Door Tessa Overbeek

In December 2012, Tessa Overbeek interviewed the director and artists of the performance Undermän. Their tour was coming to an end; a good moment to look back on a performance that had quite an impact. Below you’ll find the written report of the interview, which we’ll publish in three parts: on August 20 the introduction and a piece about the creation of the performance, on August 27 a piece about the tour and reception of Undermän and conversations about circus and realness, and on September 3 a piece about life after Undermän. If you want to react or have questions, just let us know!

Dit interview is ook beschikbaar in het Nederlands.

Performing Life – Undermän, circus and realness

A while ago I was talking to a friend about my passion for circus, when he said that he associates circus with the false and the artificial. Funny that he should say that, being a television and film expert. So used to media that often try their best to make artificiality pass as reality. That ask their audience for ‘suspension of disbelief’. That, even in their attempts to grasp life as it is, precisely by capturing it can only catch its shadow. Or, as film theorist Laura Mulvey once described it so well: ‘death, 24 times a second’. Circus and film, both with roots in the spectacular, offer a glimpse of what seems impossible. But only one of the two proves the contrary right in front of your eyes. All right, so you can be distracted by bright lights, loud noises, and all the other ways in which your senses can be overwhelmed. You can get carried away into fantasy worlds. But don’t be fooled: what those people of flesh and blood are doing there in the ring or on the stage is generally real.

This has always been the core of circus, but the rise of new or contemporary circus seems to have brought a new search for ‘realness’ along with it. The circus world has become more self-reflective and experimental, and investigations into the relationship between circus and realness, reality or maybe even truth can be seen in numerous performances. These can take many shapes and forms. Taking a ‘less is more’ approach in terms of costume, make-up, set design, light, sound and so on, in order to let the true circus craft take centre stage, is (an important) one.

Where some artists and companies end up with very minimalistic performances that highlight physicality and skill, sometimes by showing nearly nude bodies in action and very little else, others take a different approach. They aim to expose what’s underneath the skin: the mind, heart, soul or memory of the performers, and the experiences that have shaped their lives. Some do so more or less indirectly, others quite explicitly. Undermän, created and directed by Olle Strandberg and produced by Cirkus Cirkör from Sweden, belongs to this second category.

The performance is about more than circus skills alone. It tries to convey emotions, and in a way it tells a story. But the performers, Mattias Andersson, Matias Salmenaho, and Peter Åberg, are not playing characters. Undermän tries to show the people behind the performers. They don’t really ‘act’, or don’t act very differently than the way they do in their daily lives. And they reveal things about their feelings, histories and personalities. Through circus skills like juggling, cyr wheel and acrobatics, through the things they do to pass their time, like training with kettle bells and solving rubik’s cubes, through the music they play live on stage (together with musician Andreas Tengblad), but also through words. The performance is based on testimonies from the performers about the loss of partners in love and acrobatics, and some of those are spoken directly to the audience.

v.l.n.r.: Peter Åberg, Matias Salmenaho & Mattias Andersson. Foto: Mattias Edwall

Peter Åberg, Matias Salmenaho & Mattias Andersson. Foto: Mattias Edwall

In their own way, each of these circus performers, who used to be the strong, silent bases in an acrobatic pair, express what it was like to lose their flier in real life. Often this marked not only the end of a professional, but also of a romantic partnership. Olle Strandberg, who has been on stage as a circus performer and dancer himself, knew these acrobats and their stories, saw a certain tragic beauty in their situation and suggested creating a performance around that, with him in the role of director.

This trailer gives a good impression of the performance and the story behind it. Undermän is about life after loss, but is in itself also a way to ‘keep going, keep surviving’, as Mattias Andersson puts it in the trailer. It is both about and part of real lives. It raises questions about realness and vulnerability, and that is how Olle Strandberg envisioned it. It is one of the things that makes Undermän interesting, and, as the director and performers explained, also what made it challenging for them.

This short video, made during the Complètement Cirque festival in Montreal, shows the performers and director talking about Undermän. By then, what had started out as a wild idea, first developed on a small scale through Poetry in Motion, a young company Strandberg is one of the founding members of, had become an international success. Undermän premiered during the Circus Ruska festival in Finland in January of 2011, and was picked up and produced by Cirkus Cirkör after that (read more about how this came to be in this interview with Strandberg on the website of Sideshow Magazine). The international tour that followed took the show to for instance France, England and Canada. I saw it in Utrecht in December of 2012, as part of a small European tour that also included Belgium, Hungary and Germany.

