gymnastics in school as our physical education thing. I was doing a lot of extreme rollerblading as a kid. By the standard of the day, which was your equivalent of the breakdancing VHS, I was pretty good. I could do rails… The stuff that I look at now is just fucking stupid, crazy people jumping down 15-20 steps on their blades. “Grabbed my blades, man!”
For some reason grabbing your rollerblades while you jump is mandatory for cool points. I don’t know why, but it is.
I was doing that for quite a long time, then got very bad medical advice. I was having issues with my knees, was about 16. The doctor said, you have to quit or you won’t be able to walk. All I actually needed to do was go to physio. He would have just said, your quads are really tight because you skate bent over. That took me out for a couple of years. At the same time we were doing exams in Ireland, so I backed off, fine.
I started partying a bit more. In my last year of secondary school, doing what we call the leaving circuit, the exam where you finish. After that I started going to a lot of outdoor parties and raves in the electronic dance scene. This was just when Fire Poi were knew.
Me and my friend were like, holy shit, that’s awesome. We could be the kings of the rave if we’d done that. Then people would like us…
It actually turned out that just because you had the fire poi, you weren’t king of the rave, after you finished doing the thing.
So me and my friend Rory, who went with me to circus school eventually were doing that. I got into a University over here called Trinity College to study math and physics. I was doing that, and honestly, I’m naturally pretty good at math and it comes to me easily. It was fucking boring. I was like, I can’t and don’t want to do this. What’s my plan? I tried to change course into chemistry and physics, done that a bit. Honestly at the time I was in there to rob lab equipment to try and make drugs for myself.
Let’s be honest here. The producer is going completely red in the face like, you can’t say that on air. It’s okay, we’re past the statute of limitations now, so it’s fine. I stole some beakers, I made a few bongs out of them. It happens.
The university had a juggling club, at the Juggling and Circus Society, which is still running. I’m forever grateful for it. A couple of things happened over that period of time. There was no one really performing professionally in Ireland at the time in juggling. There had been one cohort from the Belfast Circus School, where basically everyone came out of. People like Ken and Tina from Tumble Circus, Cormac and…things…troupe. I forget the name. Someone shout it to me. The two funny guys.
Basically they ran this one off course that had just finished. It was very early days in the Irish circus scene. Nightclubs would get in touch with the juggling society at Trinity saying, we need performers at our shows. So we got in with a couple of promoters who were slightly less sleazy than the one in London. Me and my friend Rory would do a lot of gigs in nightclubs that are now defunct in Ireland, now converted to offices.
When I think about what we were doing, it was fucking terrible. We should not have been allowed on stage. Whatever, it was fine, everyone had a good time. We didn’t burn the place down. We nearly did a few times. Once again, our producer is cringing.
Then I was like, hold on. This was back in 2002, I was charging 250 quid a night. i was like, hold on, I can get this much a night…maybe I need to take it a bit more professional. Then I met Cormac from Lords of Strut, and was chatting to him about being a professional. He said, you have to go to circus school. I needed a plan, so deliberately failed my first year at Trinity.
Sorry Joan, if you’re listening to this, mother. That meant, I can’t go back to university, because I failed. Ha, ha.
I’m free floating, so fuck it. I saved the money up myself, got a bit of student loan to go to Circomedia in Bristol, a one year prep course at the time. It wasn’t the degree it is now.
There they did juggling, acrobatics… I specialized in acrobatics and aerial, actually. People don’t know my secret is I can actually base aerial. I specialized in double trapeze, basing doubles, hand to hand. What would be acrobalance, and not acro yoga, but is now, because people like to call things yoga.
I did that for one year, then after went on to Circus Space in London, which is now the National Centre for Circus Arts. Just to segue back to Circomedia, they had a teacher there, who to this day is one of my biggest regrets in the performance world. A guy called Bim Mason taught physical theatre. At the time I thought he was an asshole. I really disliked him, maybe it was his personality. I learned all my performance from him. He really pushed you as a performer and did not let off. That’s where most of my performance skill comes from. If you come to my workshops, people say I have a certain presence. I developed it because of Bim. I only realized how good a teacher he was when I had other physical theatre teachers. They were good, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say any were bad. But Bim in comparison was something else. Anyone who stuck with him, even if they weren’t a natural performer, and a lot of people who go to circus school aren’t. They prefer to hide behind the discipline. They want to be on stage and show the discipline, but want to hide behind it. He had a way of getting it out. I kind of regret I didn’t take full advantage of Bim at the time.
