Door Tessa Overbeek

Cie Ea Eo was founded in 2008 by Bram Dobbelaere, Sander De Cuyper, Jordaan De Cuyper and Eric Longequel. Their debut performance M2 [square meter] was first performed in 2009 and features 4 jugglers who try to co-exist on an ever shrinking stage, which leads to both cooperation and hostility among them. This innovative performance, with its strongly physical group juggling, became a long-term success and took the group all over the world. They still perform it to this day. For their new creation All the Fun [is happening somewhere else – which will premiere at the PerplX festival [formerly Humorologie] in Kortrijk – Belgium in late June of 2015, they added Neta Oren to the group and investigated themes like weakness, ugliness and proximity.

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Photo: Jonah Samyn

During ‘Smells like Circus’ in Ghent, a collaboration between the Flemish Circus Centre (Circuscentrum) and performing arts venue De Vooruit, Cie Ea Eo showed their work in progress to a relatively small but very curious international audience. The atmosphere felt a bit charged, and not just from anticipation: the new work includes the inventive, intense and sometimes uncomfortable full-body juggling the group is known for. The set up in the round – with the audience so close to the action that occasional ducking to evade wayward balls or clubs was unavoidable – added to the excitement. Afterwards, the group sat down for evaluation, a glass of wine, and a somewhat impromptu interview for Circuspunt. During the lively conversation, Bram Dobbelaere, Sander De Cuyper and Neta Oren talked about the beauty of ugliness and weakness, the importance of connecting to the spectators and each other, the tension between technical skills and audience engagement and the tricky nerdiness of juggling.

I was intrigued by your choice to showcase weakness, where circus tends to be associated with strength. Can you explain that choice?

Bram: The starting point of the whole creation process was us being fed up with advertising. With how it is influencing our lives; not only telling us to buy stuff, but also teaching us a language that is about making advertising for yourself all the time. In conversation, but Facebook is advertisement for yourself too: look how cool I am! We saw how it was starting to affect circus as well. How a lot of circus acts were with guys with no shirts, so you can see their six packs, and it’s a bit about: look at how beautiful and strong I am! We wanted to make something that was the opposite of that. If advertising is about being strong and successful, then we wanted to make something about being weak and ugly and whatever else is the opposite. That is how we started writing the dossier and it’s how we started researching the juggling material. It is also why we wanted people to be close to us, because you cannot pretend if people are sitting 30 centimetres away. When we sweat, we sweat, when we smell, we smell. You can touch us. We are not pretending to be the artists and you are sitting there looking at us. We are on the same level.

I didn’t think you were ugly, but maybe I am not critical enough, or not indoctrinated by advertising….

Photo: Geert Roels

Photo: Geert Roels

Neta: I think what we search for is something really fragile in the juggling, so it’s always on the limit. We are not searching for something perfect.

Bram: I see it in the duo where Eric takes Neta’s legs and flips her. It is not a stylish, beautiful movement, and they keep on doing it until they drop, it doesn’t work out.

Sander: They are not acrobats. Bram: I like the fact that you can see that it is not perfect. You have to put all the energy you have in it and you don’t care about aesthetics anymore, you just care about: Let’s make this work! Let’s make this work again! And again! We try to go to the limit of where you can’t do it anymore.

Did you see the performance Marathon by Sébastien Wojdan? I saw it at Circo Circolo and was impressed by it for exactly this reason: he sets himself up to fail. It’s also about fragility and being the opposite of Superman. Now I recognised that when seeing you.

Bram: I think for circus performers it’s in the air. A lot of people look in that direction, for something true instead of something fake. I work with a lot of other groups of circus performers, and it is something everybody is looking for, I don’t know why.

Most interviews that I’ve done have ended up being about authenticity. Even when I wasn’t aiming for it. But everybody approaches it in a different way.

