Seoul Man

I have not been writing much online lately as I had to finish up my article for the festival in Korea at the end of this month.  here, at least, is its final version:

The National Circus School of Canada and Canada’s Theatrical Cirque Nouveau

The National Circus School of Canada

The National Circus School of Canada (NCSC) is recognized as a global center of circus arts instruction.  Circuses and producers aggressively recruit graduates; over 90% find employment within a few months of leaving the school.  Graduates work at Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Cirque Monti, Circus Starlight, Les Sept Doigts de la Main, and win top awards at the Festival de Cirque de Demain, and Cirque d’Hiver, among others.

How does NCSC successfully train its students to enter the competitive international setting of the modern circus?  The answer lies in a dichotomy in the school’s pedagogical approach.  NCSC trains the student as acrobats as well as autonomous creators.  In other words, the school strives to find a balance between performer and artist.

Body

Circus is a physical discipline, and the acrobatic skills and manipulations of its performers test the limits of human potential.  The NCSC puts its students through three years of grueling physical training to maximize their strength, flexibility, dexterity, and balance.

Fundamental classes in strength training and flexibility accompany technical classes in handstands, trampoline, acrobatics, aerial techniques, juggling, and tightrope walking.  Additionally, students specialize in and receive individual training in a discipline of their choice.

A student masters all basic circus disciplines before graduating from NCSC.  A unique aspect of the school’s evaluation is that upon achieving baseline mastery, a student’s evaluation criteria are readjusted to accommodate more exigent goals.  Thus, while a student with natural math ability might have a considerable advantage over her peers in a science classroom, unusually skilled students at NCSC are at as much a risk of failure as their peers.  This highly competitive and stressful environment fosters both an extraordinary will to succeed and strong bonds within the student community.

Spirit

It is the level of artistic expression that distinguishes traditional circus from cirque nouveau, or ‘new circus.’  This does not mean that cirque nouveau has a higher level of artistic expression nor does it mean that traditional circus shows are lacking, but the latter focuses more on technique and spectacle than on artistic expression whereas the former might sacrifice technical bravado in order to communicate artistic ideas.  Exactly where one draws the line on this spectrum is beyond the scope of this article, but it can be said that arbitrarily adjusting the theme, costume, and choreography of a traditional circus act will not transform it into cirque nouveau.  Similarly, dressing a cirque nouveau number in a traditional costume, accompanying it with a live big-top band, and augmenting its technical difficulty will not guarantee success with a traditional circus audience.

NCSC develops the artistic potential of students in two main ways: through its dance and acting curriculum and through various workshop creations.

For the first two years, the acting curriculum is based in the principles of physical theater masters such as Jaques LeCoq and Phillipe Gaulier. Students explore neutrality, rhythm, masks, movement, simplicity, and improvisation with an emphasis on developing stage presence and rapport with the audience.  In the third year, the acting curriculum consists of master classes taught by experts in clowning, physical theater, and mime.  Thus, students sample different schools of thought and styles than can be found at NCSC itself.

Dance classes emphasize both technique and creation.  Students learn ballet and modern technique in traditional dance classes and practice choreographic theory by creating solo, partner, and group works presented before the entire school.  Dance and movement (its companion class in the first year), integrate a well-trained body and a creative mind by developing technique (in the case of dance) and instinct (in the case of movement).

There are numerous workshop creations in the three years at the school.  In the first semester of every year, NCSC divides the first- and second-year classes into two groups each whom create a total of four 20-minute shows.  The groups work on their own over the course of the semester with an artistic counselor and present their work to the entire school and its alumni in December.  In another workshop creation, three directors unaffiliated with the school direct one-third of the students each for a one-week period and present the three works before the entire school.  Later in the year, the creation process is repeated, but this time with the students choosing their own groups and acting as their own directors.

The largest and most public workshop creation is the school’s highly anticipated annual show.  Often, a visiting director or directors will be invited to direct the entire student body in a professional quality nouveau cirque show presented to the public for ten days every June.

For the individual student, however, the most important workshop creation is the development of his own professional circus number over the three-years at the school.  The technical exploration, choreographic, and thematic development all transpire between a student, his personal coach, and an artistic counselor.