If you ever get a chance with Bim Mason, check him out, he’s awesome. He hated me as well, it was a mutual hate.
The reference I got from him to go to Circus Space read like, Emmet attended these classes. He’s good at acrobatics, but nothing else. Literally that, like one line. Thanks Bim.
I got Mike, the aerial teacher, who I wouldn’t count as a good aerial teacher, but is definitely a force of nature. He was very good for my level, and any aerial person will come across Mike Wright, he’s a legend. He’s insane. He was 50-60 something, doing cloud swing, no harness on. He’d do all the rigging for the school with no harness on. The actual rigger was meant to do the rigging, and you’re meant to be wearing a harness. But he’d be just there walking across scaffold that was already questionable. A lot of weird things about Mike. Lovely guy, just a bit…Mike. He’d broken his back like three times, was meant to be paralyzed, but each time managed to get back from falling off aerial without safety mats or equipment.
One time he was fighting with a friend of his on stairs on a set, and fell down. But it was a fun fight he said, not a serious one. He’d kissed his girlfriend, or something. I was like, hold on, that’s a bit of a serious fight. Lots of weirdos in circus.
Anyway, then I went to Circus Space in London, did a three year degree there and then graduated. Circus Space was very tame compared to Circomedia. They still had that crusty circus punk thing going on at the time, whereas Circus Space had cleaners. The floors and mats would get cleaned. it was very organized, very nice.
MK: The Stockholm school was also very organized, a bit too much for certain circus individuals. That’s an interesting topic there for the entire Circus world and circus hobo life. You don’t need to be a hobo, it’s entirely a….funny term. It is a very interesting world in terms of the people you run into. I think the most obvious reason for that is circus has, and always had a sideshow, outsider sensation to it, which means it attracts a lot of people that aren’t necessarily outsiders, but like to do things differently, in one sense. One thing I’ve also identified a lot, especially in modern circus, is circus has always had the tendency, more than dance and theatre to push limits for the sake of it. It’s a part of its tradition. It’s a classic thing of the Old School – the only man who can do the blah blah blah. That is a sales pitch, what you try to achieve with the circus thing.
EL: I’d be very happy if circus went back to that style. As much as I like the contemporary stuff, I really appreciate that aesthetic of, here is one person. The only reason they can do this thing is they spent 17 years doing it. It’s just like, it’s never been done before, will never be done again. Here is a guy holding a cannon in his teeth, while doing a free headstand on a tight rope, while spinning some plates on one hand and having an epic moustache as well.
MK: In the modern sense of things, that has bled into the fact that the performativity…like you say, there is almost no one left doing those totally extreme things of the old school circus families. Of course, it’s really hard to do those as well, unless you grew up in a family that was only doing these things, and your sole life purpose is finding your own crazy mad trick-
EL: There’s also these generational tricks in circus families that get harder as the generations go. You see this in performance and discipline waves. The kids are watching the dad do the trick, then the kid will do the same trick on a unicycle. Then someone will set the unicycle on fire next time.
MK: I think it’s cool how that has an impact on the performance. This is a tradition with value on this limit pushing, so when you can’t necessarily do it with your tricks anymore, or maybe you do, there’s always this push for trying to innovate within the context somehow.
I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in other performance fields, because it does. But circus has a prominent value to pushing that. It’s really interesting that since I started circus over ten years ago, I’ve seen more and more pushing, at least in Europe from artists wanting to create their own works.
When I came out of school, it was me and two others that didn’t start their own company as they left school. One guy did a solo show, one duet, one trio, one large crew of six people doing a thing, and one juggler that worked in a show with two other jugglers. All these were independent productions. I think I was the only one that went into a larger production by another company right away.
