Performed in a tent with no more than eighty seated round, Cirkus Xanti's Amber is a performance for children, intimate as a secret yet inspired by the wide Norwegian landscape and by essential questions of memory and self. Here the director Sverre Waage talks about the creation of the work, while the artist Karoline Aamås joins for the scene's notes.
In a way it started with my father, when I was a little child, because he was obsessed with dragging me and my brother out into nature. As long as I can remember, from when I was small enough to sit on his shoulder, he would wake us up at four o'clock in the morning on Sundays, before it was light, and take us out into the countryside – up into the mountain, into the forest. We would lie down, hiding, looking at these openings in the forest, and in the dawn hours we'd count hares while my father wrote the numbers in a little book. We collected the shit of the hare and the fox, the pellets of birds, and when we came home he'd show us the inside, the bones and the hair, and explain to us what the animal had eaten. If my father saw a snake he stepped on the head of the snake and picked it up by its tail. If it's a viper, he would say, it won't bite you, because it's not strong enough to lift itself to bite you, and if it has the strength to bite you then it's not a viper and it's not dangerous.
We were walking for hours, out before dawn, not back home until two or three in the afternoon. My father asked us questions all the time – two times two? Eight times eight? As we walked he asked, What kind of flower is this? What kind of tree is this? Which bird is singing now?
All of this is inside Amber – the counting, the flowers, the nature: it's my childhood with my father.
But another start was with Karoline. We held a Nordic lab in Stockholm in 2010, Juggling the Arts, and Karoline was there. At the time she was at AFUK, the Akademiet For Utæmmet Kreativitet in Denmark, where she was training physically very hard. In the lab she was climbing her rope, and every time she'd been up there for five minutes she came down and kind of went into herself, like an envelope. I was sitting there watching her, and of course it would have been natural in these moments that I talked to her, or that I had asked her something straight away, but I saw instead that she was making an envelope around herself, and so I didn't say anything. I was just sitting there looking at her, waiting. She was standing on the crashmat beside the rope, but she was looking at her hands; she stood there for five minutes, just looking at her hands, completely still, then she would climb the rope again. After watching her do this three or four times I had to ask her why she did it, because I thought it was such a strong image, one of the strongest images I'd ever seen. At the same time as she was locking herself in there was a kind of energy that came out everywhere. I was thinking if we could have that in a performance, that kind of introvert energy...
It struck me because I've always been occupied, if I have the possibility to make a performance, with showing the inner world – the inner screen – that people have, and then with trying to connect with children that feel they are strange. Sometimes children can feel as though they are outside, because they have an inner world or inner screen, their fantasy, that they cannot connect to the outer world. They feel a kind of loneliness, and if they can see a performance that tells them that they are not alone then perhaps they will understand that life contains as well this inner world, even if you cannot see it day-to-day when you are with your friends or at your school.
The image of Karoline looking at her hands connected all these feelings. I couldn't forget it. Then later that same year we got a new tent at the Circus Village. In a way you could say I bought it for Karoline – or that's not completely true, but when I bought it, this tiny tent, I already had her in mind, and I knew that I wanted to make a performance for children that would ask the child's essential aesthetic question: Why?
Why are things as they are? I wanted to speak as well about physical freedom, because when you're at school you're taught that the physical side is not so important. It's like a hierarchy: at the bottom is the physical activity, as in life the physical workers are at the bottom; mental work is at the top, just as the people who are seated are the ones controlling the world. I wanted to say that even if the world is like this here's an artist who can do these amazing physical things; she has an inner world, and she communicates poetry, and she questions. It's an old thing that I have that I want to combine the intellectual curiosity and the aesthetic curiosity, the visual and the physical. I want to try to make a whole world that's inside a tent.
So I started to write a text... I wrote about the hands, and about the body, and I showed this text to Karoline.
[Coming down from the rope, looking at her hands:]
When I look at my hands are they mine, or do they belong to my arms? Are my arms mine, or my body's? My body is mine. I feel the weight through my legs and feet...
My feet – are they my feet, or are they feet and toes connected to my body? Feet and toes that belong to my legs, with calves, thighs, knees – all are mine, but who decides what they are doing? Do they never do anything without me deciding what they should do? And how do I decide what my feet, toes, hands, fingers, legs and arms are all doing? Or do they just do it without me knowing how?
Is it inside my head that decides? Is it inside my head that is me – or is it the body, with arms, legs, feet, hands, fingers, toes, that decides?