Ultimately, what puts a graduate of NCSC in such high demand is the artistic sense from dance and theater classes integrated with superior technical ability and the creative sensibility stemming from involvement in several workshop creations.

Canadian Cirque Nouveau

The most amazing aspect of cirque nouveau in Canada is that it exists at all.  In the early 1980’s the only dominant circus presence in North America, the three-ring Barnum and Bailey Circus seemed comfortable with its image as a nineteenth century holdover from the circuses of the past. No one could have expected that the most revolutionary force in 20th century stage entertainment, Cirque du Soleil, was about to emerge in Canada, a country with no circus tradition whatsoever.

But it was exactly that lack of legacy that enabled this revolutionary troupe to work outside of conservative norms in the traditional circuses of Europe.  It was financial necessity (despite Guy Laliberte’s famous quotation, “I would rather pay five acrobats than feed one elephant for a day.”) that led the group to eschew animal acts.  And, finally, perhaps most importantly, all about them was the excitement that surrounds something unquestionably new, especially when it can somehow be identified as ours – in this case, Canadian, or more specifically, Quebecois.

Canadian cirque nouveau is geographically localized.  Unlike France, where government subsidies have aided in the formation of hundreds of circus companies throughout the country, cirque nouveau remains localized in the areas surrounding Montreal.  The major players Canadian circus companies can be counted on three fingers of the hand: Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, and Les Sept Doigts de la Main.

The reason for this localization has a lot to do with Montreal itself with its extraordinarily low cost of living and a disproportionately large artistic population.  It is home to at least three of North America’s most well-known summer festivals: Just For Laughs, The Montreal Jazz Festival, and Francofolies.  It is also a liberal college town hosting, among others, the University of Quebec at Montreal, McGill University, the National Theater School, the National Circus School, and the National School of Dance.  As a French-speaking city with a large Anglophone population and a transient international student community, it is a breeding ground for cultural and artistic exchange and innovation.  On a given night in the Montreal one can find a number of artists performing studio presentations and works-in-progress in black-box theaters, cabarets, and bars in addition to the many circus shows that premiere or pass through the city regularly.  Indeed, this is a city that puts a premium on the promotion of artistic expression and creation, and is now reaping the benefits as home to one of the largest live entertainment companies in the world.

Montreal in the post-Cirque world presents a challenge to performing artists.  A New York City performer skilled in singing, dancing, and acting is honorifically termed a ‘triple threat,’ but these talents alone are barely sufficient for the vibrant and multidisciplinary Montreal scene.  A fictional Montreal ‘multi-threat’ artist would need skills in modern dance, jazz dance, hip-hop, pop-and-lock, breakdancing, ballet, Tuvan throat-singing, Quebecois folk singing, opera, rap, acrobatics, juggling, guitar, clarinet, sousaphone, accordion, cello, violin,  (in a variety of musical styles), kung fu, tae kwon do, capoeira (or any other martial arts), multilingualism, swimming, highdiving, etc, etc… and have no fear of heights!

Theatricality of Canadian Cirque Nouveau

So with this vibrant city as a backdrop, how can one characterize the theatricality of Canadian circus?  The answer is found in the sheer variety of shows that are presented in Montreal: ‘Experimental Circus/Theater,’ ‘Dance/Circus Collaborations,’ ‘Industrial Music and Live Acrobats,’ ‘Multimedia, Interactive Acrobatic Event,’ and ‘Cinematic Circus.’  The threads that unify Canadian nouveau cirque are multi-disciplinary collaboration and high entertainment standards.

One could go mad trying to count the number of influences present in a Canadian nouveau cirque show – from the most expensive Cirque du Soleil production to the lyrical romanticism of Cirque Eloize to the intimate urban spectacle of Les Sept Doigts de la Main.  In Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ka,’ for example, the French underground urban performance art/dance ‘parcour’ is prominently featured, as well as a number of martial arts styles.  Inline skating, BMX biking, and other extreme sports take the stage in Soleil’s new show ‘Love,’ based on the music of the Beatles.  In Cirque Eloize, we see Italian film, African music, tango dance, gypsy celebrations, and Vaudeville influences.  Les Sept Doigts have a live DJ, an old-school Broadway-style production number, and tip their collective hats to traditional circus, all in the framework of a show that also happens to seamlessly integrate multimedia and live-camera feeds.