There’s this initiative of creating your own shit that is valued. I think that’s really interesting, and the development of modern circus.
EL: There is a big contrast. I lived in San Francisco for a while. In the circus centre there, everyone was training to get picked up by a show in Vegas. That was the goal. Very few people wanted to make their own piece, their own art, shows. They didn’t have the same value. At the time it was Vegas, Cirque, or one of the Disneylands. These were peoples’ goals. People were technically fucking machines, and they had good performance classes. Some good clowns came out of San Francisco, the Clown Conservator. Some very good interesting people still on the scene, but in terms of the actual rest of the scene, it was very geared towards what I call, make me a technical canvas.
I have the skills, don’t have a routine, but put a director in front of me and they’ll tell me what tricks to do, that kind of thing.
MK: One thing in Europe that is a luxury we do have here, is the funding sector exists. In Scandinavia it’s pretty strong, but also France, Ireland. You can apply for money to create your works. I’ve never really been in the field much in Canada or the States, but it seems to be more difficult to start your own thing and start touring like it is here.
You have all these networks of Circus that easily connects you. If you have a good product you can get your stuff sold internationally.
EL: I was talking to someone in the States, and they don’t have arts programs like we do. A lot of private companies, even big ones like JP Morgan, and smaller ones, would have bursaries for artists in the locale. But to get in, the problem was circus in the states was seen still as hippy crusty drop outs, so it wasn’t taken seriously. This is why a lot of aerialists were rebranded as aerial dance at the time. Oh yeah, I don’t do circus (they were, they were doing circus shows), but calling themselves dance. Aerial dance, air dance, aerial theatre.
We’ll do the exact same show but adapt the language to what people expect, or don’t have a negative connotation to.
MK: This reminds me of a discussion we always had in school in my class. We had pretty much an anarchist class where everyone wanted to do their own thing. We had a lot of people from France who were very experienced, and been on stage a lot, and had a lot of opinions. There was a lot of fruitful discussion back and forth: what are we doing, why do we want to do it, what is our art form?
One thing we’d always discuss is that circus shouldn’t need to escape to theatre or dance to validate itself.
EL: I definitely agree with that one. I think circus is still in the battle of defining itself as a high art, meaning it needs its own body of abstract choreographic knowledge, which has to be developed.
A lot of choreographers I worked with in shows and things would have been coming from a dance or theatre background. They didn’t understand circus. I got into a pretty heated argument during a devising period with one of the directors from a dance background.
Her point was she couldn’t understand why people would clap during a show in circus. In a dance show, people wait to the end to applaud.
My comment was, maybe dance isn’t that impressive. Which probably isn’t the most political thing to say, but if you think about what happens in circus, there’s tension and risk and a proposition of risk. I propose to pick up these balls, put them all in the air, and then back into my hand. I propose a risk, I’m going to climb this rope, wrap myself around, then drop under gravity and catch myself somehow. It has this idea of building something. The audience goes in, something happens, then the audience has this tension that has to physically emerge.
There’s nothing wrong with dance and theatre; it can be very intense, emotional, physically intense, but a lot of time it doesn’t have this pressure cooker that has to go off. That’s why people applaud. It’s very hard for people to get out of that in a circus show as well.
We were doing a circus show with a test audience and people were clapping. The director was mad because her artistic vision had no clapping. How do you stop the clapping? Well, do you want circus, or do you want dance?
If you want dance, we have to take impressive tricks out.
MK: You can’t force the audience too much either. People have very different traditions in different countries, too. When we played the same show in France, then in the United States – completely different audience reactions.
In France, it was less often that you would get the consequent clapping through the show. For example, when I played for Seven Fingers, a Canadian circus company, for those of you who might not know, we were touring in the States. The audiences for those shows really wanted to insist on clapping. I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere, or always. But I got this feeling, I was doing my hand balancing act, and usually people would clap after the first couple of one arms, then they would get settled into the rhythm of the performance, stop, then clap again at the end. But there, they insisted on giving me the feedback that I was doing something. It was almost like a formality, while in France, which is maybe the country in the world with the most contemporary circus touring, with so many shows and theatres, even in tiny little villages you’d never heard of.
