Tap Portugal flight 511, en route from Stockholm, Sweden, to Lisbon, Portugal. I am travelling to my sisters home in the north of Portugal, with the intention of catching my last sun of the year before heading back to Germany and shows through ’til January.
The last four weeks have been spent teaching full time. A week at the circus school in Rotterdam, a week in Tilburg, and then the last two weeks in Stockholm. I wrote the first draft of this essay back at the start of that tour, and now I have tried to clarify some things that became more clear to me over the following weeks. Much is still unclear, and although I can now state a solid intention, it may not be clear if it is a good one, or indeed a possible one!
It all started when I was sitting in the teachers room at the circus department of Codarts, the University for the Arts in Rotterdam.
Alongside me at the large table, eating their sandwiches and drinking tea, were four teachers from Russia, one from China, and one from Bulgaria.
Three of the four Russians came purely from traditional circus, the Bulgarian from Sport Acrobatics. I am not sure of the Chinese gentleman, but I believe him to be traditionally based (he was teaching Chinese pole and hoop diving, so I feel quite safe to make that blatant assumption). Classical circus backgrounds. In contrast, the theatre teacher was German, the dance teacher American. I was the only circus discipline teacher there with a non-classical background.
This situation highlights one of the longest running discussions of modern circus education. Technique vs. creation. Skill vs. art. Old vs. new. Who teaches what? Is it better to have strict old-school technique teachers (circus artists, gymnasts), and have the “art” come from external sources (theatre class, dance class), or should the combination be more fluid and involve more overlap? It’s an old issue, but being there reminded me that it is still not completely solved in a practical way.
Jugglers have historically had more of a combined technique/creation education than other disciplines. I don’t think it’s pure (or at least, not only) juggler arrogance on my part if I say that jugglers have tended to be slightly ahead on the “modern circus” curve. Partly because we can take more risks without actually dying, and perhaps partly, in an ironic twist, because of this lack of full-time juggling teachers compared to acrobatics or aerial coaches.
There is a continually refreshed pool of retired circus acrobats, of professional gymnastic coaches. Potential circus teachers. Jugglers have a longer performing shelf life: we can keep going ’till we drop, literally, dead on stage of natural causes, which means less full-time juggling teachers in the world.
Having a changing pool of guest teachers at a school, rather than or in addition to one full-time teacher, has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages I will ignore for now, perhaps for a later post. One of the advantages of the situation is receiving many different approaches and beliefs towards juggling, and thus being forced to search for ones own opinions and artistic feelings.
So, these guest juggling teachers tend to be active performing jugglers, and thus have a current understanding of that world, and most of them are of a generation where they are concerned with “new juggling”: with creation and choreography within the technique.
When I have but a scant week to spend with some students, I don’t wish to use all our precious class time doing pure technique classes. If I am only there for a brief time I see more value in sharing what I care about within juggling and beyond pure technique, to talk about the stuff that excites and inspires me, and to hope to give some of that energy to my students. If it seems necessary to spend some hours standing around talking about body position and making fine corrections to arm movements, then fine. But that is not my normal priority. I have to assume that they get that from other sources (that assumption is, of course, one of the disadvantages of the situation!).
Yes, it is absolutely vital to learn good technique. To learn it in a safe and clear manner, from first principles and onwards. But can we teach it in a creative manner from those first principles? If we learn the proper technique to climb a rope, then obviously we should learn leading with the other foot, with the other hand. But maybe rather than doing that because it is “good technique”, we could do it because it is an exploration of all the possibilities offered by that technique. So that already in those first steps we are dissecting tricks not only for technical reasons, but for creative ones. You’ve learnt your rope climb? OK, show me the variations, and tell me what they change internally as well as externally. Show me a rope climb I’ve never seen before, and build me a sequence that highlights each element within it. Good technique doesn’t need to be at the cost of creativity, or of exploration and play. And that play could be introduced at the same time as the technique, rather than as a separate factor, in a separate class, with a separate teacher.
I experienced an example of this technique/creation separation recently when I found myself in the slightly surreal situation of working for 45 minutes on someone’s finished act: a graduation piece after a four year circus education, which was already six months old and oft-performed. Despite it’s “finished” status I was expected to bring something new to it, and was being watched by two performance teachers. The act was a solo using the Chinese pole, and before the session I was asked “Have you worked with someone on Chinese pole before?”. My answer was “no.” If I had been more brutal and honest, then after the session I should have added “and I still haven’t.”
There was a major disconnect between the technique and the theatrical setting. It was to me a clear example of the wrong way to make modern circus. It was “I do this technique set, what theatrical story can I drop on top of that to make it more interesting?” Rather than making some kind of statement using circus technique, here was someone using the circus technique purely as punctuation. It was something in parentheses, something which was referred to rather than being the main event.
I believe this to be the direct result of separating technique from creation. Of learning the words, rather than coining new ones for the required intention. Of theatre teachers dropping circus into theatrical situations, rather than delving into the situation that is the circus discipline itself. And if the students say “yes”, if that is their final statement after a long and intense education? I find that to be a shame.
I don’t believe that there are no more tricks to find on the Chinese pole. Or on the Corde Lisse or the cradle or any other apparatus. Why don’t we see as much new technique from those disciplines as we do from the jugglers? Yes, the risk is a factor, but so is the psychology of the teachers and the students, and that is something we can take responsibility for. If there really are no more tricks to find, then let’s give up all those other disciplines and all be jugglers together!
But in the mean time, and after so many years of talking about how to create creative circus performers, let’s start by being creative circus teachers: teachers who can kick their students to learn pure technique, but who can also communicate the need for new technique. For technique that tells it’s own story, that is specific and personal and high level. Technique that contains it’s own theatricality, in addition to risk and spectacle and difficulty.
Theatre should deepen and clarify reality: so let’s start with our reality, circus techniques, and see if we can tell some new stories using that language.