• Jakob Lohmann

A personal reflection and critique of life in a European school for Circus Arts

Updated: Aug 24, 2018

Invitation to an open discussion

My journey towards becoming a professional circus artist has just taken another step forward. Two weeks ago, I graduated from Codarts Circus Arts in Rotterdam. It has been a long four years with many ups and downs. Fighting through depression, fighting with the school system, making and losing friends. Throughout my time on the course I have figured out a lot about myself, understanding who I am and what I want to do.

I had just finished high school in Germany when I came to Rotterdam. I applied to Codarts as a hand balancer and as part of the audition I presented an act on an old, half broken, wooden chair that I had restored to perform my act on. Looking back at old videos I have to say that I hate this act. I experience this with a lot of old performances I made. When watching the videos, a lot of it just feels empty and doesn’t give or say anything to me. It was only recently during my last year at Codarts that I started to be proud of my work and started to dare to publish videos of my performances. Maybe in another four years I will think differently about that again, but for now I look at those videos and I can see me expressing myself, standing up for my beliefs.

Although I started out as a solo hand balancer I soon began to work as a flyer in a hand to hand duo. For two and a half years that was my main specialisation and together we trained hard to achieve our goals, the tricks we wanted to be able to do and to integrate into our performances. We accomplished a lot and our labour payed off most of the time. Working in a duo is not always easy. You depend on each other which sooner or later always brings problems. Problems that can be worked out and solved, though in our case they weren't. With the years I started to feel an urge growing inside of myself, a need to express myself in ways that I felt I couldn’t do in the duo. An urge, so I believe, that defines me now as the artist I am or try to be. I want to be more than just a performer. I don’t just want to entertain the audience. Being on stage and having an audience in front of you, listening to you, paying attention to what you do and what you say. I see an opportunity to be active and change something in the way those people look at you and perceive you, as well as how they look at and perceive themselves and the world around them. I feel that as a performer you have a certain responsibility towards your audience as they, quite often literally, look up to you.

It was while performing on the street with the duo that I got to know the beauty of being level with an audience. I discovered how it feels to play in front of an audience who are there by choice and who are free to leave at any time, without the social pressure that hangs over them when watching a performance in a theatre. The pressure that keeps them in their seats even if they'd love to leave the auditorium, that keeps them silent during the performance. I hear a lot of people say that leaving would be disrespectful to the performer but personally I would prefer that you leave my show and have a nice evening somewhere else if you are not enjoying my performance. I wouldn’t want to force you to stay as much as I don’t enjoy being forced to do something I don’t like, either. I love that at street performances people are much freer. Not bound to a ticket price that they have to pay before seeing what they get but valuing the work afterwards with an amount they feel is worth it. An amount they can afford to pay as it is a performance format which is accessible to anybody. They have the freedom to come and go as they want. On the street you perform eye to eye, something I’d like to see in circus performances inside theatres and other venues as well. An audience that feels free to do what they want and to express themselves. Because, why should I have the right to express myself if they don’t? I imagine a theatre where people come together to share, communicate, discuss and express themselves and their thoughts freely about what is happening on stage and in the auditorium. Eye to eye with the performers. An audience that takes responsibility. You can find this style of performance within other artforms, often in museums or gallery spaces though it is a style of performance art where out of my personal experience circus is not well represented yet. I believe that this observation is due to the way that circus institutions and schools handle and teach circus arts. The boundaries of circus feel quite set to me. At least within my own experiences in a European contemporary circus school.

Halfway through my third year this vision was far from being clear yet. Nothing that I could put in words but something that I started to feel. This urge that I mentioned earlier. It was a feeling of being trapped. Anxiousness. Trapped in my work in the duo, trapped in my own mind as I couldn’t name what it was. This feeling of not being able to express myself made me depressed and with time I realised with the help of my friends and family that I had to make a change. Things couldn’t continue as they were, as I spiralled deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of my depression. Things couldn’t continue as they were, neither for me nor for the people around me. The way I looked at things changed, and I constantly felt misunderstood. I felt hurt and couldn’t think freely anymore as my perception wasn’t clear, but only one sided and self-centred. I hurt the people that were the closest to me and ruined a lot of things in my personal life. There are many things that I said and did that I regret today, though the depression also taught me a very big lesson and contributed to the person I am today. I had to find new footing and needed to rebuild myself from scratch. It allowed me to have a very different perspective on things and makes me appreciate the people I have in my life in a completely new light. For a while I considered quitting school, but it was the decision to leave the duo that brought the change I needed to be able to continue.

