Creative Technique

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.

Double Dutch

A lot of my work over the last years has been teaching based, and this month found me teaching for the first time at the circus school in Holland.

I mean, at the circus schools in Holland.

Both Rotterdam and Tilburg now boast circus departments within the auspices of a university organisation. Both offer four year bachelor programmes. Codarts in Rotterdam are about to present their second graduating year, ACaPA in Tilburg their first.

Another difference:

Codarts school hall
Codarts school hall
ACaPA circus tent
ACaPA circus tent

When coming in for a week, I am always torn between wishing to spend the short time available doing strict technique classes, or to rather concentrate on eg choreographical / concept based work. I hope always that I find a balance between these two, but manage always to come away wishing that I’d had more time…

The major difference between the two schools, or rather the one that has the most effect relating to my work at them, is that Codarts has a permanent juggling teacher in the shape of Gregor Kiock. This means that I can trust the students to have, and to keep to, a consistent and strict technique training programme. It also means that my guilty conscience at tweaking people’s technique is made even guiltier…

It feels so good to make tiny physical corrections (hand position, cross point etc) to someone’s pattern and to instantly see an improvement. That work can feel just as creative and valuable, sometimes more so, than seeing the results of a pure conceptual exercise. Hopefully both will make an impression of some kind on my students.

My next stop in the world, after a single and all too brief day at home in Cologne, shall be the GOP Varieté in Hannover, where I shall be for all of May and June. Sometimes my job feels like several different jobs. Which seems like rather a healthy and challenging, if somewhat stressful, position to be in. Come visit me if you happen to be near!

Photos with Photosynth on iPhone!/CircusGeeks/status/64300179033047040

The Technique IS the Character

I was talking recently with someone who is working on creating a new juggling act, and they mentioned that they wanted said new act to contain more “character”, and that they wanted to include more stops and pauses: for the purpose of showing that “character”.

Almost as recently, upon introducing myself to a fellow circus performer they asked me what “theme” my juggling act had. My reply of “juggling” left them nonplussed.

Having had to pick my jaw up from the floor on each of these occasions, I realised I could perhaps usefully try (for myself if no-one else) to form my thoughts into some kind of clarity on this matter.

The year is 2011. It was over 30 years ago that nouveau cirque made a clear and, surely at that time, necessary statement about the break they were making from non-nouveau cirque. But I sincerely hope that we are far enough now with the circus arts and their development to understand that we don’t have to justify our time on stage by claiming it to be circus “with theatre”, or “with dance”, or “without horses”. Or “with value added character”. Circus is circus, and it’s practitioners are circus artists.

If we are using the circus arts (circus techniques, as in skills and tricks) to express ourselves, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to show them some respect and to create and show work where that technique set is needed. Needed means not added on as a bonus but rather integral to, and defining of, the work. The technique should be a necessity of the performance (and perhaps also the other way round, but that is perhaps a topic for another time).

If technique is integral (which to me is a backbone of circus performance), then technique has a lot of responsibility. It is the major means we have to communicate our intent. I shall repeat that more clearly (and to really stress it, I shall do so by manually re-typing it, rather than using copy and paste): technique is the major tool that we have to communicate our intent.

That doesn’t mean that it should subsume the intent, but that it serves the intent.

If our intention includes the need to create a particular “character” (be that character one of pop-star, ninja, sailor or, dare we even say it, JUGGLER), then I hope it is clear that, although costuming and make-up, or staging and light, are important and valuable factors in our constructs, it is TECHNIQUE that must take the lead. We should innovate in our technique, believe in it, and shouldn’t be scared to trust it to tell an audience more about our intentions and emotional content then any other factor.

After all, love of technique is what drove us in the first place to learn this craft, and I hope that that same love is a factor in keeping us in this crazy, impossible, beautiful, painful, ghastly, inspiring, incredible life that we may call our job.

Innovate your technique: create the right trick for the right moment.

Trust in your tools: and let an audience share that trust.

And always remember: the technique IS the character.