This chaos is held together by Canadian circus’ high entertainment standards and production values.  The work ethic of the unbearably demanding NCSC and other arts conservatories in Montreal and the discerning tastes of their graduates have resulted in disciplined collaborations.  In Montreal, a performer’s job is first and foremost to entertain the audience. Thus, artists have set aside grand notions of politics or personal importance which can result in navel-gazing self-indulgent work and focus instead on the performance aspect of their art.  Paradoxically, this approach does not seem to dilute the subversive potential or political nature of the performance in the least.  On the contrary, an artist’s generous humanity and honesty can amplify and illuminate themes that might have been smothered by a more heavy-handed approach.  Critics are as likely to praise a show for its entertainment value as for its political content, as was the case in “Les Anges de l’Orage,” a multidisciplinary 2004 collaboration with NCSC and TOHU.

Cirque nouveau is in a perpetual state of flux.  In the course of a year, innovations become discarded clichés that are rediscovered, reinvented, embraced briefly, and then discarded again.  Artists in Canadian circus push existing boundaries, explore new artistic territory, and strive to continually reinvent the face of their unique art form.

The Future

What of the future?  New graduates of the NCSC and the international popularity of the Cirque du Soleil brand guarantee that Canadian cirque nouveau will continue to thrive, but cirque nouveau with its protean nature will change in unpredictable ways and an evolution into a sort of post-modern circus could take root anywhere.  The main lesson of the birth of cirque nouveau its subsequent growth in Canada is that just like living beings, a new form of art needs a fertile place to grow.  Montreal provided a fertile environment for cirque nouveau with a diverse international culture and a willingness to foster artistic experimentation, but unlike living creatures, new art forms have spontaneously generated in the most unlikely environments.  The voices rising from the newest generation of Asian performing artists are of great interest to me since it is my belief that Montreal-like conditions for artistic innovation exist right here in Asia.

Inflate the Reality

So at the end of March The Rocker has included me in a pitch he made to a festival in Korea and three weeks ago I got last-minute confirmation that I would be going with him.  Like he says, forget about things and sometimes you get some nice surprises!  It will be a great networking opportunity, and also the chance to meet face-to-face to discuss a lot of the Taiwan festival details.

I’m supposed to write an article on “The Creation Process of Canadian Contemporary Circus” and to present “Three years training process in the National Circus School of Canada and how Canadian circus became a more theatrical, unique style.”  The Rocker will be presenting on “why Canadian circus and physical theatre grew to be such important and successful part of Canadian culture.” He will be introducing his past work in music fusion in China, the visual movement, and physical theatre in New Circus in Quebec using a lot of DVDs.  He says that when working in a different language with an interpreter, he prefers to let the images speak for themselves.
Following this advice, I’ll show how I developed my number, showing many versions of my number as it evolved through the school from its first version to the one we see in the DVD, why I went to circus school, and what exactly is the process of training, the new groups coming out of the school that are moving away from Cirque du Soleil style and creating a even newer form.
We’ll also talk together about how I ended up in Japan, the Rocker ended up in Taiwan, and where we are going with all this.  So far, the video I’m preparing is looking really great!

He told me that we need to present the school and Cirque du Soleil in a positive way, offering only constructive criticism as we are in no position to make enemies (he also told me remind him of what he just said, because sometimes he has a big mouth).  The Rocker quote: “Keep the lies, that’s the way we do things…not even white lies…just inflate the reality.”

Looks like it’s going to be fun! Too bad the focus has changed away from “the picking up of girls; theory and practice.”  I had already finished my first draft.

Since The Rocker is able to stop over in Japan on the way to the Korea festival I have set up a meeting with the Canadian embassy in Tokyo to formally introduce The Rocker, his work, and our plans are in Taiwan.  I will explain that I have been in contact with the National Theater of Tokyo and that they expressed interest in receiving a proposal regarding a potential residency and that we would like to have the embassy’s backing, and also to find out what resources we would have available to us as he represents a Canadian organization that is dedicated to bringing Canadian art abroad.

If everything goes well, I’ll be asking her for her support as we contact my people at the National Theater to set up a meeting for us on our free days. I’m also trying to find some local production companies to meet with but so far no luck.  He knows a small circus company that seems very sincere who are trying to set up a circus school in Tokyo and The Tokyo International Festival is also reviewing our materials to see if they can make time for us to meet with them.

