Beyond P.T. Barnum

INTERVIEW. Throw out your old notions of the circus – Die Originale, brought to you buy the people behind the Berlin Circus Festival, is here Apr 7 and 8 at Haus der Berliner Festspiele. The clowns behind it explain.

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Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage

It’s not your grandparents’ circus. It’s not even what you may have seen from companies like Cirque de Soleil or in venues like Berlin’s Wintergarten. Johannes Hilliger and Josa Kölbel are curating a new series called Die Originale at the Berliner Festspiele that will highlight contemporary circus trends – and it’s on this weekend, April 7 and 8.

Hilliger and Kölbel, both native Berliners and founders of the Berlin Circus Festival three years ago, invited 10 “researchers” and 40 artists for the two-day fest, all exploring aspects of performing in a circle – theatre in the round, in other words. Each day will feature two “finished” performances – Somnium (photo), by the Lyon-based Compagnie MPTA, and mobile by Bavarian-born Jörg Müller – as well as eight research presentations, all capped off by a party with dance music by Berlin-based DJ LIA.

What moved the two of you to found your circus production company together in 2015?

Johannes Hilliger: We’re school friends who’ve known each other for many years but had gone our different ways. Josa studied to be an artist and I went into event management. But we always met to see and talk about circus together, and I also saw Josa when he was still performing. Then several things came together: he was in Berlin, injured, and I had no job. We’d always discussed the idea of a doing festival – circus in Berlin the way we like it – and we finally said let’s do it.

Josa Kölbel: I’d been performing in France and the Czech Republic and other countries, but more as a contemporary circus artist. The circus community here in Germany is quite vast, but it’s mainly focused on varieté, or “entertainment circus”.

What’s the difference?

JK: It’s not the usual format you know from traditional circuses or cabarets. It’s less act-based, more of a complete evening tied together by some thread, whether it’s a storyline or atmosphere. We really enjoy the energy that comes from these kinds of performances and think it fits the spirit of what’s happening here in Berlin: the fusion of arts and culture, and this search for something new, something a bit underground. At first the production company was a home for the Berlin Circus Festival, which we have been running now for three and a half years. From this came the opportunity to work here at the Berliner Festspiele as curators. It’s been announced as a three-year engagement.

Is there an intellectual approach to circus work? How do you think about it?

JK: The approach I’m closest to holds that circus and performance art are interconnected because circus is realistically happening in this moment. You cannot change the somersault to be something else. It will always be a somersault, with its dangers and difficulties, but you can surround it with new and fresh contexts. There’s also lot of research concerning the dramaturgy of the circus, of the trick. Take, for example, one of the duos we’ve invited to the Festspiele: one half is an active circus performer and the other is a researcher working on her PhD. They want to explore the dramaturgy of the circus trick, but through different art forms, to see if you can have a music piece that might be performed using the same dramaturgy of a trick, with the same excitement and tension.

JH: Research here is not just intellectual. It can also just be about playing and having fun by working with others from different disciplines. People should not be afraid to come here to see Die Originale, thinking “Oh, it’s so intellectual, there will nothing happening.” It’s the opposite. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but there will be a lot of circus performance, a lot of interacting and creating.

I’m glad you mentioned that. Who exactly is the audience for the so-called research presentations? Are these lecture performances? I guess I could bring my kid to Compagnie MPTA and Jörg Muller, but would I bring her to the research presentations?

JK: They’re not lectures, it’s a very open format.

JH: They’re more like presentations, like seeing a piece in 20 minutes. All the groups get seven days to prepare whatever they want on the theme of the circle, and all the researchers contribute ideas.

What does it mean to curate a festival like this?

JH: It is a dream come true. As part of it, we travel a lot – see shows, meet people, meet directors, meet researchers. With this project, we got the chance to bring all those people together and give them a place to create and feel free. There’s no pressure from the production side, saying “We need a piece in four months, to show it all over in the world.” It’s more about being creative and working with people you’ve never met before. That was one of our rules: that all applicants have never worked together before.

JK: It’s different from the festival we do in the summer. That’s much more about programming and getting the performance works together in one place. What we’re doing for the Festspiele now is more creative, with the “space” we provide based upon the concept of the circle. The circle is associated with the origins of circus, but it’s not used so much anymore; we thought it was a good idea to explore the potential of bringing it back. It’s something challenging and new for a lot of our participants.

Some of MPTA’s work is viewable online and it looks, like so much circus work, physically dangerous. Is circus an inherently exploitative art form that takes advantage of young people’s inflated sense of their own indestructibility?

JK: Circus isn’t exploiting anyone. These are trained professionals who know what they’re doing and minimise the risk as much as possible. The risk is there, but this is part of the game of circus – part of the fascination. Many older performers do tend to draw back a bit on the dangerous elements. Instead, they become more versatile and better at telling stories; they have a more interesting dramaturgy. But generally circus performers love to perform something very difficult and demanding.

Are you guys still going to do your own Berlin Circus Festival on top of this? Or is the Festspiele circus programme going to supplant for it a couple years?

JH: We’ve almost finished planning for this year edition. It’ll run from August 24 to September 2 on Tempelhofer Feld. We have far more productions than last year. Every year more and more people come. We started our first year with one and a half thousand; our second year, we had three and a half, and then last year five thousand.

And the idea, as with the Festspiele programme, is to stay the whole day?

JH: Yeah, that’s the idea.

JK: It’s a whole programme. There are public talks, music, short films, art exhibitions, plus workshops, small shows, big shows… Last year we had the slogan “Rediscover Circus”, and that was the main idea: to introduce people to different ideas of circus. That’s what we do.

Die Originale, Berliner Festspielhaus Apr 7, 8, 14:00

Berlin Circus Festival, Aug 24-Sep 2, Tempelhofer Feld