Bram: It’s like a counter movement. Contemporary circus has been around for a while now, and people start to realise: Ok, so we made it new, but maybe in pushing some of the old stuff away, we lost something. There was this whole idea of contemporary circus being a mixture with theatre and dance. It was really new some time ago, but now I feel a lot of people go: Let’s not necessarily mix it with theatre and dance and a story, and try to be authentic in that way. That’s really interesting. It comes around again.

True. But I also think sometimes these performances that aim for pure circus can become a little hermetic. They go so deeply into the technique that nobody except for other people who are into that can understand. It becomes so abstract that it’s really hard to connect with it if you are not a super specialist.

Bram: For us it’s a big challenge, because juggling is… Sander:… a nerdy thing.

Photo: Geert Roels

Photo: Geert Roels

Bram: The challenge is to make material that speaks for itself, so it doesn’t need a back story, but still you need to take the audience by the hand and lead them, teach them, make them look in a different way. What we did now was put five or six pieces we had together in a random order and show them, because it is a work in progress. We just put them one after another and it is just about the technique. That is not what we want to do. We want to show how the technique makes us feel, how it makes you feel, how we react to it; not just a sterile showing of what we can do. I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t want to tell a story anymore, but just show circus: “This is what we can do and that’s it”.

Being in the audience, I had this feeling of being so close to you and being almost part of it. With ‘Cirque Démocratique’ you involved the audience even more. How do you play with that interaction?

Sander: We were wondering how far we could go. Like the game in the end, when we are blindly throwing balls at the balancing club, we considered passing balls to the audience and see if they could participate, but maybe it’s too far. When you are so close, we don’t need to give the objects to the audience to make you part of it. I think the circle is enough.

Would it be this small in the future?

Sander: I think it is going to be this small. Bram: We have our own stands, but the people will always be as close as possible to the whole thing. When we do the rough rugby thing with the three of us, I like it when people think: “wait a minute, this is really a bit dangerous. I am ready to catch anything that comes my way!”

Sander: Then you really become part of what is on stage. Bram: When it’s really on the limit. That’s why Sébastien puts cages around himself. I think the main reason why we chose the circle is not because it is old circus. We played our previous show, m2, 250 times, and about 50 times we had the perfect space, which for us is 200-300 people in the audience, and no elevated stage – just on the floor, like with dance performances. But so many times we played in a theatre where there’s the audience, then 4 meters of nothing, then the stage, then 2 meters of nothing because there is a proscenium and then our wooden floor. It is so hard to cross these 6 meters. I am trying to touch you, I am trying to make you feel something but you are over there. I think it comes from this disappointment of not being able to control the circumstances as much. Now we say: It’s a circle, people are in our own stands – wherever we play, it’s always going to be close. It comes from wanting to connect with the audience.

I see something very social in your connection to the audience, in what you want to evoke, but also in the way you juggle: you do it so collectively and close to each other, intertwined even. Do you have any idea why we don’t see that very often?

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Bram: I think Sander is right in saying that juggling is a bit of a nerd thing. Sometimes at conventions, you can feel really alone, with everybody putting his or her music on and just going in a bubble. Sometimes the nice thing about juggling is shutting the world out and having fun alone. I think it is interesting to juggle alone if you are technically amazing, but we are not and we don’t like that. The possibilities for a juggler with other jugglers are infinite, just so much bigger.

Neta: For me this is one of the first times working with a company. I did solos until now. This has opened up so many more possibilities. We found ways of juggling that we cannot do alone. You help each other juggle in a way that you could not before. Being on stage together is also so different mentally, compared to being alone. It really changes the whole experience of a show.

Sander: And touring alone…Neta: Never again! Sander: There is nothing there. If you had a bad show, you are alone, if you had a good show, you are alone. There is nothing! Now, we are pissed off for five minutes and then it’s: Ok, let’s have a drink.

Bram: So even practically it’s so much better to tour as a group and to share the experience. And also we like physical juggling. Not so much the high up, but more of the manipulation and the low stuff. Using the body. And if there are more hands then it’s much more fun.

To me it makes it look quite dance-like, like contact improvisation with balls.

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Sander: In the basic stage definitely. Bram: It is because they are close. But in dance you create the movement without the necessity of catching something, and we start to move because we want to catch something there.

