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 will find the written report of the interview, which we will be published in four parts: on August 20 the introduction and a piece about the creation of the performance appeared, on August 27 a piece about the tour and reception of Undermän, today includes conversations about circus and realness, and the final piece, about life after Undermän, will appear on September 10. If you want to react or have questions, just let us know!

Dit interview is ook beschikbaar in het Nederlands.

Part 3 – Circus and realness

Olle Strandberg

In your interview in Sideshow Magazine you said that you dislike about 90% of the circus performances you see. Can you explain what you miss in those shows?

Basically I think that I dislike so many things because I already have an idea of what I consider an honest performance. I’m a bit tired of shows hiding behind an intellectual surface to cover up the lack of content, or shows with an artistic idea about some kind of relaxed self-distance and fake honesty without realizing that the lack of true content behind the surface shines through. Circus shows where the idea is that a theatrical narrative will take the show further but without respect or understanding for circus as a craft and art form, or the opposite. But I do love many performances as well and I don’t believe that I’ve got the recipe for the perfect show. I’m just longing to be touched and I think that I get touched when I don’t feel like people are pretending or faking. With people I mean either people on stage or producers, directors, artistic leaders, etc. But when I like something I really like it so maybe it’s just that I can’t express myself in shades…

What kind of shows do you like?

Zimmermann & De Perrot. Hans was Heiri. Amazing! I like it in many ways. They have strong characters. They call themselves physical theatre, even though they all have circus backgrounds. Or maybe they call it only theatre, maybe not even physical, I don’t know. I’ve seen it a couple of times and I get really affected by it. The clowning is sometimes a bit over the top, but as a show I like it a lot. It’s going quite well for that show and I am really happy about that, because it’s so bizarre. And Cirque Aïtal. They also have this theatrical aspect, but they go a little bit towards the traditional with a tent, and the way they want to present it, but it’s honest to me. It’s also with shows about jugglers that I get really emotional. Like Wes and Patrik. Most often I see them in the circus hall in Alby, where I work. And they’ll say: ‘We have a new twenty minutes’. They create material like (makes snapping gesture with his hands). I’ve never seen anyone create this much material. And they make me cry all the time. Their technical skills are só…but it’s not only about that, they put it in a context and I just love them. And when it happens I love life. And it’s just through them and the technique. They don’t put any set design up or masks on, but they develop all the time and it gives me a reason to live somehow. It’s that strong. And also Maksim Komaro back in the day, when he was juggling. He can be personal on stage. When he drops, he swears and stuff. He goes all in, and makes amazing stuff in between. And Viktor Gyllenberg, he is a lot into the dance and climbing scene now. He came to the next step in CircusNext, him and Iona Kewney, they have something together. But he did a solo piece, about…about me (smiles). He had a friend who hurt himself, kind of, which was me. And that was really touching, also because he integrated his juggling technique into it. He gave everybody this context to think around when he was doing it, and it was amazing to see. I actually get really inspired by individuals practising and stuff, more than shows. But these are shows of people doing material that I like.

Ok. But if you want things to be so honest, and from the experience of the performer, wouldn’t you get a lot of circus shows that are just about being a circus performer, or…Of course they are people too, and they go through other things as well, but wouldn’t that preclude shows about large topics, or things that are happening in society or something like that? Or do you think that could work for you as well?

I don’t know. Yes, maybe there could be a lot of shows about being a circus artist, but that is quite easy to translate, I would say. It’s not that far from being a person. And you have to struggle with some of the same issues as other people as a circus artist. But of course it’s not a problem if art takes up political or social issues. I think it’s quite important that art and artists try to do that. But you can do that from an honest point of view I think. I think you can be a circus person practising so much circus and still have an honest input into a conversation about society or an opinion about something. And sometimes it reflects quite well, even if it’s just about the circus I guess. I have seen a lot of boring circus just about doing circus. It has to be something more. Some strife or some wanting to do this or that. With Wes and Patrik I can see them do their material and I can interpret so much into their material that I feel like they have something to give to me. Something more than: they want to do a circus show about circus. And I cannot tell you why I can cry when I look at their pieces. But I think they are trying to reach something else, or they are reaching something else, even though they just juggle. And also, if you do it through juggling as an art form, and you have an issue in society or whatever, how clear can you be? I wonder…

Me too!

