In a previous interview, with the director and artists of Undermän, an attempt was made to trace and illuminate a trend in contemporary circus: that of performances based on real lives of artists, as part of a broader search for a new kind of realness. In it, the young Swedish director Olle Strandberg mentioned Cirque Aïtal as an example of another company that he identified as ‘honest’ in this sense, yet with a more traditional feel. So when Cirque Aïtal performed during festival Circa in Auch, I was very curious about their particular brand of realness.
My expectations were high, but easily met. Cirque Aïtal’s Pour le meilleur et pour le pire offers admirable performing skills, impressive circus technique, inventive staging and an irresistible atmosphere, tightly packed into one seemingly simple, compact show about circus life and love on the road. The warmth and authenticity it exuded seemed to make even the most critical minds melt, judging from the reactions from my fellow participants in the Unpack the Arts project which brought me to Auch. As we left the tent, some of us with watery eyes, a warmed heart and even warmer hands from five standing ovations, I wondered about the particular charm of this performance, which manages to touch so many without becoming too glib or cliché.
There is something simple to this performance, based on the real circus lives of the Finnish-French acrobatic couple Kati Pikkarainen and Victor Cathala, which does not mean that it would be easy for anyone to choose the same approach and achieve the same effects. After graduating from prestigious CNAC circus school in Châlons-en-Champagne in 2003, the duo performed their own act and toured with other companies and circuses, from quite avant-garde to traditional ones. Pour le meilleur et pour le pire is in part inspired by the contrasts they encountered, and from which they distilled their own style. The course they follow as creators is very much determined by their own questions and fascinations, but the result is not self-centred.
It is remarkable how a performance that is ‘theirs’ in so many respects can be so easy to relate to, for instance in the way the dynamics of a romantic relationship are portrayed. At the same time there is also something about their style of performing and the way the show is constructed that makes it feel so intimate, inviting and authentic. Just like the lives it is based on, it seems to be the result of making clear choices and dealing with all of the consequences that come with them. An important strategy for the duo, who named their company ‘Aïtal’, which means something like ‘that’s how it is’ in Occitan, a regional language spoken in the South of France, where Cathala originates from.
The way they embrace reality intrigued me so much that I decided to see Pour le meilleur et pour le pire a second time. I got my chance only a week later, during Theater op de Markt in Neerpelt, Belgium. Tired from a long string of performances with their successful show, in between breaking down their tent after the final performance and getting ready to go home to the South of France, they made some time to talk to me about contrasts, concessions and of course circus.
Between dirt and beauty
Kati Pikkarainen started practising circus in her native country Finland at the age of six, before moving to France in her late teens to continue her training at the circus school in Rosny-sous-bois, where she met Victor Cathala. Her command of French was limited back then, and so was his English. Their connection was very playful and physical at first, nowadays they finish each other’s sentences. He never planned to be a circus artist, but was supposed to become a farmer. One day he ran into equestrian acrobats, who saw potential in his athletic physique and encouraged him to apply for circus school. Now he waters plastic flowers in the soil-filled ring of the tent of Cirque Aïtal, which he founded with Kati in 2004.
When asked about the main inspiration for Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, Victor and Kati explained that they wanted to focus on the relationship between the two of them. Apart from that, they built their show around the elements that come with circus life on the road, like the tent and the car, which has a particularly important role in Pour le meilleur et pour le pire. The old red Simca in which they enter the ring is a source of surprisingly many good ideas and effects. Sometimes these are subtle, like when two doors suddenly become one, sometimes they are quite prominent, for instance in the moments where the car seems to have a mind of its own. Together with their technical team, which includes Victor’s brother, the couple investigated all the possibilities they could think of with the car, aiming to use as much of it as they could: lights, radio, doors, seats, exhaust pipe and so on. It is quite possible that this strong focus on a few things: themselves, the tent, and the car make the performance seem simple. But it is very rich in ideas.