Neta: We try to be rigorous about this. The movement is coming from the juggling or is for the sake of the juggling. It’s not like sometimes we dance and sometimes we throw a ball. We try to really think about how the ball is creating the movement and how the movement creates the throw.

Bram: But honestly, the dancing world is a big inspiration, because they have thought forever, longer than circus, about so many concepts. Eric and Neta have this routine based on a contemporary dance solo which is called Not another ready-made. It’s a solo from a contemporary dancer who moves for ten minutes while he is shaking his head all the time. I saw this ten years ago, and when I talked about it to Eric he said: “We need to try to juggle like that, because it is impossible to juggle when you shake your head all the time.” Now they shake their heads and there are only a few throws they can do, but it makes it so much more interesting. We get a lot of inspiration from other stuff, including contemporary dancers.

Neta, what is your background, were you trained as a juggler or as a dancer?

Neta: I started as a dancer when I was small, then I found juggling and continued that. I went to a lot of circus schools and I didn’t do any dance training, but I really like to use my dance background in the juggling.

You were also talking about working together as jugglers and some of you are or have been part of different collectives. Do you think that they all have a very different identity? Do you do this kind of thing with this group and that kind of thing with that group?

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Bram: The stuff we make, we cannot make it with everybody. There are jugglers who have a different body type or a different style of juggling. Me, Eric, Jordaan and Sander have been working together a lot, especially Sander and I, so it is easy to create. We invited Neta because we wanted somebody different, but we also knew from her videos and from seeing her on stage that she likes the same kind of juggling, which is physical, fast, rhythmical and sharp, so it was kind of an easy match. But I can imagine many great jugglers who we love would be a lot harder to work with. We worked with Matthias Romir, the two of us, and we thought he was a similar kind of juggler, but in the end he was not that physical. He is more about the shape of the clubs. We tried, but we all thought quite soon: this is not working. It is just because of different styles of juggling. Maybe Wes Peden would work. Wes Peden would work with everybody.

Sander: I am not sure.

I was thinking about him too, when I saw you perform. I saw a show with him and Patrik Elmnert and Tony Pezzo. I enjoyed that too, but it was so different!

Bram: It is way more up. High throws, lots of objects, and we are not about that. They are so much better than us!

They were also showing off their technical skills more.

Sander: I think that’s how the distance to the audience becomes so much bigger. They do stuff that no one else in the whole world can do. They are really aliens, they are so far away. It is hard to make any kind of connection with them.

But if you had the technical skills that they have, would you be making those kinds of shows?

– some cheerful chaos erupts with this question –

[jokingly:] Are you really socially engaged or is it because you can’t really juggle that well?

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Photo: Jonah Samyn

Bram: I remember when I started juggling, I could watch Stefan Sing with three balls, forever. At a juggling convention I would just sit and watch him for an hour, and for an hour it’s amazing. Then you have site-swap guys who go up and high and do spins and everything, and they are amazing too. But for me they were always only amazing for five minutes – they could never get my attention as long as people with one, two or three objects. When you are on stage and you have a lot of objects, you look up and the audience is down there. But when you have a few objects, you can still be here and look at the audience while juggling, searching for contact. I have seen many solo’s which are built up like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 objects. I thought they were great, until they came to the 4th object: the moment where they stop connecting to the audience and start to be too involved technically and looking up because it’s necessary. So I think if we would have been technically better, we would still make the same shows.

Tessa Overbeek interviewed Bram Dobbelaere, Sander De Cuyper and Neta Oren at the Vooruit on January 15, 2015. All the Fun [is Happening Somewhere Else] had its avant-première during the Rencontre des Jonglages Festival in Paris in April. The official première of the performance will be during festival PerplX in Kortijk, Belgium on the 27th of June.

For more information and tour dates, see:

Pictures by Geert Roels taken during the Work in Progress session at Smells like Circus, Pictures by Jonah Samyn [including top picture] taken during the avant-première at Rencontre des Jonglages.