TENT house for contemporary circus

by Benjamin Monki Kuitenbrouwer

English version, as pronounced on 26/11/2021
for the first THIS IS NOT A CIRCUS festival
organized by TENT and Theater Bellevue in Amsterdam

TEXT Benjamin Monki Kuitenbrouwer (Dutch original version )
TRANSLATION Craig Weston & Benjamin Kuitenbrouwer

Delivering the State of Dutch Circus feels a bit like I am about to embark on an evaluation of how well a toddler can climb trees. And if Dutch circus is a crawling toddler, then I’m a bumbling intern at the day care center who has only just learned that you have to test the temperature of the milk on your wrist before giving it to the baby. Not exactly an authority when it comes to toddlers and their development. But I do like climbing trees. Today Dutch circus has landed in quite a big ball-pit full of other kids and playthings. Sometimes it’s not so easy to play with those other kids, or even to be sure that nobody lands on us from on top of the slide. And sometimes it’s impossible to even find the floor through all the balls and sometimes we get angry because the other kids are so much bigger than we are. They bury us in the balls and leave us there, frightened that there will be no more cookies or lemonade left over for us, come snack time.

Will the parents of the Dutch circus please come and pick up their child at the exit? But we don’t have any parents. Or should I say: We’ve left our parents behind. In the hope of finally being taken seriously.

We left our trailers and tents, together with that warm campfire, and we moved on to the big city. We went to live in concrete and work under low ceilings. We traded the mud and the grass for level floors and we laid mattresses on those floors to try to make them a bit softer. We taped off the windows so we didn’t have to look out on the squares where we used to play, and we kept our screens on continuously to give us a bit of light again. We hooked up all the lights to motion sensors and we used the strap ratchets to strap ourselves into bed, to keep out the light at night. We stood dead still in the middle of the stage and each time the light went on by accident we were shocked to see that there was still nobody sitting in the audience. We freed all the animals and we sat in the cages ourselves. We always stayed indoors, with the heating on 10. Or the air conditioning, depending on the season. The drip of the air-conditioning became a kind of morse code communication with the outside world. We bought beamers to project trees on the windows we’d taped over, and we took an old unicycle and a chain saw to make speakers on which we played soundscapes of the city we could no longer hear. We made friends with the theatre, with dance and with music. But not such good friends with music, because our parents did that before us. We only made friends with the electronic sort, the kind that we were sure our parents despised. We moved in with performance art and their vague friends. That'll show them! We hid our old clothes under the bed and started to wear only outfits from H&M, so we would stand out as little as possible. We bought the same Eastpak schoolbag as everyone else and with a black marker we turned the E into an L so it said Lastpak, just to prove to everyone that we were not always that much fun to be around. We did everything only in brown and grey to prove that we were just as boring as the concrete which surrounded us. Our only light was open white, preferably from straight above for the hard shadows or from just a bit behind us to make everything so wonderfully sober, to show the world that we were suffering just as much as everybody else. At the first Sint-Maartens we gave our colour filters away to use for next year’s lanterns, and we told the children that from now on we would only be opening the door for adults. We invited everyone we ran into to come and see our shows but in every sold out performance the best seats in the middle were always left empty for the really important people.

We took an artist name so we wouldn’t have to admit that we had a family, or who they might be. We had disputes with our father who said that we ought to call our mother once in a while. We made very clear that we hadn’t chosen them to be our parents.We stopped going to family dinners and started drinking on Thursday evenings. We got drunk with the outdoor festivals, and dancing on top of the bar we screamed that we would rather do it with the theatres. We sent love letters to the theatres under pseudonyms which we changed every twelve months so we could write them once again the year thereafter.

Warmest greetings, circus-theatre. Kisses, the modern circus. Best regards, contemporary circus. Hope to see you soon, new circus forms.

And when we had torn all the pages out of the dictionary with synonyms for ‘contemporary’, and when we then realised that our parents were still our colleagues, we paged further, to the T, and we began to call them traditional, just to make it very clear that we didn’t do the same things that they had done. Or should I say the things that they still do. Because that’s the rub: the moment has come to admit that we are all in the same playground. Because even if I owe my father nothing, I do call my mother now from time to time. Or I shyly come and take a place at the campfire once again, stare into the same flames, and have conversations about the fact that everyone in the family has the same nose. And I would like to make an earnest request that the Dutch circus world spend less time discussing whether glitter is still in fashion and more time comparing our noses to see how much they might be the same.

I often present myself as a maker of modern circus. With that label I distinguish myself from my proverbial parents in the traditional circus. Because if I would tell the programmers and the audience that I am a circus artist I think I know the kind of images that would conjure up. And I think often I’d be right But meanwhile the definitions ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ are both fighting it out. The winner has the right to claim the title ‘contemporary’ while sentencing the loser to ‘history’. That’s how we deprive the other of the space to develop. It’s a form of verbal oppression. Of course that’s not our intention. We do it out of fear. Fear of not getting a piece of the pie, or of being misunderstood.