Another interesting aspect of it is the use of soil on the floor of the circus ring. Victor stated in Auch that they wanted something rough, something that could be nothing and everything at once and that an earth-filled floor felt like a free space to them. The fact that they gather this material from the grounds of wherever they set up their tent also adds to the idea of having to adapt to different places, to really interact with changing environments and work with what is available, so important in their lives. The fact that this material is not always easy to work in, especially during a dance sequence at the end of the performance, where it often gets into their eyes, was also an artistic choice, important for what the couple was trying to convey. Victor:
In circus we are a bit in the shit all the time but we try to make something good. We wanted to put the shit on the stage, to make something alive and brilliant. We wanted to take the audience in our world. And they can also take pleasure in it… Sometimes dirty can be really beautiful. Like with our white costumes that are dirty in the end. We like the opposites. Plus, minus, black, white. It’s an interesting line.
Between cold and warm
During our interview in Neerpelt, the couple explained that the only thing they are interested in for the moment is circus itself, that it is the only thing they feel they want to investigate. This show was based on the circus experiences they’ve had together. These were also marked by large contrasts. In the past few years they have toured with several different companies. One of them was the Swiss traditional circus Monti, with which they toured for nine months, mostly through Switzerland. Kati:
It’s quite a tough life. You live with this tent and it’s really hard in the winter time. It’s snowing and your feet are always dirty, everything is cold [Victor adds: ‘and wet’]. And then on the stage you look like nothing is wrong. It was a really strong experience for us.
This experience was almost the complete opposite of what the couple went through when they were part of the cast of Öper Öpis, a performance by the renowned company Zimmerman & De Perrot. Kati explains how they were playing in the biggest theatres in Europe, even worldwide, how they stayed in five star hotels and were taken care of very well. Yet at the same time the couple described this experience as heavy in some respects. Kati:
In another way, as an artist, this was really cold. We didn’t feel anything after that. So we compared this to the traditional and thought: ‘What is the best, what is the worst?’ And we like this comparison. These kinds of things make us think.
When talking to Kati and Victor, it became quite clear what kind of circus life appealed to them the most. Like Circus Monti, they tour with a tent, despite of the hardship that can come with this choice. They explained how the changing seasons affect their lives on tour, how they have to get up at four in the morning sometimes in the wintertime to put on the heating so the snow will melt off the tent, or how Victor lost 7 kilo’s when performing during the hot summer. ‘We make a lot of concessions to live this life’, he says. Yet at the same time they feel quite strongly that this is the way it has to be for them. Kati: ‘It was not the way I was dreaming. But it goes with the float. It’s how it is.’
When asked for examples of performances or companies that inspired them, they had to take a moment to come up with any. At first they said that they have liked other shows they’ve seen, but haven’t been inspired by anything for years. Eventually, they mentioned another Swiss traditional circus, Circus Knie. Kati explained that they feel a lot of respect for this very old family circus, which is still renewing itself.
She mentioned the clarity of what this circus is doing and what it is about. This is an important strength of their own performance as well: in a way it is quite transparent in what they are trying to achieve, and touching because they achieve it so well. What Victor liked most about seeing Circus Knie, was how it made him dream, which in his opinion is something else, something better than to be inspired: ‘because you make your dream’, he says. It is not finding ideas in another’s work, but finding your own through it, and deciding how you want things to be, which is in line with how Pour le meilleur et pour le pire was created.
During our interviews, the idea of ownership came to mind. Both in the performance itself and in the way Victor and Kati talk about it, you get the feeling that they really ‘own’ their show. This is in part because it is based on their real lives and personalities, but it also shines through in their more practical choices. They emphasised how they wanted to develop the concept by themselves at first, to hold on to their own ideas as much as possible. They asked Michel Cerda, a clown they knew from their time at the CNAC, as assistant director later on. During the 3,5 month long creation period of Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, he came in for a few days at a time now and then, to offer advice. To both parties it was very clearly a collaboration, not artists executing the ideas of a director. There was a lot of mutual trust, and this shows in the result.