He’ll be staying at a ryokan in Ikebukuro that he found online.  I just want to make sure that he knows that he’ll only have communal restrooms and a communal bath.  At least it will be a new experience (assuming they don’t have ryokans in Taiwan…  they very well might!)  Just to be safe, I’ll send him a primer on ‘ryokan etiquette’ so that he’s aware of the differences between hotels and rokans (there is no bed; the maid will come in to set up a futon during dinner time; which slippers to use where, etc.)

Oh his side, he’s been busy connecting with his contact from the Singapore Arts Festival this week and getting info on a Shanghai project run by one of his Macau friends.  Evidently some things he pulls together are very good, and some just drop out of existence.  He even met with some Japanese buyers – evidently there is a lot of support for Canadian/Japanese collaborations right now – and he’s thinking of travelling to Kyoto to meet one of them when he is in Japan later this month.  Japan is a very small country, really.  Nothing more than a half day away by train.  Kyoto is about two hours or so away by bullet train and costs about 200 dollars one way, so if the guy is interested in what we are going to be working on in Taiwan, then it would definitely be in our interests.

And Three Years Later

An Italian woman named Valeria just wrote me back in response to an email I wrote three years ago when we were trying to set up our 2003 summer tour.  She wanted more information.  Evidently, three years after the fact, her director found our email and was interested in the possibility of collaborating.

Without telling her explicitly that the company had completely exploded, decimated by Cirque du Soleil productions, I told her that thanks in part to our successful collaborations, we had evolved a lot over the last few years – three of us working for Soleil and me working as an artistic director in Asia, specifically in Taiwan.  Since we didn’t want to lose what we had created, I’m working to keep some continuity until the four of us might be able to work together again.  In a sense, the company is currently an engine of creation, able to work with many different artist types for short- or long-term productions, especially smaller productions with 4-7 artists mixing dance, circus, and theatre.  I also highlighted the network of partners and promoters that we are building in Canada, China, Japan, and Taiwan and the show that we’re creating for the festival.  Of course, I can always send her the materials about our original show, but that it might make more sense to wait until I can send her the materials for the new one.

I made me think of The Clown.  His Cirque du Soleil show is opening soon; I am excited to read about how well he does in it; I know he’s going to be a hit.  Not the show, necessarily, but at least him.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever had as much fun as the two of us had in 2003 with The Artist and The Tumbler in Barcelona and all the other crazy times.  He’s not going to stay with Cirque forever and I guess I’ll be finishing up this Asia thing in the next couple of years, too…

Fuck!

We really need to hit the road old-school style again.  Just him and me and a guitar, three hats, some good fun, and the goddamn public.  That is what this shit is all about, no?  That and the cocktails after that!!!!

Whirlwind Tour Part 3 – Montreal

Yesterday I woke up early to get to Montreal…  got there exactly on time for my lunch meeting with the guy from Circus Theatrical, my former boss at the Expo.  Now he gave me so much advice and tells me that he is about to quit his job, but no one knows it yet.  Strange to be changing levels like this.

Then, I go to school, and am surprized that everyone there really still remembers me and my number; even people I have never talked to.  They talk me into coming to school at 6 to see their Evaluation Concept shows, and I change my meeting schedule to make it work.

Meet with my friend from the SAT, talk a lot of stuff about Taiwan…  I feel I have a big responsibility, but don’t know how to take it on.

Go to school see the Evaluation Concepts, mostly the same shit that we used to do, but also some good stuff, see all my favorite teachers and a really good friend from a long time ago, and then meet my ex-girlfriend The Gymnast which is weird, of course.

To dinner now with my friend again to finish our business…  talked, laughed, then on to the house of one of my friends, a younger clown from school, where I stayed up til 4 talking about clowning and old times and changes…

Wake up at 8:50 to drive her to work and move out of Montreal, meet my SAT friend for dimsum at 12:00 and then my best and favorite teacher for two hour lunch at Club Sandwich, the old hang out, finish moving out, give away half my stuff to charity, and now trying to find one last friend before I leave… then 20 hours of driving straight to Minnesota to have a drink with my sister!

