Based on the novella Capricious Summer by Vladislav Vančura, Riverside is a contemporary circus production charged with the spirit of 1920s Poetism. Here the director Veronika Riedlbauchová talks about adapting the book and the process of turning words into movements.
The idea of me directing Riverside was first brought up by Václav Jelínek and Adam Jarchovský of the Brothers in Trick duo, who also invited Kristýna Vlčková to act as a guest slackrope walker and juggler. They told me about their initial ideas, which focused a lot on 1930s bathing venues and swimming pools. The atmosphere was to be reminiscent of Vladislav Vančura's 1926 novella Capricious Summer. I liked their ideas and so we started thinking about how they might be implemented in the production.
Since Vančura's Capricious Summer is a work based on the poetic power of language, I had to ask myself a key question at the very beginning: how do you transform words into movements without losing the unique atmosphere of Vančura's writing? I was not interested in adapting the entire novella in contemporary circus fashion; rather, I wished to be inspired by the atmosphere of Poetism, an artistic movement founded in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s which placed a great deal of emphasis on playfulness, optimism and a zeal for life. In addition to that, Poetism also employed circus motifs as well as borrowing elements of fun fairs, slapstick and jazz. The whole movement was inspired by the atmosphere and the exoticism which has always been associated with the circus. Vančura's novella is set in a small village when the circus comes to town, complete with all kinds of freaky acts and crazy circus performances. Riverside adopts this scheme, but in reverse: we are using circus elements as a means to tell a story. In other words, circus is not being portrayed as a circus; instead, it is being used as a means of expression.
Although none of Vančura's language is actually present in the performance, Riverside does owe a lot to the composition of his work and the general atmosphere of Capricious Summer. In addition to that, we were also greatly inspired by a film adaptation of the novella directed by Jiři Menzel in 1967. What I like about being inspired by both the novel and the film is the thematic and formal loop.
The fundamental situation from which the entire performance unfolds is based on a very simple plotline where two men are captivated by the same girl. They both try to seduce her, but – despite all of their efforts – fail in the end. It was not easy to maintain the simplicity of the plot throughout the production. In fact, the hardest part was developing the individual situations. This is where theatre came in. My approach to contemporary circus is such that I do not wish to show off technique for its own sake, nor am I interested in setting up acts solely for show value. As I see it, a circus discipline constitutes a means for the expression of dramatic situations. This is why I always ask content-oriented questions: why throw the club, why turn just so? Naturally, this is not just because a given act might be predisposed to such questions, but because everything that takes place on stage must have some kind of merit. I was looking for a way to rid the contemporary circus performance of individual circus acts, the kind of fragmentation into acts which frequently takes place. Instead, I wanted to create a performance with a linear composition.
At the outset, we established a range of dramatic situations – for example a situation where Kristýna has to seduce Adam, which upsets Václav and provokes a fight with Adam, which is then followed by a scene where Kristýna seduces Václav for a change. I even prepared a list of points demonstrating situational development. The next phase was dedicated to searching for various means of expression, especially through improvisational exercises associated with individual situations, where all three artists presented me with a range of theatre and circus material.
Since all rehearsals were recorded on video, I was then able to pick out the elements I wanted to use, piecing them into a choreography later on. Thus, everything I choose from and everything I finally select comes directly from the artists themselves. Since the elements are all of their own making, they are capable of performing them naturally and spontaneously. I then process the material from a director and dramaturg's point of view. I call this working method ‘searching for theatrical language’.
The precise composition and output of each scene is then based on the outcome of the improvised situation sessions, which is why I consider controlled improvisation to be an ideal working method: it allows the work to shape itself spontaneously. Creative spontaneity cannot be replaced by a rational approach. However, I also realised that improvisation was not a method that could be easily applied to contemporary circus, which calls for movements that are well thought out and perfectly executed. In this sense, circus technique is somewhat binding, creating a barrier which is impossible to cross, which is something that seldom happens in the case of theatre.
Thus, in working with circus disciplines – juggling, slackrope, pair acrobatics, clown acts – I applied the ‘principle of gradual unveiling’. We also worked with visual parallels and similarities: for example, a juggling club resembles a bottle of wine as well as serving as a representation of the female body.
At the beginning of the show, we used one club, which Kristýna teaches both male protagonists how to manipulate. Each performer holds one club, which in the case of this situation stands for an attribute of seduction, a learning aid for seduction tactics in fact. Almost every moment is a circus expression of the relationship between a man and a woman. While in a conventional theatrical situation the woman might perhaps give the man a meaningful look, in Riverside this is replaced by an artistic gesture, in this case a manipulation of the club.