EL: Patrick Sebastien every Friday night – le plus grand cabaret du monde.
MK: There is a big thing there, at least. You get an audience more used to seeing it. Perhaps they are also impressed by the tricks; it’s just they have a different way of giving a response to performers.
What’s been really interesting for me with the European tradition of circus I’ve been involved in is the creation of new things. They become rather personal. It kind of doesn’t matter technically, in the sense that at one point, you’re going to reach more or less of a singularity. Some people are very high level, then some are just ultra super duper very good, or people that can do very difficult things in training, or video, or so on, but in actual performance context the tricks are great. I think it’s very interesting, and perhaps more than something else, it’s a nice thing to have trained something for a long time then to be able to use it. That’s a great thing.
But in the end, the shows I find most interesting are when people are on stage and you can’t replace them automatically. You can take me out and replace it with another guy, but my personality needs to be there.
For example, one of my friends Eric, who’s a juggler – no, sorry! It’s Peter åberg, the guy who juggled the tubes that make sound. He does really brilliant stuff, but he’s also the elite in blind multicubing.
This is a bit of a tradition in contemporary circus, in a sense. He uses this performance as a lot of a part of what he does for shows. This is the kind of thing where, if Peter isn’t in that show, that show doesn’t exist. It’s based on him as a person, and I feel that is very interesting in circus. It becomes very artist driven. It’s hard for a choreographer to just grab a body that will do a bunch of things.
Cirque de Soleil has to do more that kind of thing because shows are so large.
EL: I think a lot of European circus is a reactionary trend to the Cirque de Soleil-ification. Those of you who don’t know the history of Cirque, it’s the biggest circus company of the world, possibly that there has ever been. They started off as hippy street performs on stilts. Guy Laliberté is the founder. Then they started making shows. Their whole thing was just making shows with nice costumes, interesting at the time because back then they were done with big top format, no animals, just humans doing cool stuff, presented semi-spectacle style, but not too wild. Then they kept getting bigger and bigger and popular, because they were really good at the time. I really like the older Cirque stuff. They got bigger, and the shows got bigger casts and stages, to the point where they became the McDonalds of Circus, or Coca Cola, as people describe it. Huuuuuge.
The shows became less and less personal, after they got rid of Franco Dragone. The cast needed to be replaceable. Instead of having shows that would run for 2-3 years with the same cast, they would be booked 10-15 years in advance. 15 years as an acrobatic career is quite hard on the body, so they needed the shows and performers to be interchangeable.
So you’d have people coming into the shows, troupes coming in and out of the shows. You’d see the opposite happening in Europe. Costumes were getting simpler. Stages were becoming: here’s a pile of paper on the ground. Lighting got simpler, music got…removed, sometimes just atmospheric noises.
People were deconstructing circus to the point of seeing, what makes circus circus? What makes my show interesting? What makes it not generic, or me not generic and replaceable? Then you’re seeing all these trends coming out of this. France brought it initially.
MK: Nowadays, there’s also a large push happening from Scandinavia. Finland has an enormous scene-
EL: Some ridiculously good jugglers there.
MK: For example, there’s also now been circuses entering academia, like the University of Dance and Circus. Now there’s an actual Bachelor of Circus Arts, like we did. That exists in several places, meaning there has to now be certain criteria.
There is some stuff I think is really good about that. As soon as things are in those official boxes, it means you can actually create specific funding grants for those things and so on. You can structure it and make it more into a high art, essentially.
At the same time, what kind of gets to me a bit, is people are then, one, creating academic criteria. They’re trying to create this categorization, and artistic research. I think that’s a really good idea in theory, and halfway in practice. With artistic research, they essentially mean finding a method of not only creating material based on certain methodologies or principals, but documentation and so on. I feel like it becomes a backwards logic, as in the end you can end up doing anything, write something, and kind of connect the dots and say, this is what I did. While artistic process is very often a very messy thing, where you go through so many stages that don’t really do anything. Then you scrap everything and restart and la la la la la. You rerationalize it as you go backwards.