But there’s no honour in it. There’s no honour in saying that we are not like the other. Of course we are not, and of course there are differences and in the end perhaps even different genres we can recognise, but that being said, why don’t we begin by defining ourselves in positive terms, rather than pouting on far sides of the playground because we are different, so much more different than all the other different ones. It’s tempting to fall into that trap. That you do circus but NOT in a tent. Or NOT like Cirque du Soleil, NOT with elephants, or CERTAINLY NOT with clowns! Or that you're a circus house that organises a circus festival that is NOT A circus…

Or a Chinese pole artist is ABSOLUTELY NOT a pole dancer. I want to talk about what we DO do, and what we DO want. About what circus includes rather than what it is not. I think that we would all be better for it.

These past years I’ve been fortunate enough to work together with many people from outside of the circus field. You know, those friends I originally made just to get back at my parents? Well in the meantime they really have become my friends… And funnily enough, working with them has taught me a whole lot about circus. First of all because those partners always approach circus with a refreshing sort of reverence. This is always confronting because it often feels like for them circus is just about the awesome trick. While I, the “modern circus maker”, am trying very hard to make it about more than that. But in the end I find that their assessment is a blessing, because circus is also about that trick, or better said, that ability. And we must never renounce that. That reverence from the others has helped me to remember what I am capable of as an acrobat, and not be shy in using those skills to bring wonder to an audience. But the most important thing I have gained from my encounters with people from outside the circus world has been how they experience what I can only call the ‘circus culture’. Time after time I hear my new partners marvel about this circus world of ours, and about how warm and open it is. I often found those observations to be exaggerated, or felt they were romanticizing something they barely knew. To be honest it reminded me of when my friends used to tell me how much they liked it at my house, and what great parents I had. While for me my parents had been, as usual, much too present, and the houses of my friends were always so much tidier. But meanwhile I realise that they are right. It may not be so tidy, and we may not be as wealthy as the others, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. That warm and open culture is a priceless treasure. And those parents of mine are in fact a lot of fun.

I think the time has come for us, circus makers, to shift our focus. Rather than getting stuck on how different we are from one another, perhaps we need to define what it is that distinguishes us from all the other kids in that big cultural ball-pit. I see all around me a new way of working which is less self-absorbed and more engaged with the world around us. Less involved with being angrily unique and more in search of a constructive role to play in society. And I think that’s just fantastic. You see, I am a big fan of hip hop, and I’ve always had a soft spot for what they call ‘conscious rap’. It’s a sub-genre that came out of the 80’s, when most hip hop was a shout of rage against an unjust world. A justified shout for attention. Where most rap of that era seemed harsh and violent because it mostly talked about the way things were, conscious rap tried to talk about the way things could be. It started offering a vision for the future. With fantasy, playfulness and with stories. My dream for circus is that we expand our vocabulary in the same way. That we widen our vision and use our powerful discipline to say something about the world and the future.And more than anything, that we start to take pleasure in our differences. That we celebrate each other’s work and that we relate to each other in a better way. From now on, I for one am going to try to define myself in positives: what I am and what I do want. What circus means to me. My circus is a place where we give shelter to hope. In these complex times I think it’s so important to keep training in hope. Not hope as a place to retreat to or that passive attitude of ‘it will all take care of itself’ but the hope that saltos are made of.

I recently read something from Edith Eger, a woman who survived the nazi concentration camps - pretty good credentials when you are talking about hope. She writes: “We never know what the future will hold. Hope is not a white paint that you use to cover up suffering. Hope is an investment in curiosity. The realisation that if we give up now, we will never find out what is going to happen after this.” I’m often frightened. Frightened that we will give up. Frightened by how easily we forget to believe in ourselves and frightened by a cynical view of humankind. My circus is an act of resistance against that cynicism.

In a study they did about compassion, two apes were placed next to each other, side by side, but each in his separate cage. One of the apes was offered two different tokens: one red and one green. If he chose the green token, then both he and his neighbour would get something to eat. If he chose the red token, only he would get the food. So for the ape who had to choose it didn’t matter. A cynic would predict that for such a simple being the choice would be a moot point. It would be irrelevant to the animal which token they chose since one way or the other, they would get the food. But in this case the so-called ‘realism’ of the cynic turns out to totally miss the mark: almost every ape chose the green token: Food for everyone. If the ape can understand that, then so can we.

In a world where problems often appear impossibly big, I think it is important for circus artists to continue to do the things that the audience can’t imagine. Turning on your own axis in the middle of the air, three people who together stand taller than a house, or continuously swinging back and forth from one arm, 6 meters up in the air. Long enough until it becomes impossible not to believe in humanity. Because in the end, if we are capable of doing such wonderful things, then maybe we can also solve those other problems? Not because it’s easy but because we want to and because we can… right there before your eyes! Edith Eger also says in her book: “Hope is not a distraction from the darkness. It is a confrontation with the darkness. (…) Hope is the most daring act of imagination that I know.” And circus is the most daring act of imagination that I know, that I can do. I can’t think of a better discipline than circus to help me perform that act of imagination, my resistance to the darkness. And I look forward to doing that, together with all of you, again and again.