It is safe to say that the mission to ‘keep going, keep surviving’ has succeeded. The performance was shown to audiences in many different countries, had led to many reactions from inside and outside of the circus world and was picked up by many different media. Undermän has taken on a life of its own. In this case, the life of the performance was inextricably and explicitly linked to the lives of the performers, and more indirectly to the life of its director. And I wondered about this connection. What were the advantages of choosing to relate real life and ‘live performance’? What were the challenges? How did life and performance influence each other?

When the interviews were conducted, the performers, director and interviewer were all in different countries: Strandberg was in Stockholm, where he lives, while the artists were in Belgium and I was in the Netherlands. The following text is based on two separate Skype sessions. Both conversations addressed roughly the same themes, and more or less circled around the same underlying question: What happens when art imitates life, and life goes on?

We spoke about the birth and growth of the performance, its confrontation with the outside world, the circus lives it is derived from and part of, life after Undermän, and the choice for and consequences of the type of ‘realness’ it is transfused with. The interviews will be published as a serial, spread out over a period of several weeks, with parts that correspond to the above mentioned topics. These written reports can unfortunately not do justice to the lively conversations they were based on. Like the performance itself, they are an attempt to capture something fleeting, in order to understand it, and/or to make it understood. They too are made up of open-hearted, serious parts, of playful and funny parts, and of slower, meandering parts. Life is like that sometimes, and maybe an interview that tries to get a grip on the act of performing life should be too.

Part 1 – The conception and birth of Undermän

Olle Strandberg

Can you tell me something about the first stages in the making of Undermän? I read that it all went very fast. That one of the artists was in Las Vegas, and about two weeks after that you came together and started practising…

No, it’s not exactly like that. He was in Vegas, but he didn’t come back to Sweden right away. He travelled around for like a month first. But after he arrived in Sweden it took no more than two weeks before our first rehearsal. So it was fast.

Olle Strandberg  Foto: Mattias Edwall

Olle Strandberg.
Foto: Mattias Edwall

And after one week we had our first trailer out.

<<Click here to see the first trailer of Undermän>>

So that was really one week only?

One week only: one week of contact improvisation, talking in the sauna…

Talking in the sauna?

Yeah! That’s how you get together you know. You sit there sweaty and naked and you explain about yourself and life and get to know each other. It’s great.

But then you also had to practise some things in the training hall to come up with that trailer right?

I had some ideas about the kettle bells and using them as a partner, and about this solo pair acrobatics [that Mattias does in the show, TO]. So we did that during that week, and we also tried to sing harmonies. We put that together, and then we realized: ‘We are going to use Peter as a bass player and we’re going to use instruments. Let’s put that in the trailer to explain that.’ Then I asked my old friend Andreas Tengblad for something we could use as a theme song. He wasn’t even thought for the show, only the theme song. Six months later we asked him if he wanted to be on stage. So everything happened more or less in one week. I had some thoughts before writing, but then it went quickly. And it was four months before we started rehearsing again. So it was like: ‘This week, see you in November’, and then the trailer was out. And I had to sell the show like a mother…(smiles) before we did the rehearsals. When they saw the trailer, people thought that the show existed. It was a pretty fun experience actually.

So you made the trailer first and then sold it as if the show existed?

Yes, well sold it…I talked about it as if it was already a production, what it was about… And then we had the premier in January and the piece was made in August, so…

And how long did you rehearse before January?

We rehearsed at least two months quite intensely. So it was an ok rehearsal period. But everything was quick. It had to happen now. In my life, it really had to happen now. I didn’t want to wait one more second, and they happened to be in that same situation. So we were all ready to just do it and see what would happen. It was kind of ‘epic’ somehow.

And why did you want to have it happen right at that moment? For you personally?

It was just a point in life…like a crisis. When you think: ‘I am just doing random stuff: dance, touring, and I want to do something real.’ I felt that way at that moment, and then I had this quite strong idea come up, and it seemed like the people could be there for it. And we hyped each other up quite a lot. For me it was really important. It was where I was in my life in many ways I think. Something had to happen. I didn’t want to get bored. I felt like: now it’s safe ground, more or less. This is why people get depressed: doing something every day, not having big dreams. I don’t know, I get crazy sometimes, this was one of those times.

You hadn’t directed before had you?

Only smaller scenes, pieces and choreography for dance, but not much, no. Not on this scale. And in this first e-mail to them I wrote: ‘This is a show that I’m going to direct for you guys’. And they thought I was kidding a bit, but I said: ‘I’m not, let’s do this!’ And it was a bit strange, but fun. It was a good time, the rehearsals, even though it was heavy sometimes. But I think we managed to keep a good spirit.

