After touring for four years with the successful hand-to-hand performance Appris par Corps, acrobats Alexandre Fray and Fréderic Arsenault (Un Loup pour l'Homme) decided to invite two fellow acrobats to join them for the creation of their second piece. Face Nord is many things. It is an invitation to observe the encounter of four masculine bodies, with the audience gathered around all four sides of a square covered with green tatami mats. It is a deconstruction of hand-to-hand acrobatics, uncovering the architectural principles that lie at the base of the discipline. It is a piece revealing the humanity that lies in the exploration of a physical bond. And, last but not least, it is an attempt at writing a circus performance as a collection of physical games. Alexandre Fray talks about the scene of the ‘blind wolf’.
Le Loup Aveugle or The Blind Wolf
Playing field: A limited, danger-free space where one must be able to feel/know with closed eyes when one is crossing the limits of the space. Use, for example, a carpet or another material covering the floor, so that the playing field is differentiated from the rest of the space.
Number of participants: Minimum two. One participant is randomly assigned wolf. The others are sheep. There is no possibility to question this division.
Goal of the game: For the wolf: to catch the sheep. For the sheep: to escape the wolf.
Start position: Once the wolf has been assigned, all participants stand at the edges of the space, facing the center. After a last visual contact between all the participants, they close their eyes. Once all the eyes are closed, the hunt begins.
Rules: Be careful not to hurt anyone! All eyes have to remain closed as long as the sheep are alive and as long as the wolf has not finished hunting. It is forbidden to leave the playing field. The living sheep cannot stop moving. The wolf tries to catch the sheep. In order to do so, he/she has to double tap (‘tap-tap’) a part of the body of the sheep. Once a sheep is caught, (s)he dies. The sheep stops moving, bleats once with his/her best voice (‘beeuh – beuuh!’), opens his/her eyes and stays there. The dead sheep stay attentive to the progress of the hunt until the end.
End: The hunt ends when the wolf has caught every sheep.
(From: Face Nord: livret de jeux, Un loup pour l’homme, avec les photographies de Milan Szypura.)
With Face Nord we wanted to ‘write’ a performance without using a clear choreographic line. Most of the performances which we’ve been part of were written in an ‘I touch your right shoulder and then you spin’ kind of way. In that sort of work you know exactly where you go and what you do. Also the directions of your movements are often written. However, we wanted to explore a way of ‘writing’ that works through the definition of rules or exterior limits that determine our actions. It is because we follow the rules that we know what to do. In that sense, the rules are the writing of the piece.
The rules are not interchangeable, but set in a precise order. In that way, they define a continuity and create meeting points between the different games we play. The blind wolf is the moment in Face Nord when people usually understand and accept the principle of the game that our performance is built on. The beginning of Face Nord is a bit weird and people wonder what the hell we’re doing. But the blind wolf functions as a kind of hinge. From there on I think people understand the rules of the game and they understand that the performance itself is a game. People often laugh. I also like it because of that: it’s a funny game without it wanting to be funny. In that sense it embodies quite well what we’ve wanted to do with Face Nord: it is not we who consciously create an effect, the effect is created by the rules of the game and the codes of the performance are being exposed. That’s also why we chose to put the blind wolf in the beginning of the performance, even though it’s really the end point of the deconstruction of acrobatics that we were working on: there’s no climbing, passing or even stepping on each other. Because it is executed blindly, it is quite a pure game with few rules and a clear goal. It is also an easy game without real winners.
The blind wolf always varies in length. We don’t open our eyes but I can cheat a little by letting the others escape if I find them too quickly. I can make some sounds to warn them that I’m coming closer so they can move away from me. In that way we handle the duration of the scene, but we know that we can make it last a really long time before an audience gets bored. However, the roles are fixed: it is always me who takes up the part of the wolf. Actually, that ‘writing’ is just the affirmation of the roles that we took up organically during rehearsals. Sergi is the one who observes, I am the one who watches over the whole picture, and Mika and Fred are mostly the ones initiating a game and leading the group to a specific action.
While it’s true that we were consolidating something that grew organically in the process, we also started from the idea that circus, like every form of live performance, is something that happens here and now. We started out asking ourselves how we could reproduce a set of actions which would be similar in each performance but also belong to the here and now. The need for this research came from the internal ‘wearing out’ of our previous performance Appris par Corps, which we’d been performing since 2006. After a few years of touring we felt as if we were executing a ‘dead’ form. The performance still moved the people who saw it, yet on the inside we were not alive anymore. Many pieces are constructed in that way and probably quite a lot of directors ‘build a form’. This might sound slightly negative, but when it is well written a form can communicate different emotions, meanings, etcetera.
However, we wanted to do it in a different way, so we started thinking about what it means to us to make a gesture in circus. First of all, it means that you’re doing something live. You’re not re-presenting something else. Our choice of a square performance space also comes from that same reflection. A bit like sports, circus is not something that your body shows to an audience, rather it is a body being observed by an audience. Taking this as a starting point has helped us to stay in a mindset in which we purely try to do acrobatics. As an acrobat, you’re really conscious of your actions and your body. When you look for a balanced position you are actually constantly correcting your gestures because as soon as you fix the position, you fall. Therefore, circus is not a science of perfection. It is a science of corrections. In circus you try (to do). With Face Nord, we’ve tried to go back to a physical presence that functions as an answer to what happens around you and in the bodies surrounding you.
By doing that, we’ve tried to reinsert a form of risk into what we do. During rehearsals, this risk was physical, since we hadn’t ‘mastered’ our gestures then the way we have now. Later on, we tried to take the physical risk to more of an imagined level by asking, for example, what is at stake when you are performing live surrounded by an audience on four sides. The blind wolf is ‘risky’ in the sense that even though I know the rules, the playing field and the goal of the game, I can never know in advance what will happen. I have to act and react ‘live’. In other words, I have to take risks. This obliges me to listen to what happens here and now. This is why circus, to us, is an art of action.
However, the fact that we have our eyes closed and don’t know exactly what will happen does not suffice to make the game work or, in other words, to install a dramatic tension. Simply following the rules does not suffice to make a game. There also needs to be an investment of energy. You need to not want to win the game, but you also need to not want to lose it. In that sense our way of writing the performance with rules, paradoxically, makes acting more necessary. You have to be a good ‘performer of the rule’. That’s why I think one cannot re-make Face Nord by simply executing what is written in the little book of rules that we published. It is just a list of rules, without any ‘direction’ (mise en scène). The performance of the rules is useless without a director (metteur en scène). It would be like reading Molière all by yourself.
Bauke Lievens interviewed Alexandre Fray October 2013 in Ghent. She worked with Un Loup pour l'Homme as a dramaturg on Face Nord, and is currently working on the research project 'Between being and imagining: towards a methodology for artistic research in contemporary circus', financed by KASK School of Arts, Ghent, Belgium.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England and KASK School of Arts, Ghent, Belgium.