Welcome back to Berlin – what’s it like to be performing here again?
What’s great about Berlin is that a lot changes but a lot stays the same. My first season here with [circus ensemble] Circa was back in 2013, and I’ve been back in different roles a couple of times over the years. Gravity and Other Myths first came here in 2019.
What’s great about Berlin is that a lot changes but a lot stays the same.
The staff here at Chamäleon are running a very special organisation – they are all about audience development and art form. They really support you to do weird and wonderful things. So it’s a cliche – but it feels like coming home.
You’re here as part of a residency with three shows, a little different to a normal run. Where did this idea come from?
The normal season of five months with one show is great, but post-pandemic Anke [Politz, Chamäleon Artistic director] suggested we do a couple of different works. So many shows have had to be on ice during Covid because there was no chance to tour, so it is a pretty sensible thing to do. You get to remount and rerun your shows. It feels a bit like the recovery plan post-pandemic.
Some of the shows are old, one is brand new. Tell us a bit about how the company develops performances?
The company was founded in Adelaide, Australia in 2009 by five friends who were in circus school together. I wasn’t one of them – I was working as an acrobat and actually taught them. They created the hit show A Simple Space and toured it around the world for five or six years, and then they wanted to make new work. They invited me to direct their new work Backbone in 2017, and since then we’ve made three more major works together. In terms of what we stand for – the company’s catchphrase at the moment is “shoulder to shoulder, sweat and joy”.
If you’re not having fun, there’s no real point. We push ourselves hard, but it’s always in the pursuit of this warm, supportive environment.
What we love about our industry is the lifestyle and the opportunity it affords young people. As we’re ageing, we see the value and privilege of being able to provide a safe, fun and yet highly hard-working and never-satisfied creative environment. Being able to provide that for young people coming through is so important. I keep my youth by being around these young people every day. That’s what we’re about – the trade. The get-up-and-go. The grind.
Stereotypically, if you think about the circus, it seems like there are two extremes – very serious highbrow works or else clowning. How do you guys play with this dichotomy?
It’s a good observation, and I think where we maybe differ from others is that we don’t try to be something we’re not on stage. We love to explore high-level contemporary movement, but we don’t like to do that while role-playing as others – we like to be ourselves. We talk a lot about the fun we have inside the company. The thing we say is there is an endless cycle of “shit talk”.
Endless jokes that get recycled – we have a culture of play. And I think that’s reflected on stage as well. If you’re not having fun, there’s no real point. We push ourselves hard, but it’s always in the pursuit of this warm, supportive environment.
Of course fun is important, but what else does circus mean to you and what is circus actually for?
I sometimes call circus artists the “megafauna of tomorrow”: they eat food and do tricks and that’s about it! But seriously, I think contemporary performance these days has such blurred lines, whether you call it circus or dance. What you’re able to do and where you’re able to go is kind of open. Circus is a very defined box but it has a lot of exit points to other art forms. The earliest form of circus was just someone sitting around a campfire doing something entertaining for someone else – it is the purest form of performance. It can kind of straddle anything.
So let’s hear about the three different shows.
Each one of our shows tends to be a bit of a provocation from the previous one. So to explain our new show, The Mirror, I need to explain what came before – The Pulse. It had 60 performers, a 30-voice choir, with all three of our ensembles together. We made that during Covid, because everyone was grounded and we had everyone together. It ended up being a bit of a pandemic piece, because we were inspired by waves and cycles in nature that were much bigger than ourselves.
In some ways, The Mirror is the complete inverse of that, where it is very much about the person and the internal and external world; what we choose to show the world, and what is an illusion and what we choose to hide. And we have a smaller cast – eight acrobats and one musician.
The second show is Out of Chaos, which was here in Berlin in 2019. We were supposed to tour it in 2020, but of course that didn’t work out, so actually the last time we performed it was right here on this very stage. And then the work that will be at the very end is A Simple Space – the first one that the company made. It’s 10 years old but it has a level of play and innocence that keeps it forever current; it has a naivety and openness that people can access.
And a lot of your performances are very intimate with the audience. What’s that about?
We definitely try to break down walls in every work we do; we try to get in and amongst the audience as much as possible. A lot of companies make aspirational works that put performers on a hero pedestal, we really like to make the performers as relatable as possible. In that way, the performers become more invested in it.
I’m so inspired by general physics and how it makes you feel. If a dancer does something incredible with their elbow, I can feel a pang in my heart.
The one thing we all share is possessing a body – so the risk of doing things too separately from the audience or too perfectly is that you can appear like a cyborg and you become an impossible being. I think that’s why we like to get the audience connected to understand the deeper physics and our struggles.
It sounds like a powerful way to relate to an audience. What makes storytelling special in a purely physical medium?
I think the possibility that circus and physical theatre has what text and traditional storytelling doesn’t is embedded in the body. I’m so inspired by general physics and how it makes you feel. If a dancer does something incredible with their elbow, I can feel a pang in my heart. I find the connection to emotional storytelling a really strange and wonderful beast.
For example, with The Mirror, we’ve been experimenting with cabaret. This venue is almost like a cabaret, and the medium has such an interesting archetypal way of expressing politics through physicality. And we quickly realised, of course, we are not cabaret performers, but embedded within the body is all this iconography that is immediately recognisable. So this ability to disrupt and play with stereotypes is endless.
Why should people see the shows?
The thing that we do better than anyone else is that we maintain our ensembles full-time, so we remain connected all the time. It also means, in terms of physicality, we are always pushing further: the skills are out of control.
We are also blessed by the presence of Ekrem Phoenix, our composer, who has also composed our last three major works. He is an amazing jazz and opera singer and will sing live – all of our pieces have original scores.
And I’ll also give Chamäleon as much praise as I can. It’s such an amazing piece of the world circus ecology, right here in Berlin. Without it, the world of circus would be a much grimmer place.