Unpack the Arts Rolled in Rotterdam

Unpack the Arts is a two-year artist-in-residence project running since August 2012 which aims to provide an opportunity for writers from different European countries to meet at a circus festival to share their various experiences and to discuss the performances they see and the ways contemporary circus can be reflected in reviews. The seventh residency took place at the Circusstad Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands in early May 2013 and I took part in it as an author of articles on contemporary circus for Cirqueon.cz.

Circusstad Festival is a young event founded out of the immense enthusiasm of Dirk Evers, its director and general manager, and Maiika van Langen, its art director. The two managed to convince the Rotterdam city hall to provide them with a four-year financial grant covering half of the cost of the event. It is worth noting that Circusstad is the only contemporary circus festival in Rotterdam. Contemporary circus isn’t very well established in The Netherlands and there is only a handful of art groups devoted to the genre. The B.A. program in Circus Arts at the Rotterdam Codarts Acadmy only opened in 2006. In this situations, the organizers of Circusstad aim to nurture its audience and manage several other circus projects: the First Chill for fresh graduates of the Circus Arts major, Use Circus for children and City Circus combining hip-hop, acrobatics and free running for teenagers. Rotterdam has a very strong hip-hop community and Maika von Langen is looking for ways to lure youths who would hardly ever think of visiting a theater into circus tents and venues.

When an Unpack the Arts residency is over, each of its ten participants writes an article of 2000 words in their mother tongue which is then translated into English and published in the bi-lingual periodical available on the project web site.

The main objective of Unpack the Arts is to facilitate an exchange of experience, knowledge and information on writing on contemporary circus. The residency program accepts applicants from various media: the radio, television, printed media and on-line magazines. The participation isn’t limited to experts on contemporary circus. On the contrary, the project is open to journalists who are just becoming acquainted with contemporary circus and wish to gain a deeper insight into its structure and critical reflection.

Each Unpack the Arts residency offers a very rich program and the Rotterdam session was no exception. There were encounters with guests, several performances a day, discussions within our group and debates with authors of the presented productions. All 12 residencies are hosted by Yohann Floch of the Paris-based Hors Les Murs circus center, a journalist and the main coordinator of the international circus Circostrada Network, who chairs all debates, meetings and interviews.

On the first day of the residency, we met Dirk Evers and Maaika van Langen who introduced us to the secrets of the cultural politics of The Netherlands and to problems related to the organization of the festival. They also explained the criteria they used to select artists for festival program. The same day, we saw the No Sé performance by Leandro Ribero,a clown from Spain, and Smashed by the Gandini Juggling from England. Immediately after the show, we interviewed Sean Gandini, juggler and director of the piece. We had a full hour for each interview which gave us enough time to learn about the work of the guest artists. In the coming days, we interviewed Leandro Ribera, Etienne Manceau of Sacékripa, Yann Ecauvre of Cirque Inextrémiste, members of La Meute and Bruno Marcato and Matthieu Siefridt of Blick Theatre. All guests were open to discussion, curious about our opinion and observations and had no problem accepting criticism. The hour-long interviews often extended into longer informal debates. Regardless of their country of origin, all the artists agreed that writing on contemporary circus is still in its infancy, insufficient and often too positive.

Besides the organizers of the festival, the guests also included Donald Lehn, vice-president of FEDEC and director of the Carampa circus school in Madrid, Spain. His task was to introduce the participants of the residency to the various approaches to education used at circus schools. He came with us to see all performances and until he left, he also attended all the interview sessions. Another special guest was Anette Embrechts, an established theater critic and journalist from The Netherlands, who shared with some observations based on her 18-year professional experience. Anette Embrechts never studied theatrology or journalism. She has degrees in philosophy and mathematics and has learned to write thanks to the feedback of her readers. She bases her writing on the art of narrating stories, because she believes that interesting stories have always intrigued people. She promotes brevity and clarity and avoids technical terminology which she either replaces with a comprehensible description or evades using a metaphor. As a rule, she never reviews performances which she has discussed with their authors or the authors of which she has interviewed.

Our group of participants was very diverse in both our education and professional experience. Some write on theater, some on music, yet another person writes on literature and multimedia arts. Another participant focuses on cultural politics and tracks laws passed by the European Parliament, yet others come from countries where no circus festivals exist. This meeting of ten journalists and critics with a common interest was very beneficial. We exchanged not only experience, opinions and ideas but also tips about which circus festivals to attend to expand our critical horizons.

All participants of the residency agreed that a working network of journalists and critics would significantly aid the critical reflection of contemporary European theater and circus, since in many countries, the IATC (the International Association of Theater and Critics) isn’t sufficiently active. Unpack the Arts is a unique project which helps establish such network. When the two-year project ends next February, its organizers will strive to continue with a successor undertaking which would last not two but five years. There are thousands of applicants for these residencies already and new festivals are contacting the organizers with interest to join the project.

Kateřina Vlčková

The author is a student of theatrology at the School of Arts of the Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. The article was written as a part of the How To Write On Contemporary Circus for future journalists by Cirqueon.