Maybe not so clear exactly about what you want to do, but maybe you can give me the sensation that you want something else without putting it in words…For me words are not forbidden of course, I think it’s pretty cool to use words. It’s easy and it works. People are hearing what you are saying and they can take it in and then you can give them kick-ass juggling. I don’t know, I can hate political circus that doesn’t care about the circus. They want to give a political message or use some issue, they don’t give a shit about the circus but they want to do a circus show. Then I wonder: why do you want to do a circus show about a situation in Iran and then you do something of a performance thing that is not so much about circus but you want to label it circus…And then I don’t understand. And then I get confused. If I would do a solo show now, for myself, on stage, I don’t think I would do it like a circus show. I would talk the shit out of people and do some physical material as well. But I wouldn’t label it as a circus show.

It’s interesting that you say that circus is still your primary thing. But at the same time you are sort of critical about it and there is so much going on that you don’t like… And you also do a lot with dance. So should we worry that you’re going to cross over?

No, I’m totally in. But I want to feel like I am free to do whatever. And if I want to do circus, it’s with a passion for circus, and that’s a true passion. It’s still the main thing for me. Except for maybe street dance, really good improvised street dance battles, free style stuff with great dancers. Then I can cry and I can scream and shout and be like: ‘This is emotional, this is realness.’ That and circus for me is...real stuff. And also live music. Some musician playing live that you get affected by, that gives you so much. And I never experience that in theatre pieces. And in dance it happens when I can sense the circus in it, or when they use circus people in it. Why Peeping Tom can do a great show might be because those three people were from circus and that’s why they got this hardcore physical realness in the show. I like it. I like a lot of stuff and I don’t like a lot of stuff. But if I do circus I would do circus I like to see myself. It can be something that nobody else wants to see in the future because people tend to love the things that I hate all the time.

But I think Undermän sort of fits your description of what you want to see, and still a lot of people like it.

Yes. So when I talk to people, they can often agree with me. Like: ‘This show for me felt like this and this and this’, and people say: ‘Yeah exactly, there should be something like this happening.’ But still there are like eight hundred people around me going: woooaaah woooaah! And you wonder: ‘What is wrong here? How can you take this?’ And then I am angry for a day or so. But I can still love the people on stage. I can say: ‘You are a great artist, amazing. I worry about your context, but you are amazing.’ And then sometimes these people later create something themselves that I like, or someone else creates something that I like with them.

Mattias Andersson, Matias Salmenaho, Peter Åberg

Has performing this show and working in different roles than you are used to changed the way you see yourselves, or maybe what you think you can be in the future?

Mattias: Yes. At least for me it changed a lot because before I always had an impression that I was dependent. When you work with a partner you’re always dependent on them. Especially when you’re a base, you don’t really get that much attention. And I had a really hard time believing that it would be enough just to be me on stage, that that was interesting to see. In this show we are also partners, but we have our own bits and parts everywhere. And it made clear that as long as you have the will, and you put your effort into it, there will always be a way to be on stage, in one form or another. We were playing in Neerpelt and the guy from Les Colporteurs came to see our show and recorded some bits and pieces for a documentary that he is making. It was really interesting to get to hear his opinions and realise that there are more people doing those kinds of shows nowadays, that are based on real-life situations or have a documentary feel. I think it’s interesting that people have a big urge to see many different personalities. Before showbizz was more superficial. And some forms are now becoming more natural.

Peter: I realized that it’s never…I mean I spent all my life, or all my training before, to try to get as high technique as possible and do the hardest thing on stage, but then especially with this show I realized that it’s never about what you do, it’s about how you do it. In this show it’s very nice and natural to perform. I can be myself and it doesn’t matter…it’s almost better when we miss a trick and do it again. Because we know each other so well and we have fun, so we can do it with a little bit of humour. I feel that we deliver it quite well, sometimes even better, when we miss a trick. I was never like that before. Before I wanted to do the hardest things and do them perfectly. So it made me realize some things about performing.

And Matias, what about you?

Matias: Yes, to be performing this kind of show; it’s like it’s my show now, or our show. It’s not like somebody else made it and we are just performing. I’ve never been in this kind of show before. And to play it so many times made me really feel like I’ve found a new sense of performing. I’ve been in a lot of different shows and sometimes it’s like you are there for one act, for five minutes, and then you come out again in the end. You maybe do your act with the extreme feeling you have, but it’s more about your technique or about your act; it’s not about you. And this is like a whole show about us. So it’s been really different. But good. It’s been really good. Because nobody can tell me: ‘No, that’s not how you are!’ I can just say: ‘You really have no idea who I’m supposed to be.’