It’s not always like that, it’s just one criticism I can sometimes find with that. I feel it’s also going through the same stages that dance did much further back. We’ve done all the steps, all the styles, what can we do? You deconstruct dance until you have non-dance. That’s also done in circus: remove the tricks, stop juggling with balls, pretend you juggle nothing, etc.
Some people are like, these things are bad. I don’t think it’s bad; it just needs to be contextualized in an interesting sense.
Speaking of juggling, and juggling with no balls, I saw a work in progress presentation, by Wes Peden-
EL: He’s a machine in human form. Both in creating new juggling things that have never been done before, as well as being a mega beast at numbers. Numbers juggling is the amount of objects you can have in the air at once.
MK: The funny part is the two people who are most in the Circus Hall in Stockholm are basically me and Wes. Usually I leave before him, since he has infinite energy somehow. What I was saying – he was doing a presentation where he essentially was doing loads of juggling with a million different objects; it was really interesting and conceptual. Then he ends up doing this very long sequence, maybe 7 minutes, here he literally just waves his arms back and forth in a very rapid motion with extremely repetitive movements. But because he has juggled for all this time, and you’ve seen his hands move in these ways already, it suddenly has meaning. It was the coolest thing of the show, just seeing his hands wave back and forth, back and forth.
It went on for a long time, and was really hypnotic. If he just went on stage and just did that, I would be like, ok, he’s standing there waving his hands. So being able to contextualize these things is really the way to actually make an artistic proposition into something watchable on stage. Of course you can create something you feel is really interesting as a performer, which is hard for an audience…to bring the audience with you into whatever process you feel you’re doing on stage. That can create a discrepancy.
EL: Yeah, the idea of personal process versus, I’ve gone through a process and come up with this, versus, what is your process? What am I looking at?
For me it’s really special and unique, never been done before. For the audience, yeah you kind of rolled around in some paint…..
So, let’s wrap this up. But I have a question. What is the strangest circus performance you’ve seen?
MK: I need to think. I think the weirdest shit must be like shorter presentations, either in school when people were really experimental, stuff like that. The thing is, is it good or not?
EL: I just mean, personal strange. Not strange for some academic reason. Fucking weird.
I’m going to annihilate anything you say with this one, but I think mine is I was at the European Juggling Convention in Bruneck in Italy maybe 3-4 years ago.
It’s a renegade show, meaning an open stage for anyone who wants to come up and do…it’s geared towards non acts, like interesting tricks, weird stuff.
One girl came and set up a blender. She had a paracable, did a bit of a dance, stripped down to her underwear, then proceeded to blend eggs, milk, and maybe cat food. Then kept her dancing going and poured it all over herself, spent the next five minutes smearing it into herself.
MK: Sounds like contemporary dance.
EL: It was very contemptible…contemporary.
MK: I don’t hate contemporary dance, though.
Let me think now. Fuck, I can’t really think of anything seriously weird.
EL: Let’s leave it for next time we approach this topic.
MK: I can mention one that was absolutely horrendous, which was someone literally rolling a stone around a room for 45 minutes without doing absolutely anything whatsoever, besides rolling the stone around the room for 45 minutes. It was very process oriented.
It was just a stone, and that was where I asked, if the person had done this in the basement, I would have assumed she would be equally process oriented. But as an audience, I…wanted to leave, right now.
EL: Right, so we’re going to wrap it up there. We hope you enjoyed some insights into the circus hobo life. If you like this topic, let us know and we can do another episode. I’m sure we can fill a few on our circus adventures.
Other than that, if you want to ask some questions you can use the contact form on the website, Handstand Factory dot com, topic: Podcast Questions.
Alternatively, you can find us on social media: @HandstandFactory, @MIkaelBalancing, @EmmetLouis.
If you’re interested in learning to handstand, which could potentially lead to the circus hobo life, you can always get our courses at HandstandFactory.com. Other than that, look forward to the next episodes, and thanks for listening.