In keeping with the ‘principle of gradual unveiling’, more clubs appear on stage. Kristýna and Adam juggle three clubs, subsequently replaced by bottles of wine, which are then manipulated by Adam and Václav. As soon as Kristýna turns the bar – built of wooden crates – around, new clubs appear next to the bottles and are then gradually integrated. At this point, we also included an in-joke for people with a basic understanding of the juggling world who know of the existence of volleyclub, which is not unlike volleyball, except that it is played with clubs (clubs are thrown over a net while juggling in such a way that the opponent is unable to catch it). This juggling situation thus works both as a metaphor for volleyball and as a reference to the specific sport of juggling itself.
The tempo and dynamic of the entire performance is heightened not only by the increasing intensity of the circus acts and the gradual uncovering of new circus techniques and disciplines, but also by the inclusion of contrasting acts, including a dreamlike scene with a club and slackrope walker, which is the one extracted here. In the context of the remaining scenes, the dream sequence with Kristýna as a slackrope walker is a visual rather than narrative scene, thus standing in even starker contrast with the rest of the performance.
This scene also provides a dynamic and stylistically contrasting element with respect to the overall poetics of the entire performance, which is rather comedic on the whole. The dream sequence helps the audience break away from the comedy for a period of time and relax for a while, although the comedy is subsequently reinstated, which makes for a more dynamic, diverse and interesting performance.
As I mentioned previously, clubs are used both as tools for seduction and as a metaphor for women. The presence of clubs at the beginning of the dream scene thus evokes a rather surreal atmosphere. The multiplying images of women, appearing in the dream of the seduced man, are represented by more and more clubs appearing on stage. The sleeping men are also given one club each. When Adam wakes up, he sees before him one club, which he perceives as a representation of Kristýna, his dream woman.
The search for parallels between Kristýna – the female principle – and her metaphorical representation in the form of a club is based on synchronous moments appearing in the slackrope act and in the manipulation of the club. Thus, the spin Kristýna performs on the slack rope must take place simultaneously with Adam spinning a club. We gave a lot of thought to how Adam and Kristýna's movements connect in terms of tempo and rhythm and how individual figures stand in contrast to one another. In order to make the scene more interesting in this respect, we decided to intentionally choreographically interfere with the synchronicity of their movements, like in the moment where Kristýna comes to a standstill on the rope while Adam continues the manipulation. However, the synchronous alignment of pace, rhythm and formal elements is speedily restored: Christina, leaning on the slack rope, lifts herself up while Adam, bent over backwards, balances a club on his chin.
This scene is the product of a fairly complicated process involving improvisational as well as precisely assigned exercises. We used acting situations and joint synchronised exercises and even different rehearsal spaces. The performers rehearsed together on the floor or separately as required by their own disciplines. They provided me with a range of material, which I recorded on video. I then picked out the elements I considered to be meaningful and assembled them into the final choreography, which the performers then elaborated on using additional technical elements.
A further intervention into the dream scene was the awakening of the second man, Václav, who takes on the role of a funfair crier, calling out in a fictional and unintelligible language. The dream sequence is thus the only instance within the performance where the topic of circus actually appears; in essence, it is a circus representation of circus. The implementation of this paradigm is not just superficial, it is a nod to Vančura's work. Moreover, the allusions to circus take on a metaphorical guise, especially thanks to their inclusion in the second plan, i.e. in the dream sequence. The imagery of the entire scene is enhanced with the help of props, including a parasol which Václav hands to Kristýna. Not only is it a balancing aid, it constitutes a visual metaphor of a fairground shooting gallery.
In a given moment, all three performers become synchronised and the situation calms down – in reference to our game with pace and rhythm. The gradual unveiling principle is applied even in this scene: although Kristýna spends the entire scene on the slackrope, she only crosses it at the very end, thus disrupting audience expectations, as the viewers expect to see her walk the rope at the beginning of the scene.
No physical contact takes place between the performers throughout the entire scene; instead, contact is replaced by clubs in the hands of jugglers. The scene doesn't end with a cut. Kristýna does not jump off the rope; instead it smoothly crosses into the next scene, in which the men wake up from the dream and the rope suddenly turns into a swing with an ordinary girl merrily whistling along.
Work on the production of Riverside was extraordinary not only in that it presented an opportunity to explore the possibilities and limits of interconnecting theatrical and circus techniques and procedures, but also simply because I had the good fortune of spending time with an amazing group of people. I learned to understand how circus artists think while at the same time marvelling at their will and dedication.
The extract of Riverside shown here is from the premiere at Ponec on 15 February 2013.
Veronika Riedlbauchová was interviewed by the cultural journalist and researcher Veronika Štefanová on 7th 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 centre.
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.