When asked to provide one word to describe my experience of Pour le meilleur et pour le pire during a discussion in Auch, I chose ‘warmth’. Out of all the different aspects that made this performance impressive, the feelings of warmth and closeness that came with it stood out the most. The way these feelings built up to an almost magical point is the result of some smart dramaturgical choices, and some very good advice from Cerda.
Between closed and open
Pour le meilleur et pour le pire has a loose narrative structure, made up of scenes from the marriage between Kati, Victor and circus. These contain comical sequences with strong acting, or even clowning, although you still feel the real personalities underneath. The contrasts between Victor, an imposing dark-haired manly man, and Kati, a quirky, feisty, petite blonde, are often a point of departure for the short, funny scenes. One of these revolves around a game of badminton which goes awry because Victor handles his small light racket the way a lumberjack wields an axe, while Kati can do nothing but pick up the shuttle with a sigh and try to get the game off the ground.
The couple explains that this is an exaggerated version of some actual vacation behaviour, and that other scenes are extracted from their real lives in similar ways, but emphasises that they also play around with the freedom of a clown, and the line between reality and fiction. Kati:
I think if we wanted to make an autobiography we would have used other, simple ways like video or a book or something like that. But I think it’s really close to us. We wanted to make a show where sometimes you don’t know where you are: if you are in the circus or if it’s really about our real lives. We wanted the audience to be really mixed up, like we are. We wanted to make a show about this way of life, where sometimes we don’t know where we are.
Towards the end of the performance, the comical elements are replaced little by little by more intimate, poetic moments, which really draw the spectators in. This performance is very much about ambiance, with the many light effects, the music and the dust, which is fortified by the fact that they play in a modest tent, in the round, so everyone can see everyone else. Yet I had the feeling that Victor & Kati’s performance style also had something to do with the feeling of closeness that arose.
Victor explained in Auch that during the rehearsal period, he and Kati really missed the audience, and how they initially wanted to make contact with the spectators as much as possible, like they did did in their previous show, La Piste là. Michel Cerda advised them to be more aware of how they connected with the audience, and to tone it down a bit now and then. Victor:
It is about trying to make the audience look at us, when we do not look at the audience. You should be open so people can see what you do. It’s a balance to find and it’s really interesting to make the audience react with just your body.
When I asked them if they purposely perform this way – allowing us to watch them without looking back – more and more towards the end of the performance, they confirmed this. It is an interesting idea, with a strong effect: in a way they close themselves off from us by only looking at each other, but it also feels as if they allow us into their lives even more this way. It feels as if they stop being characters and start becoming real people, as if at the end of the road, we find them. Has this personal performance, where they subject themselves and their relationship to about 350 gazes at a time, ever made them feel vulnerable? Kati:
For us it was the right way to do it… We are fragile or vulnerable for sure. But we don’t feel like we are being observed. It’s just the way that we constructed the show and there is something like a protection anyway. So it’s not like… [Victor: ‘Open’ – makes a gesture as if he’s opening up his chest].
When I asked the couple what they wanted to work on in their next performance, for which they already have some very tentative ideas, they had trouble putting it into words at first. What they could say is that they won’t move further towards the traditional, like for instance Akoreacro, another young company that performed in Auch, with a strong classical style. They will continue to experiment with lights, set and ambiance, and remain interested in different ways of performing. Like before, where they are going is guided by where they have been. Victor:
I think we progress in one way. La Piste là was really open, never closed, towards the audience. This one is mixed and perhaps the other will be completely closed. Kati: We don’t want to try to stay in the same place. Like we should still feel the same. I think the more we go, the more we want to go do the opposite.
This text is based on a group interview that was part of the Unpack the Arts project, conducted on Saturday 26 October, during Festival Circa in Auch, France, and another interview with Victor & Kati by Tessa Overbeek on Sunday 3 November 2013, during Theater op de Markt in Neerpelt, Belgium.