Cie Pol & Freddy’s Le Cirque Démocratique de la Belgique presents itself as a comic journey to the frontiers of democracy – a provoking yet funny appeal to the tendency of the masses towards dictatorship. The performance is a succession of public votes in which the audience can choose this or that ‘act’, costume or, why not, to hear an exposé about the origins of Belgium – on the surface a democratic country par excellence.
Gab Bondewel: The starting point for this creation was the individual challenge for each of us to learn a new technique. Bram chose to learn tap dancing, Gab chose memory training, and Sander chose jumping from a ladder into a small plastic swimming pool. Le Cirque Démocratique de la Belgique focuses on the concept of choice and voting. In that light, Sander’s juggling solo that is constantly interrupted by Gab and Bram asking the audience to vote is quite representative.
Bram Dobbelaere: We started out with a written juggling solo and asked ourselves how we could let people participate in it by voting for or against a certain change in the act. We went through many different variations. At one point, we introduced a glitter coat, a wig and a pair of glasses. People could then vote for Sander to continue juggling in the same outfit or with a costume change. We then rehearsed how Sander could continue juggling while Gab changed the costume he was wearing. Another option was to let Sander execute the same trick he does now (in which he balances a club on his head, drops it and kicks it with his foot) on top of a ladder. That way we thought we could introduce the object of the ladder, which comes back at the very end of the performance. But both ideas didn’t have anything to do with juggling. As Sander really insisted in showing some beautiful, clean, pur sang ‘juggling material’ in the performance, we finally chose to introduce objects that don’t take the focus away from the juggling itself. That’s why people can vote for juggling blindfolded, juggling with balls or clubs, and then juggling with one more juggling club. We’re still jugglers; not all the juggling has to make way for the concept of voting.
Sander De Cuyper: We’ve put this scene at the beginning of the show because it makes the concept that the performance is built on very clear: if we start the five-second jingle, you can vote. In the juggling solo the audience can choose six times in the course of three minutes. We wanted to make clear that it is the audience who determines the course that the performance will take. Or at least to create the illusion that the audience feels like they determine what will happen next.
Bram: The juggling solo is a very good example of a free choice that is manipulated by how we orally present the various options. The way we present the different choices makes it so that the audience is almost unanimous. The same thing happens when we ask them if they want to see blindfolded juggling or juggling with one more club. We don’t have to have a plan B in these cases because people always choose the same thing. People somehow always tend toward sensationalism.
Gab: Because we wanted to test our concept of voting, we had a series of try-outs while we were creating the show. We discovered that people vote ‘against’ us, and so we applied that knowledge to the creation process. In this scene Bram says: ‘Do you want Sander to continue juggling with balls or shall we make it a bit harder for him and let him juggle with clubs?’ Actually juggling with balls is much more difficult for Sander than juggling with clubs. But saying ‘Shall we make it more difficult for him?’ has led to more unanimous voting than during the try-outs when we didn’t use those exact words. We use that principle throughout the whole performance.
Bram: The idea to link the principle of voting to the political context of Belgium came later on. Our first meeting for this creation took place when we were still in the longest ever period without government here in Belgium, so that was kind of in the air. When we started thinking about characters and about why we were there, we came up with the idea that the Belgian government had hired us to pimp the image of our country, both here and abroad, since everybody was making fun of Belgium.
Gab: The Belgian political situation was thus added as a kind of exterior form. As Belgium does in fact have six governments – with Flemish elections, federal elections and so on – it is the perfect symbol for the principle of democratic voting that we use in the performance.
Bram: I do believe in democracy, but I think that the image people have of free choice is quite distorted. If the way we say things on stage influences the vote of the audience, the same goes for political debates on television for example. Take Bart De Wever (politician and head of the Flemish separatist party N-VA), who is a very good orator. When you see a debate with him on television, you’re left with a vague feeling of ‘actually, yes, that guy is right!’. That is, of course, until you think about what he’s actually said. Politicians are manipulating us. Therefore we consciously choose to manipulate the choices of our audience and at the same time to make clear that you’re being manipulated by us. This only becomes clear in the second half of the performance, though. First we’ve got to properly install the illusion of free choice.
Gab: Through the try-outs we did, we had the chance to test several ways of voting. An example was letting women vote and then asking the men if they agreed or not. This way, we could manipulate the choices that were being made. We’ve kept a few of the voting methods we tested in the try-outs and placed them in a sequence. This sequence was separate from the succession of scenes that we’d made – the voting methods and the material of the scenes were created separately. We then put those two dramaturgical lines together. The dramaturgy of the voting moves from free choice to the total manipulation of choice, a fact which is then also made clear to the audience and presented frankly.
Gab: But we do end the performance with a real choice; we only manipulate the outcome of the choice. The last choice that the audience can make is if Sander has to jump from a high ladder into a small plastic swimming pool with very little water. This is a free choice, because we’ve also written a scenario in case people vote against the jump (which basically never happens). So actually there are three types of choices. There is the real free choice (like this last choice or the choice for this or that type of music in the juggling solo). Then there is a category of free choice that is being pushed in the direction we want the scenario to go. We do this by carefully choosing the way we orally present things. And then there’s a last category of manipulated choices, in which we wrongly interpret the outcome of the vote because otherwise the scenario we’ve written falls to pieces.
Bram: Actually, the script is a straight line from beginning till end, based on the ideal choices made. But there are also a few real choices, functioning as side routes in the dramaturgical line. That was quite complicated when we were writing the performance, because it means that the dramaturgy has to allow different moments in which the script can literally take two different directions. If the audience chooses to take a side road, we had to make sure that – after taking a little detour – we ended up on the same straight line. There are four moments like this in the performance. Thinking about this dramatic structure was really interesting when we were creating, but experience teaches us that people always choose the same things.
Gab: I think what people choose also depends on where we perform. In Flanders people will never vote for my exposé about the origin of Belgium, while they might tend to do so in the French-speaking part of Belgium, or abroad. The same goes for the singing of the Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem. In Flanders nobody knows the words to the music, but when we perform for our French-speaking neighbours, a quarter to half of the audience proudly sings along.
Bauke Lievens interviewed Gab Bondewel, Sander De Cuyper and Bram Dobbelaere 29 March 2014 at Festival Up in Brussels. Bauke is a writer, dramaturg and researcher 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.