In 1984 Bernard Kudlak founded one of the first new circus companies in France, Cirque Plume. It has been 30 years since their first performance, and their second to last piece was, for the first time, dedicated to the visual arts. L’Atelier du Peintre, or The Painter's Studio, is an attempt at bringing the two-dimensional world of painting into the three dimensions of circus space. Here Bernard Kudlak talks about a performance that has often been described as a poem written as circus and dedicated to painting.
In our circus adventure we have always been integrating dance, words, theatre, comedy, a lot of performing arts, but painting is something extremely difficult to put on stage because it is an art in two dimensions. It seemed to me hard to do, even impossible. Yet painting has always had an enormous influence on Cirque Plume, and so I really wanted to do something on it.
The development of painting is often taken as a model for the evolution of other arts, and contemporary circus is no exception. There’s even a historical link between circus and painting; a lot of painters were influenced by the circus and they have always honoured it. I believe circus is an archaic art, soaked in mythologies. Circus uses a rather archaic vocabulary – it absorbs us into the reality of being alive, into the risk of being injured and the reality of the fall. This Art Brut has always fascinated artists because it is an art of life and death and not only of intellect.
When we began to create L’Atelier du Peintre in 2007 our idea was to make Velasquez’s Venus At Her Mirror come alive and step out from her frame… Cirque Plume has always had this impulse to go into artistic works: we desire to go in, to share, to reinvent the pieces. We wanted to go inside and make the characters come out of the paintings – this has always made me dream!
Working on the show we were faced with one very important technical aspect that I hadn’t considered: painting makes an enormous mess. I couldn’t do all that I wanted because when playing in theatres there would be no easy way to ‘reset’ the space after our performance. So I worked instead with shadows, which is in some way working with paint that does not leave any trace.
I have a particular pleasure to work with shadows, I am crazy about them. They are something that I love, that I am constantly watching – silhouettes and shadows. It is another reality created by the absence of light. It is a bit astonishing, this universe of shadows. It always creates poetic situations. We are all fascinated by shadows; a man always questions himself when confronted with his shadow.
So for this scene I did some try-outs beforehand with mirrors and the table, and I experimented with shadows to figure it all out. For me it was about putting everything into one cosmos, in a space full of different projections. Everything had to be set in the right place, and it was necessary that the poetry of the balls passing into shadow and the technique of the number itself be balanced together, so one thing would not erase the other. It was a very precise thing to set, and it took time, but it was not very difficult.
I knew the juggler, Tibo Tout Court, and his work before. He adapted his number to the music, modified it a little bit, but anyway it is his work. The basis of his practice is to work with percussion, with music, but in this case the music was written for his number; he was inside the scenography, in the middle of an orchestra. This was strong!
His juggling makes music and serves as the rhythmical basis of the whole piece. We chose xylophone – for the sound of course, but also because one hits the xylophone with balls, so there is an extra resonance. The juggler responds to the xylophone; the music responds to the juggling surface (which is at the same time an instrument); the mirror responds to the shadow; the shadows respond to the balls; and the shadows of the balls respond to the real ones on the ground, which also respond to the music, which takes us back to the juggler. And it keeps going in a circle like that.
Things are moving in this scene all the time. There is a lot of circulation, as the juggling is a circulation of balls, and the scene itself is a circulation of images and sounds. We juggle with the image that transfers from mirror to shadow, or from shadow to balls; we go from balls to music, from music to the people who roll the balls, and so on. The scene itself is a kind of juggling!
Just before the juggling sequence begins, when Tibo tries to catch the eyes of the moon, or what is left of its eyes, he is trying to catch his dream to juggle. I feel like the shadows always give us a world that belongs to dreams, death, desires… Shades always talk about that, and to catch a shade means to catch a desire, a dream and a soul… a projection.
I find that in art: it shows us something, yet what we see can expand in different ways. There is what we see, there is the shadow of what we see, and then there is our imagination, which creates other images and resonances, and takes us elsewhere. So there are always curtains of different realities, and behind each of them there is another one, and another. It is the principle of this show.
We are here to live with the moment. I think that our shows are expressions of a kind of poetic wit. They are images that line after line – that is to say, moment after moment – resonate. Like a bell that resonates a note which resonates another note which resonates another. One could imagine each element as a musical note which brings things to resonate... and finally leads to a harmony.
L’Atelier du Peintre premiered 3 June 2009 at La Coursive in La Rochelle, France. The extract shown here is from a performance in the company’s own tent at La Villette in Paris October 2009. The film was directed and edited by Jean Marie Jacquet and Antoine Page.
Māra Pāvula interviewed Bernard Kudlak in a cafe in Paris on the rainy afternoon of 10 November 2013. Māra is a circus enthusiast from Latvia. After four years of research she is now working on her own project to create a platform to develop contemporary circus in the Baltic states.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England.