Kezboards in Europe

So I guess I have entered the part of the trip where I have very little internet access.  We spent a couple of days in Torino after the time in Barcelona.  It was boring from a performance perspective, but I saw an Egyptian museum with dried up people (dead) and the Shroud of Turin.  Then we went for three days to a mini town in Italy where we performed in alleys and on the seaside for an appreciative public.  We had to change the show into a two person show and also adjust to a different country’s public.

The Italians are weird as an audience, but fun to play for.  In alleys and squares, the people who lived in the apartments high up watched the show and afterwards threw money.  It was nice when it was paper, but when it was coins you had to look out if they didn’t warn zou that it was coming.

We spent a daz at the Paleo Festival in Nyon, Swiss, and we got in for free because our friends were performing there in a special circus space they had set up.  I saw Jimmy Cliff and REM, for free.  Good show, made me nostalgic.  Never saw REM live.  Now in Geneva, and the rest of the summer is clear, now.

We go to a small festival for theater tomorrow to perform zet another new show with a new cast of four.  After that, I go to Zurich for a day, Germanz for three dazs, and then end up in Holland for the last week of vacation.  Still searching performance space in Boston and Amsterdam and Arnhem.  Anyway, summer’s well and I’m well and I have no internet access ever and the kezboards here are all different from countrz to countrz.  makes typing a pain.  See zou soon!

Torino

Have picked up a couple more countries since Barcelona.  Street performing was very successful, but the trip to Switzerland was a fiasco.  Not enough room in the car to load all the equipment, so The Clown and I were left off in the middle of France.  Short version of the story is that we had to connect through Paris to get to Torino, Italy.  At least I got a couple of hours in France.  Met up with The Gymnast and some other friends who are visiting there and saw a church with dead people in it.  Lots of churches here have dead people in them.  Went to a rave in a 500 year old castle where my friend was performing and saw his two-person show tonight.  Hope to get a chance to finally see some sights in Europe.  Like the Shroud of Turin, for example, since I am here anyways.  Life is good, meeting a million people a day.  Learning Italian slowly.

Circus school graduates shooting promotional images

Writing A Circus Act Part 2

it is so warm out today.  i try to keep my room in shadow so that i can keep working, but it is oppressive.  but what can i do.  i need to work.  listened to over 10 hours of music today just trying to get an idea of what i’m looking for in my act.  

thought a little bit more about my costume.  i think that for at least a little while i am going to talk about all the equilibre numbers i saw this week and what my impression of them has been.   

pretty much as soon as they get on the canes, they are in preparation to get into the trick, and the trick itself is all there is to look at. 

there is a real sense of solidity and rigidness in all of the tricks. what can i do to preserve fluidity even in the held positions? 

flexibility is a major problem for me, and i need to force myself to increase it all the time, wherever and whenever.  active flexibility in particular so that i can move that more freely and controlled in the extreme positions.  i think that it is extreme, impossible looking positions that really work.

i have been playing with the idea of using live music in my act, either solo or in accompaniment with the music that i choose.  but I don’t see how to make it work yet. 

i need to make all transitions between dance and acro and handstands to be absolutely seamless.  a lot of conditioning is involved in that. 

let’s see.  there are three weeks in september, and 10 after that, i think, to work.  so i’m looking at maybe 12 for now.  the most important part for me to concentrate on in the next six week is strictly the non-handstand part of the act.  in the meantime, i will be working with byamba on the handstand technique, so i want to have music selection done as soon as possible.  i think that by the end of next weekend i need to have two minutes of music selected for the evaluation concept presentation.   

the school cabaret is coming up soon as well. 

first of all, it is a good exercise because I cannot rely too heavily on circus arts.  everyone at the school already knows what we can all do.  what can i bring to a circus audience from outside of my circus experience?  how can i involve music and theater, in other words.  the theme is “communication.”  maybe i want to have text interspersed with music?  a character that is me?  who knows.  there is a lot to think about.  ultimately, i want to express myself in a more honest way than i ever have on stage.  that will be the real task, i think.  to not be the performer, the musician, but to really be me, travelling acrobat, on stage, full of vulnerability and honest.  if i can achieve that, well, that’s something that i’ll want to preserve in my act as well.  i think that i am most interested in seeing performers who are not acting honestly, but who really are there, present and full-on there.