Photo: Lise Pauton
2. Roundtable @ Berlin Circus Festival 2016
Round table on the future of circus: more and better circus in Germany?
Text by Seb Kann
On Wednesday the 31st of August, the Berlin Circus Festival was host to the second round table on the future of the German contemporary circus. The two (interrelated) questions at stake were, ‘how can we produce more and better circus?’ and ‘what do we need to make circus recognized as an art form?’ More than any definitive answers, the discussion revealed the multiple meanings and perspectives coded within those questions—proof at least that dialogue fostered at the round table was urgently necessary.
Gathered in the shady tent on Tempelhofer Feld that afternoon were artists from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Québec, Portugal, the US, and the UK; German programmers, producers, pedagogues, and studio managers; as well as officials from French funding bodies and the Finnish Institute. An impressive turnout by all accounts. Fueled by coffee and croissants, the meeting began with presentations from the French contingent, represented by Jean-Michel Guy (teacher of circus analysis at CNAC and sociologist at the Ministry of Culture) and Elena Daporto (head of circus and street arts for the Ministry). They were followed by Laura Hirvi, who spoke about the upcoming collaboration between the Finnish Institute and the 3rd edition of the festival; Cecile Provot from Paris-based incubator Jeunes Talents Cirque Europe (Circus Next); and myself—professionally unaffiliated, but involved in both theoretical and practical investigations into new circus dramaturgies (Utrecht University).
The French speakers were invited to speak about structure in various capacities. The picture that emerged was of a complicated and multi-tiered institutional network, providing expertise (and especially money) to circus artists at every stage of their development. As the central and national body, the Ministry of Culture deals with the roots (education) and the uppermost branches (companies of ‘national and international interest’) of the circus system in France, as well as providing baseline funding to the web of residency centers called the ‘pôles nationaux’. These centers award rehearsal space, lodging, and technical support to artists on an application basis.
In addition to the federal funding, Dapporto was quick to point out, various regional funds exist to support local artists. As the numbers rolled past—three million euros here, five million euros there—murmurs began to be heard among members of the fledgling German scene, murmurs of envy, admiration, and disbelief. What circus in France has, and what artists in Germany want, are subsidized spaces for creation, funding for experimentation, and official recognition of the worth of their genre. But is institutional support alone the key to establishing a vibrant contemporary circus ecology in Germany?
If the manifesto for the future of German circus written at the previous meeting (and read out loud during Wednesday’s discussion) is anything to go by, questions of funding, space, recognition, and visibility are at the top of the agenda. And for good reason: a glance across the border reveals what appears to be a kind of circus artist’s paradise, with companies hopping from cushy residency center to cushy residency center for two years before having to premier anything resembling a show, helped along the way by a team of state-provided technicians and administrative workers. What’s more, Germany’s top-tier contemporary theater and dance scenes seem to suggest that the circus artist’s exclusion from the system is squarely the product of a priori judgment, rather than lack of resources.
But as Jean-Michel Guy rather cheekily quipped, ‘more circus in Germany’ and ‘better circus in Germany’ are in fact two different imperatives—or at least, represent the same movement from two different, equally-important perspectives. The language of the circus manifesto, which defines the purpose of contemporary circus as “the self-expression of the performer herself”, perpetuates a notion of the artist more linked to the Romantic period than to the contemporary, wherein artworks already lie dormant within the body of the artist-genius, waiting for the conditions of their safe birthing to arise. According to such a concept of artistic creation, all that’s missing in German contemporary circus is a kind of inert (physical, legal/bureaucratic, economic) framework which can literally support the artist’s pure and authentic creative energy.
Such a picture is obviously out of step with contemporary notions of art-making—not to mention the often collective character of contemporary circus creation. Circus work emerges through negotiation, constructed between multiple authors and multiple economic, social, and cultural force-fields. An artist needs not only practical (financial, technical, administrative) support, but also dialogue partners with whom she can begin to discover what her work is—and what it can be in the future, as both she and her context evolve apace with the contemporary.
Which is not to say that the French model doesn’t look awfully nice. Nor is it to say that a changed institutional landscape wouldn’t do good for Germany—indeed, it might relieve some financial pressure just long enough to give artists space to breath and experiment. But throwing money at the issue is not the solution: better institutional support sets the stage for ‘better’ circus, but improvements in circus might be key to securing that institutional support in the first place.
A strategy which revolves fully around funding and visibility neglects to address the serious lack of dialogue between circus artists, and between circus and other artistic disciplines. We aren’t in the practice of sharing creation tools, nor are we equipped to talk about the way our work does work in a clear way. Without such tools, without being about to articulate our ambitions and relate them to other artistic discourses in a profound and meaningful way, circus will be the ugly duckling of the performing arts—regardless of our efforts to convince the world otherwise.
During the discussion, Jean-Michel Guy proposed three qualities which characterize healthy artistic ecosystems: variety, disparity, and balance. Guy defined variety as the sheer quantity of different works; disparity as the number of different categories necessary to classify those works; and balance in terms of the relative dominance of certain companies or certain categories of work over others—who plays three shows, and who plays five years of shows. A more robust funding system will ensure greater variety in Germany, but disparity and balance require a careful curation and re-design of information flows.
Such a concern was addressed briefly in the meeting, notably by Declan Mee and Oli Pinchbeck, who have just opened a new training and residency space in Berlin called Katapult. Inspired by the contemporary dance—a field in which it’s normal for artists to consider regularly giving classes and sharing creation tools as part of their artistic practice—the duo intend to program a series of intensive workshops in Katapult, with the aim of facilitating dialogue between makers. Such a commitment is definitely a step in the right direction, vitally important for German circus and indeed a potential springboard for bringing circus further into the discourse of the contemporary.
It’s important to remember that the French system has been growing and evolving since 1979. A similar structure cannot take hold in Germany overnight, nor could a unilateral decision on the part of German cultural institutions inaugurate a fertile scene in a single stroke. It’s maybe risky to make such an assertion: does it perhaps weaken our claim to official recognition? I answer with an emphatic NO. Circus in Germany needs both institutional support and improved internal communication, in symbiotic tandem.
What is complicated about such a map to the future is that garnering institutional support would seem to hinge on an effective, optimistic, and univocal public relations campaign, while a healthy dialogue within circus would require insuring spaces for dissensus and fostering disparity. We are smart enough to be able to do both at once, running an effective public relations campaign while at the same time maintaining a critical distance with regards to our own rhetoric. The second round table on the future of German circus was an important moment of sharing, and I hope that many more such discussions are organized as contemporary circus in Germany continues to grow and change.