TENT house for contemporary circus

by Maartje Bonarius

English version, as pronounced on 13/01/2023 

for the second THIS IS NOT A CIRCUS festival
organized by TENT and Theater Bellevue in Amsterdam

TEXT Maartje Bonarius

Twenty years ago, I did my very first salto. I saw other kids doing somersaults and thought, I want to do that too. So I stepped on the trampoline, and started to jump, higher and higher, I prepared myself and at the hightest point I brought my knees up to my head as hard as I could. BAM. Blood everywhere. A big nosebleed. My second summersault, I made at circus school. 

I graduated ten years ago, in one of the first batches of circus alumni in The Netherlands. Like my classmates, I moved abroad, in my case France. In The Netherlands there was no infrastructure, no studio to rehearse, no support, you had to figure everything out for yourself. I remember I was In a suburb of Toulouse, where I saw an incredibly abstract and frankly, weird circus performance. But more amazing than what happened on stage, was the fact was that all these different people from completely different backgrounds came together to see this very strange show, and that afterwards everyone turned to their neighbour and started talking about what they had seen. This, the way these very different people were touched and talked to eachother through circus was what I wanted for The Netherlands, and so I came back.

And I wasn't the only one. Right here in this room are an awful lot of Dutch circus pioneers. We all stepped onto the mat in our own way and, without much experience, just jumped, tried to do our own somersault, and went for it - because we all share similar dreams for Dutch circus.

Today I’ve been asked to say a few words about where we stand as Dutch circus field. To see how things are going, personally I find it useful to look back at where we were five or ten years ago. And looking back now, I think we can be very proud of ourselves. Look where we are! All those things we wanted then as a sector, chances to perform, recognition from funding bodies, from the rest of the cultural sector, support… it's here now. 

Time for new and further leaps. But where our first somersaults only had one goal: not to fall flat on our faces (no nosebleeds), we now have a bit more space to think about exactly how we jump, which way to turn, and how to land.

And I feel we have a lot to gain, starting with the place we jump from. As Benjamin mentioned last year, we don't really use classical circus as our base. But I think that classical circus has a lot more to offer us than fancy tricks. For example, I believe we could draw inspiration from how performers in the classical circus continue to perform into old age as their bodies change. And did you know that it was female performers from the classical circus who were at the forefront of the fight for emancipation and voting rights a century ago? They earned their own money and were celebrated for their strength and their achievements. In this regard, it is sad to note that not only the classical circus, but also the contemporary field still have a lot of work to do some 100 years on. We, as women, still have much to gain when it comes to how often and in what roles we appear on stage. 

And we all know how much work still needs to be done when it comes to other forms of diversity.

The new generations of artists graduating from circus schools no longer have to start their jump all the way down on the cold, hard ground. There is money, there are talent development programmes, there are structures: trampolines. Nice ones, to give you a good take-off. Talents are even starting to be able to choose: which trampoline is fancier, more expensive, which will allow me to jump even higher? Yet still I wonder. Are those shiny trampolines really that sturdy, or do they only last one year before you have to fend for yourself?

Thanks to these new facilities, more and more circus performers jump higher and earn their applause; they are seen. But the danger is that we exclude those who are still trying without a trampoline and then congratulate ourselves on our ability to chose the ‘right’ new talents. And what happens to those who stumble, who need more time, or land on their necks? Does everybody get a fair chance to jump? Where are the performers with different bodytypes? What do we need to work sustainably? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves.

And, more importantly, where do we put those trampolines? Only in theatres, because that makes us a recognised art form, while only 15% of Dutch people ever go to the theatre. Or are the most relevant places to perform somewhere else. On the streets, for instance, on the squares in the outskirts of town where the classical circus has always come?

I used to think that circus was about the superhuman, the realisation of 'human potential', but to me the most beautiful circus is about failure. That you try something over and over again, that you doubt whether it will succeed: can this body really do that? That’s what makes it about being human. This is what moves me as an artist. The audience rarely thinks about it, but 90% of being a circus artist is failure: falling down, trying again. It’s the only way to learn new tricks.

Performing with your body, depending on your body is so essential to being a circus artist, but what if your body fails? What are you left with? And can we call that circus too? In recent years, I’ve experienced first-hand what it is like to fail. I got a nervous system disorder and can never make a real summersault again. This has forced me to express myself in a different way. I am not a natural speaker at all: I belong up there in the air. Circus is my language. And now here I am in front of you, selling the popcorn, stammering my own way through a verbal performance. Look at me fail. And yet still continue.

Of course we need successes, examples, performances that everyone loves, to show people how amazing circus can be. But the failures are at least as important if we really want to move forward. And it is precisely then that we need people to catch us, who are ready and willing, who help us up, instead of walking away or looking to the other person who does succeed. We have to dare to take time for real development, and take the audience with us on that journey.

This is the time to look at how we move forward. Now. Before we stabilise as a sector, while we still have the chance to guide the way our roots grow. Around me, I see everyone running. The classical circuses are running to stay afloat. The contemporary ones for recognition from the arts funds. In the meantime, we seem to have left the youth circuses and street theatre behind. It seems as if they don't matter, when we desperately need them to help us create a more diverse circus. To reach out to everyone. To have places where you can safely fall flat on your face, get up again and use that to grow.

The thing is, there aren't that many of us. We can all fit into a small theatre. We don’t need to be competitors. The Netherlands is big enough, just look at how many theatre companies exist. I want to invite everyone here to choose to stop running and build the big-top together, to include those who couldn't keep up. The youth circuses, the self-taught, the organisations without funding, the misfits among us. If circus is a place where outsiders feel at home, surely, we as an artform can be an outsider in the arts world. Let’s invest in building up our relationships with each other, in truly sustainable ways of building up the sector, let’s cherish what’s already there and what was already there, and let’s expect the same from new generations of artists. What else can we do aside from creating even more wonderful artistic movement. 

And above all, let's not look back ten years from now and wonder how everything ended up the way it always was. When I look back ten years from now, I hope it won't be the somersaults that stand out, but how sustainable Dutch circus has become, how diverse, and the knowledge that we will have accomplished that together.