Peter: Yes, and it’s also really nice that we chose everything that is on stage. There are some stupid things, but that’s because we wanted to have them there. And there are really slow parts, actually mostly thanks to Olle. But there is not something that we hate but still do every night. Everything is meant to be there.

So do you think that after this, you could ever fit into one of those big shows that are made up by somebody else while you’re just a small part of the big machine?

Peter: Yeah for sure, of course.

Matias: But it has just been so great to do this one. But of course maybe I want to do that again.

Mattias: I think I would probably need to do one of those shows, where you don’t have to put yourself on a plate. Because to do another show like this you need to gain more experience.

Peter: Something new.

Mattias: Yes. Something needs to happen. I think you have to have a regular life. I mean for us of course our regular life is really different in some ways, but I think to be able to tell something on stage, you also need to experience something outside of it. So for me it would be really hard to do a similar project straight away. I would need like five or more years, and then something like this could come up again. And to me it’s really interesting, because I felt that with my partner, we had been working for so long together, and I came to a point where I felt like I had nothing to tell. We had quite a high technical level and people appreciated the acts, but we were so…kind of narrow-minded when it came to what we were telling because it works, so you keep doing it. But I came to a point in life where I felt like: ‘This doesn’t give me anything, because I’m just really producing some kind of product.’ It’s like working at McDonald’s. You try the burgers but there’s always the same dressing on top. It sort of became pointless, so I was longing for this kind of show. And I think you always get what you ask for, so in a way, this whole disaster that has happened to all three of us is also a good thing.

Is there anything that you wished that journalists would ask, but they never do?

Mattias: Can you ask us if we’re smart?

Do you think people think you are not smart?

Peter: Yes.

Anything else?

Mattias: I think he wants you to ask him [Peter, TO] about the (rubik’s) cube. Ask him any geeky question about the rubik’s cube and then he’s happy. He knows everything.

Ok. So Peter, why do you like the rubik’s cube so much? What does it give you?

Matias: That cannot be answered in words. (Matias gets up and tells Peter to stand up, he then lifts his shirt to show a tattoo of a hand with a rubik’s cube on his ribcage)

Peter: I’m stuck in all this…I mean, juggling is also a very nerdy world (Mattias then tells him to show me his arm, where he has a tattoo of a stick figure juggling). I get stuck in everything that is systematic. And then when you get into something enough, you get stuck and you, or at least me, I go into it even deeper and now I just cannot stop, I put too much time into it and I always find new things.

Peter Åberg. Foto: Mattias Edwall

Peter Åberg. Foto: Mattias Edwall

And what about you guys, do you have any obsessions?

Peter: He [Mattias] has a fetish for shaker eggs. He has them like everywhere. In bed, in the shower, in the sauna.

Mattias: And as a kid I was really into snowboarding and then drums and sports and stuff. I get really stuck. And then I’m really stubborn. I don’t like it when things take time. If I want to learn something I have to learn it immediately, I can’t wait. So that’s sometimes a problem. It was sometimes a problem with my partner as well, because I always wanted to do everything immediately, and she was a bit more relaxed about things.

Peter: But she’s also the one who’s going to get hurt if you miss.

Mattias: Yeah exactly. But you have to be a bit obsessive in a way to do circus. It’s a lot of work into not so much…I mean, you don’t gain so much. Or maybe you do, but if you want to earn money, there are easier ways, and if you want to perform, there are easier ways. It’s not the easy choice I think. You kind of start to do it because you get obsessive about something. I mean for us, it was juggling in the start. You learn one trick and then you want to learn another and another and then it becomes more and more, like acrobatics and this and that. Sometimes I look at myself and I don’t have a clue how I ended up where I am. Like I’m completely lost, I just realised: ‘Oh, I’m suddenly here.’ I never planned to be a circus performer.

Peter: No, me neither.

None of you?

Matias: I knew. I knew that I wanted to be this. And now that I am… (smiling) it’s not that great! No it’s great. I’ll never stop. As long as I’m alive. At least not fully. Because I like all different kinds of circus and performing, like music. I don’t think I’ll stop doing performing arts.

Well I guess it’s a good thing then that contemporary circus can be so many things, you can do so many things on stage and there are so many more styles…

Peter: Yeah. You can call whatever you want contemporary circus. I solve a cube on stage and just call it circus. Good times.

This was the third of a series of four 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 final part, about life after Undermän, will appear online on September 10. Parts one and two can be read here and here.