Rostislav Novák, actor, director, and founder and artistic director of Cirk La Putyka, recently authored his fourth contemporary circus performance. Risk was developed within the framework of LACRIMAE, an international collaboration project with Cirkus Cirkör (Sweden) and Cahin-Caha (France). Here he talks about the formation of the company and the ideas that lie behind this latest production.
Since I only attended acting school and have no actual directing education, I think of myself as an actor rather than as a director. There have been actors on both sides of my family – they can be traced all the way back to 1775 in fact, on my mother's side.
Both my life and my mindset have thus been shaped by acting. At the moment I’m most interested in the differences between film and theatre acting as well as the differences between dance and puppetry. In short, I have always been interested in crossing boundaries and mixing genres – both as an actor and as a director. This is basically why I was captivated by contemporary circus in the first place: it may well be the best example of this one could find.
The act of establishing a company in the Czech Republic and then creating five projects with the same group of people stemmed both from my desire to create within the genre of contemporary circus, and from the impossibility of finding someone else I could entrust my projects to.
Each new La Putyka project begins with a topic or theme. The first project was inspired by the Czech pub or beer culture, which of course had previously inspired a great many Czech artists, musicians and writers including Vítězslav Nezval, Václav Havel and Bohumil Hrabal, to name just a few. In our case, the pub, a meeting place of sorts, morphed into the performance La Putyka.
Our second stage project, Up’End’Down, was an exploration of what happens in the moment when you die, a series of questions designed to examine what death itself really is. I wanted the answer to these questions to be that there is a guardian angel and a heaven for each one of us.
The circus fairytale titled Will There Be Circus?!, staged at the Minor Theatre in Prague, was blessed with a virtually unlimited budget, at least in comparison with what we were used to up until then. As a result, the scenography was more pompous and the performance itself longer than usual. Two years into the show, I decided to cut some things and shorten it by 25 minutes. I must say that creatively intervening in something that has been running for two years – and in a very different world to most independent productions – can be rather fun.
Slapstick Sonata, our next project, was directed by Maksim Komaro. This was because I was very busy at the time, but also because I wanted the members of Cirk La Putyka to get a whiff of someone else's creative instincts.
When I was initially contemplating the theme of our most recent project – Risk – I realised that my entire life has been a series of adrenaline rushes and all sorts of extreme situations. And not just in sports, but in life in general. In addition to that, risk has been synonymous with circus since time immemorial. I began to be interested in looking for and meeting traditional Czech circus artists, especially those who have been injured in the line of circus duty. I located 25 of them, from tightrope walkers to magicians injured when a trick went wrong. My original idea was to have them actually perform in the project, but after consulting with Miloslav Klíma, a professor of dramaturgy, I realised that getting them on stage was impossible – especially with respect to their age. In fact, some were dead already and a few had actually died in the ring.
Obviously, creating a performance about them without them was pointless, so I started thinking about my chosen topic from a different perspective and began to search for people with disabilities – mental, physical, etcetera – and to ask interested performers to contact me. At this point in my search for the right people to engage in the project, the company and I went on tour to Sydney, which is where I received an e-mail that began: ‘Hello, my name is Petr Valchář, I am twenty-four years old, I am a folk dancer, competition snowboarder and a student of the Faculty of Physical Culture...’ I read it and thought – hang on, I'm looking for people with disabilities, right? And then it hit me. The last line: ‘...and I have been wheelchair-bound since 2011’. Reading this gave me goosebumps and I immediately called Petr to set up a meeting for when I got back from Sydney. Once we met, I literally cast him on the spot. This is how Risk was born.
I would have done Risk even without the LACRIMAE project, since it was basically just an extension, a platform for international collaboration. Although each of the participating companies had a theme of their own, we did manage to maintain a few common denominators, including puppets or the principles of puppetry in each of the three performances. The rehearsals were conducted in the form of laboratories, each ending with a public presentation. Even the very first session actually provided me with some material used in the performance itself. Anyway, these laboratory rehearsals took place from mid-September to December 2012 and the performance was officially premiered in La Seyne-sur-Mer and in Marseille in January and February 2013. However, the performance continued to develop even after that, and is in fact still evolving. We've also shortened it by 28 minutes. At the risk of sounding absurd, I have to say that next time I would like to premiere a piece only after at least fifteen performances. The audience always provides you with new impulses and input you can include in the performance, which can turn it into something completely different fifteen nights later.
Risk is centred on the story of one man and draws on Petr's real life experiences and feelings, but it also addresses the wider issue of limitations in life and the issues of freedom and choice arising within and from these limitations. For me, the message my work sends out is of paramount importance. Trying out a new circus discipline or dedicating a performance to form only is not enough; I want each of my artistic projects to speak out. I don't want acrobats to do triple somersaults just because it's an admirable feat. I'd rather they do a simple somersault, as long as they know why they're doing it. I'm becoming immune to critics saying that the technique showcased in a contemporary circus performance should be as ambitious as possible, designed purely to shock and awe the audience. In a way, Risk is my answer to these preconceptions.