As a circus artist, when you really know how to do something physically it just happens. When you perform flying trapeze you don't think about the movement because if you start to question why you're doing it you'll fall down; so it's like the body, or the memory in the body, that takes charge. There's a whole branch of neuroscience that's researching physical memory, investigating even whether there's such a thing as cellular memory, so it's a real question to ask: is it the hand that decides what to do or is it the brain? They are connected, so the brain doesn't work without the hand, and the hand doesn't work without the brain, but it's complicated, and with Amber I wanted to make a kind of childlike version of this question of how the body and the memory are connected.
So when Karoline and I started to make the show, in May 2011, we had a lot of ideas, and we had the core, which was this scene with the text and the hands and Karoline's rope, and from there we just started to talk. I asked Karoline to bring photos from her childhood and we looked at those and talked about her memories and my memories. In the end we decided we wouldn't use anything that Karoline couldn't relate to, because she grew up in the same part of the country as me, on the west coast, and she had the same experience of going into the forest and the mountains with her parents. If I presented a text or story and there was nothing in her memory that resembled it, we scrapped it. It needed to be authentic, because Karoline's not an actor and we weren't pretending anything.
Next we brought objects to the performance – stones, the rope, the jars and the goldfish – and started to think about the music that we'd use. I'd worked with the hardanger fiddle player Nils Økland in 2002 when I made a performance based on the novel Melancholy by Jon Fosse. This instrument, the hardanger fiddle, is part of the Norwegian memory and landscape. It's the music of the river in the forest, and the legend is that to be really good you have to make an alliance with the Fossegrimen. This creature appears as a human, but you can recognise it because one foot will be cloven, and if you go to the waterfall in the forest that's where it lives, under the waterfall. If you go there three Thursday nights in a row and sit there playing until after midnight then on the third night the Fossegrimen emerges from the water and shows you how to play. So it's very connected, this instrument, to nature and to balance in nature.
At first we worked with some of the music Nils had composed for that 2002 performance. Later, after we had begun performing Amber, we got some money for him to compose an original score, but he wasn't able then to come and see Karoline perform – instead he had a video that he watched as we sat in my living room at home. I had a microphone in my Mac, and I would estimate the lengths of scenes for him, give him a few prompts and ideas, and then let him improvise. At that time we didn't have the long stone scene as it's extracted here, but I knew I wanted to do something more with the stone and I asked him to play one minute of the soul of a big stone. He nodded and sat still for a short time, then he took up his fiddle and played. It was so beautiful; it was one of the most beautiful pieces I'd ever heard. Then we were going to listen to it and found we forgot to put the jack into the Mac. I'll do it again, he said, but it was never the same.
It was obvious to me to use stones in the performance because my father collected stones all his life. We had a place in the fjords when I was a child, a cottage, and I would row him over to the opposite shore that was stony. When he died we had to clean out the apartment and it was like a quarry inside – everywhere it was stones.
The stones we use in the performance come from the ocean outside where I live, on the beach. I brought a lot to the tent and we had a sort of audition for this scene, because the stone couldn't be too heavy but it had to be heavy enough. When you hold the stone, you feel the heaviness, and it's really good to hold a stone when it's a little bit heavy. In this scene, every time Karoline puts the stone on her head or on the neck the children are open-mouthed. Often you can hear them say wow – they are really impressed.
The show often gets a response as well from the grandmothers who see it. There's one woman who's come back all three years in Oslo with her grandchildren, and several people have said to me that they have so much to talk about with their children afterwards, because the parents have memories of growing up in the countryside, and the children have their own memories as well, if not so many, and Amber inspires something in them that makes them want to question.
I think the basis of all creativity is curiosity, and the basis of everything is nature. Even if I can never say exactly that the reason I became an artist and worked in art was my father, as I've grown older and had children of my own I've realised that he gave me a lot by dragging me out every Sunday and showing me everything in nature. I think I might have been born curious, but my father gave it a meaning and direction.
Amber premiered summer of 2011 at the Circus Village in Oslo, and has played there and at the Village's other sites every year since. The show has been performed in English, Icelandic and Norwegian, with a Finnish premiere slated for August 2014 at the Cirko Pikkolo festival in Helsiniki, and a French premiere planned for October 2014 in Paris.
Amber is Karoline Aamås' first contemporary circus show. She studied at AFUK in Denmark before moving on to DOCH in Sweden, and recently formed her own company, Tanter, with Moa Asklof Prescott and Elise Bjerkelund Reine.
John Ellingsworth interviewed Sverre Waage 24 October 2013 outside the restaurant Le Daroles during Auch's Festival CIRCa, and Karoline Aamås earlier that same day on the steps of the festival building's interior courtyard.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England.