And when you were directing, did they ever question your authority? Because you are all roughly the same age, and knew each other in a different way…

Yes. Not all the time, but when I asked for something sensitive, they said: ‘But who are you to….’ And I should get that too. I think it was quite good in a way, to be questioned like that by a friend. But I’m stubborn, and they can be too. We didn’t have major fights about it. For me it was so important that they dared to share. Today it’s hard to understand how hard it was for them, because now it’s easy. It’s the way it is and this is how people receive it. So then I can just chuckle to myself and think: ‘That was a good call’. For me it was more important to actually make the performance happen, and to make it as honest as it could be. To make it something that I burn for or something that I really love seeing and making.

And the sharing part was the most difficult thing, where they most questioned you…

Yes. Because as a performer you want to deliver something to the audience. Also technically: you want to show the craft. But for me, a lot of the focus was not on the craft first, but on putting the craft in a context that really had to be real. Here, in these sentences, it shouldn’t be a joke, because if you joke around you hide yourself from what you are saying.’ And we managed to find a level where sometimes it tends to be a bit too much of a joke and sometimes not. I can appreciate it when it’s on a true, honest level when things are hard to say. Then I believe it. But it’s also harder to say it. When it comes to [technical] material: it was really about making clear choices. That is not as hard, because it’s not so personal for them. Then it’s not so hard to accept and agree that I am an outside eye and I can say: ‘We have to find some more low patterns, or why don’t you lift him’, and then we try that and put together different sequences. Then you just do it. But the personal stuff, really showing yourself, and thinking: ‘Am I as good on stage as I can be, and when I say this, won’t I sound like I’m stupid? Will it be hard for me to say this after two years on tour?’

Yes! Did you think about that beforehand? What it would be like to keep saying that for such a long time?

We didn’t know that it was going to be a long time then, it could have been only three times. But we thought about what it would be like just to repeat those words, or that maybe someone that it is about would be in the audience. All of them have been now. That’s been happy sometimes, but there’s also been a bit of arguing with the ex-lovers after they had seen the show. But most of the people who watch it don’t know the performers and are not part of the circus community. The biggest fear has been the circus community. The premier was during Circus Ruska in Finland. There were a lot of circus people watching, and they understood what we were talking about. It’s easier when you are somewhere where it’s mostly normal people. They won’t know for sure if it’s really the truth. Then you can hide a little bit anyway, even if you are being honest.

Mattias Andersson, Matias Salmenaho, Peter Åberg

What were your first reactions when Olle said that he wanted to make a show around your situations? Do you remember?

Peter: We got an e-mail or maybe a Facebook-message from Olle saying just: ‘When are we going to do this show I thought up? It’s about you heart-broken bases without a flier. When can we meet? We have to do it now.’ And then we just said yes.

And what were the most fun parts for you in the process of making the performance?

Mattias (looking at the two guys beside him and smiling): Fun?

Matias: I think it was mostly after the practice. When we did the rehearsals it was not always so easy. For the mind or for the body. Because we had to talk about our stories. It was kind of hard for the soul. But then after the rehearsals we always went to the sauna. We rehearsed in Finland, where there are sauna’s everywhere. We did that every night and then we were relaxed before the next morning.

Mattias: That was the best time. And the stylophone was also really fun. We used to rehearse that in the night when we were too tired to do anything else. We just played all the songs that we could come up with. We slept in the same room.

Matias: And I also remember that we were not supposed to be in that place, to train there. We should pay to train. But we didn’t have money so we painted the walls of the place during the night to get to practise for free.

And what was so difficult about the start? Can you say a bit more about that?

Matias: It’s kind of heavy stuff, physically. You get exhausted when you do it all day. And talking about this stuff, and then to actually put it on stage. It was hard to make those kinds of decisions: ‘What should I show them?’ That’s why it was perfect that we had Olle there. He had the last word.

Mattias: None of us had really been working with text in that way. We were afraid that it would become too pretentious. It was hard to write the text and imagine how we could perform that in a more natural way, because it always becomes a bit weird when you put the microphone up.

Peter: Yes. And we read it to each other, but to read to two people is very different than to 300 people. It felt very stupid sometimes when we sat in a room and said our text for the twentieth time.

This was the first of a series of three parts of the interview Tessa Overbeek had with Olle Strandberg, director of the performance Undermän and the artists Mattias Andersson, Matias Salmenaho and Peter Åberg. The next part, about the tour and reception of Undermän and about circus and realness, will appear online on August 27.