On a different note, I also wanted to try working with a great choreographer and so Thomas Steyaert, a veteran of the Belgian company Ultima Vez, was invited to participate in developing Risk. I know his work and I knew a collaboration would work out well.
The performance I envisioned would be composed of two different parts: one raw and the other a little more poetic. I wanted to create a performance with absolutely no kitschy decorative elements. Even individual relationships, especially those involving Petr's character, are portrayed exactly as he himself perceives them.
I was looking forward to working with technically excellent artists, but I was expecting them to do more than put on one great act – I wanted them to combine a number of expressive elements in their performance on stage. For example, although Kajsa Bohlin is a Cyr wheel artist, she spends an hour and a half doing everything but her act. Marc Brillant, another Cyr wheel specialist, also gets to his own act only in the second half of the performance. Before that, he participates in a range of different acts. It's a working style I like to use with the company. I come up with new tasks and creative challenges, some of which call for circus technique and some of which are geared toward dancing or acting.
In the case of trampoline acts – which I have had some past experience with – I wanted to examine the issue of limitations and the question of whether these limitations offer a measure of freedom or perhaps whether their existence in fact even provides a greater degree of freedom. The trampoline appears during three of Risk’s scenes, the first of which, where Mikko Karhu jumps with a sharp knife in his hand, is shown in the extract. In the second scene Mikko is given balls – objects – to manipulate. They don’t pose any danger, but they do impose a limitation, and they also contribute to creating various connotations, thereby stimulating the artist's imagination. In the third trampoline scene, Mikko is loosely tied to the trampoline frame, which results in a substantial – and risky – limitation of his movements on the trampoline.
As I’ve already mentioned, the first half of Risk is rough, perhaps even to the point of being raw. For example, there is a moment in which Mikko cuts his chest with a knife, and he is actually cutting himself, there is no illusion. There are other real dangers on stage including sharp nails and darts. Objects which present an actual hazard were employed in order to raise the artists' adrenaline levels and heighten the experience of individual dramatic situations. By cutting his chest repeatedly in each performance, Mikko experiences all of the knife acts of the night with a far greater intensity. Knowing he will use a real knife induces feelings which are much more intense than if this were not the case. By the way, I never forced him to actually cut himself, he came up with the idea during a rehearsal.
His character in the show is a taciturn young boy confined to his own world. He carries around a backpack with cigarettes, a bottle of water and a book. Excerpts from this book are read out loud on stage by the actor Jiří Kohout and are somewhat reminiscent of The Little Prince. Some may perceive the text as a cliché while others may think of it as a philosophical book about freedom and flight. Flight may well be considered a symbol of freedom. In connection with the text, Mikko begins to tell a story about his father, a military pilot who wants his son to follow in his footsteps. Mikko, however, says that he wants to fly in order to be free, not in order to kill and destroy. He takes a cigarette paper, placing it on a fingertip, and starts turning his body so the paper also begins to spin. He then places several eggs on the floor (we wanted to use eggs as a metaphor for human beings), enters the audience, and attempts to hit the eggs with sharp darts, hitting some and missing others. He then demonstratively grabs the knife, cuts his chest, and anoints the eggs with his own blood.
His character is not a destroyer. He repeats that he does not want to shoot, he wants to be able to fly in order to be free. When we arrive at his next act, the trampoline scene shown here, he begins with a short sketch where the character of the dictator (Jiří Kohout) compels Mikko to undergo yet another dangerous experience. He thrusts a knife into his hand, which, in this situation, is meant both as a symbol of danger and a symbol of fear and anxiety. These are the feelings Mikko must overcome. I wanted the trampoline act to reflect the character's inner conflict. Mikko holds a sharp knife in his hand for the entire duration of the act. The choreography was based on a range of movement experiments where we examined the various ways in which a knife could be manipulated during the jump in order for individual moves to portray the character's emotional state. The gravity and centrifugal force involved in trampoline acts, especially those including another object, provide the artist with the opportunity to create interesting moments, such as Mikko letting go of the knife, which momentarily remains suspended in mid-air. As the situation was dramaturgically defined, it was essential to find the right moves which would best correspond to the chosen thematic concept. Once Mikko performed the individual figures, we would choose from among them and combine them into a focused choreography proceeding towards a substantive climax.
Like all Cirk La Putyka projects, Risk is in a permanent state of continuing development. Risk is fascinating in that it presents the power of those moments of real, unstaged danger, as well as the emotions which bind them all together. If we come together and join forces, we will one day break the barrier between the real and the imagined.
The extracted scene is from a performance of Risk given at La Fabrika, Prague on 17 January 2013.
Rostislav Novák was interviewed by the cultural journalist and researcher Veronika Štefanová on 6 November 2013 in Prague. Veronika has been focusing on the phenomenon of contemporary circus professionally since 2008 when she first began collaborating with the Prague-based Cirqueon - Center for contemporary circus, where she established a circus library and documentation center.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England. It was translated from Czech by David Konecny.