Now I was standing there, having to face my fourth and final year at Codarts alone. Leaving the duo was a difficult decision and brought with it many more difficulties along the way. Difficulties with the school as well as with myself as a performer. Switching discipline after three years and aiming to graduate with something I'd only been working on for one year was not an easy journey and a hard decision to make. Though in the end it was the decision that gave me the space to rediscover and redefine myself.

So, who am I now? What do I do as an artist and what do I stand for with my work?

I want to create work that challenges the established expectations and performance formats within circus to create art that goes beyond consumption and forces the spectator to take action as part of the development of the performance. In my research I am trying to figure out how to do that. How to actively integrate the audience in ways which go further than the traditional audience participation where participants get given a defined task to fulfil without much freedom inside of it.

My research question was bound to cause problems within an established and functioning school system that seems to have a clear idea for you in mind. One that aims to help you create work that is later easy to sell on the market. A school system that is built to produce a product in the form of a performance after four years that will please the audience. We are taught that an act should be 5-8 minutes long, should have easy light and sound cues and shouldn’t require a long preparation or setup. The graduation show takes place in a classical theatre. A big stage, frontal seated audience in comfortable chairs, clear physical separation between the stage and the auditorium. This doesn’t leave a lot of space for experimentation and encounters between performer and spectator of a different kind.

Codarts Circus Arts felt for me more like Codarts Circus Entertainment Arts as other performance styles were not well supported and didn’t really fit into the school system.

To avoid any misunderstandings: There is nothing wrong with entertainment arts! The opposite! We need it and over the years Codarts has produced many very talented artists in the field of contemporary circus entertainment. The reason why I want to put an emphasis on entertainment is because that’s what the school system is built for. If your aim lays somewhere else, you have to climb a lot of hurdles. Personally, I constantly had the feeling of having to prove myself in front of the head of the school. This was demotivating and created some hard times but taught me to defend what I do. I am very grateful for everything I have learned in my four years at Codarts, for everything they taught me. Some lessons the easy and others the hard way. All the difficulties I had and needed to overcome made me grow as an artist and contributed to who I am today. It made me be aware of what I actually want to do and to achieve with my work. I’m not working for the school. Meaning I didn’t just want to please school. I’m working for my audiences and for the cause that motivates me to go on stage and the drive that makes me want to express myself artistically. For some people this went along with the school’s vision and for others it didn’t. The main confrontation points between the school system and me was always the lack of technique in my showings. My joy for minimalism and simplicity and often the use of a single trick only. The only circus trick that my piece “Upside Down” contains is a free headstand. “It’s nice but only a headstand is not enough” is what I got to hear as my feedback afterwards. It is feedback that conforms to the system by which the graduation acts are marked, giving scores in different categories such as Circus Technique, Integration of other Arts (Theatre, Dance, Mime), Composition, Creativity and Stage Presence.

Another part of the creation process is the assignment to type a written concept for the piece. A concept in which the choices made for the piece are artistically justified and defended. A written concept that the Jury that judges the graduation act never gets to see. If the artists aim is to entertain the audience and give them a joyful eight minutes then a written concept might seem a bit unnecessary at first sight, though I believe even then, and not just for more conceptual work, the concept profiles the performer as an artist and not just as a performer on stage. If a place calls itself an art school, shouldn’t we then look farther than just the products these artists produce but also at the artists themselves?

I’ve just finished a four-year degree at art school. Within four years there is one question nobody has ever asked me.

“What is your goal / What are you trying to achieve with this performance and what is your motivation behind that?”

Hereby I want to ask you a few questions and want to invite you to a discussion:

How much do art schools influence their students and therefore as well the market?

To what extent should art schools have the current market in mind within their teaching?

How can a subjective matter as art be graded?

How can established systems still stay personal and in direct contact with the student?

To finish of this essay, I first of all want to say thank you to you, for making it all the way through my writing. Second of all I want to give a big thank you to all the people that contributed to this text because there are quite a few and without them this essay would not exist. And last but not least I want to say thank you to Codarts and all the people that I have met in my time there that made me to who I am today.

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