A conversation with four makers from two companies, all with one common goal: to create a performance together. What else binds them? They all have (at least) one brother. What they have in common artistically is less clear. “It was frustrating in the beginning, like we didn’t understand each other.”
Acro-porter and teeterboard jumper Simon Bruyninckx is a permanent member of Collectif Malunés, the circus company co-founded by his younger brother Vincent. But after their debut show Sens Dessus Dessous, Vincent went his own way in the circus world and it would be many years before the brothers appeared together on stage again. Director and performer Kasper Vandenberghe and dramaturg Matthias Velle together make up the performance company Movedbymatter. The four sat around a table, two by two, to talk to us about their co-creation BITBYBIT. The bit in the title refers to the mouthpiece Simon and Vincent will be working with in the performance.
How do you know each other?
Kasper Vandenberghe: “We met during a performance of mine from 2019, Calculated Risk. In the performance I do a stunt for which I needed coaching to overcome my fear of heights. Because I’m not a circus performer myself. I’m actually a wimp. I got the tip to ask Simon, and so he taught me...”
Simon Bruyninckx: “... to fall.”
Feeling it out
Simon and Vincent, it’s been a long time since you have worked together, right?
Vincent Bruyninckx: “Together we created and performed the first Malunés show, Sens Dessus Dessous. Our paths separated when I went off to study and Simon made a new piece with Collectif Malunés. After my studies, I went my own way. When we both had a little time again, we went into the studio together. We tried everything: perch (an old pole-balancing technique, ed.), iron jaw, we played with a wheelchair ... The iron jaw act stood out and we continued with that. But, as Simon says, I was in two other productions, while Simon was in one big show.”
Simon: “I really didn’t like that. I am used to working collectively, where everyone has their job, and suddenly you have to do it all alone. We needed another partner.”
Vincent: “Kasper and Matthias actually represented exactly what we stood against.”
BITBYBIT, the title of their first joint performance, also describes how the collaboration between the two companies, Malunés and Movedbymatter, is taking shape. Their bond, being not of blood, must be sought elsewhere. Around the table you can feel connections forming as they probe and question each other from within their own camps. You can feel the effort it takes to diverge from your own familiar path. They’ve found a way to speak to each other, but when they speak about each other, they still mince their words.
How is the collaboration going?
Matthias: “You have performance and circus coming together here, but they’re actually two very different ways of working. You two are extremely collective, you do everything at the same time. You’re not only circus artists, you’re also technicians, you pitch your own tent. Kasper and I come from the theatre, where things are more defined; we were brought up in a hierarchical system.”
Vincent: “But now we’ve gotten into the groove a bit. Everyone has opened up to each other’s way of working.”
Matthias: “In circus, there is much less rehearsal and much more training. That was a big adjustment.”
Simon: “It was frustrating in the beginning, like we didn’t understand each other. Little by little, you have to come to terms with that and see the positives in each other, recognise what the other company needs to move forward.”
Vincent: “We have found a division of roles that is efficient, where we do physical research and then share it with them and they then provide us with feedback.”
Kasper: “The technical things they come up with will trigger our imagination. Then we might ask for certain techniques to be refined. And so the concept becomes tighter and tighter, until at the end we can create a kind of structure, a show.”
And you present that show in a tent?
Vincent: “We have a new tent for this project. A smaller tent, a little lighter all round.”
However, things can still end up heavy. With the acquisition of new audience seating and a new fleet of trucks, the ‘smaller tent’ begins to pale in significance. The dream of a second tent was important to Collectif Malunés. And the Bruyninckx brothers stood firm: they would perform ‘in the round’.
Why is the choice of a tent so important to you?
Vincent: “It wasn’t like that from the start; Kasper and Matthias previously envisioned a theatre hall, but for us it had to be in the round, for various reasons. The fact that you can’t hide, that you’re always surrounded by the audience, makes you more vulnerable and therefore more honest as a performer. But the spectators can also see each other, so they have an awareness of each other and it’s not like you’re just watching television.”
Simon: “It’s a way of inviting people into the universe you create. The aspect of the tent, the nomadic element, is also something that Collectif Malunés tries to keep alive. If we, too, concede that it’s too much work, too taxing, then it will simply disappear. That’s the kind of romantic side to the matter, but for me what’s even more important is lowering the barrier to entry. In a theatre, we reach the white upper-middle class. If you pitch a tent somewhere, other people will come too. ‘The circus is here.’ They think they are going to encounter clowns and animals, but end up seeing something completely different. That’s why I think it’s very important to go with the tent, or the street. You get a mix of different cultures, different social classes. I believe in that. If we’re pitched up in the same place for a week, people from the neighbourhood will come to chat, and you quickly understand when someone is interested but hasn’t the money to buy a ticket. And then you let them into the tent from the back. You can’t do that in a theatre, you can’t push open the back door and let someone in through the stage.”
Kasper: “In terms of content, the show is also very much about the connection between people. The tent is our scenography, we need it to perform. The whole performance takes place on a long beam that divides the tent in two. A kind of lifeline that runs from one brother to another. The audience sits very close.”
The iron jaw
John Massis has undoubtedly come up in your discussions?
Kasper: “We went to the Huis van Alijn (social history museum in Ghent, ed.) for inspiration, to learn about the significance of John Massis’ work and what the ‘iron jaw’ represented as an element of showmanship. There is a much longer tradition that precedes John Massis. We read a book about ...”
Matthias: “... Tiny Klein, one of the pioneers of the iron jaw. She did a death ride across Times Square, hanging from the zipline by her teeth. We looked up a lot of pictures and posters about that tradition of strength athletics, because we wanted to be able to relate to it.”
Simon: “We talked a lot about it, but, in the end, I think that kind of strength athletics is too masculine for 2021. We want to take it in a different direction.”
On the website, you trace the performance back to the first brotherly pair in the Bible, Cain and Abel, whose brotherhood was characterised by jealousy and envy. You also refer to the mythological brothers Castor and Pollux, who symbolise unconditional love. What does brotherhood mean to you?
Kasper: “The theme of brotherhood is developed in a very physical way. You see a magnified range of emotions, which speak to how two brothers, two people, relate to each other.”
Simon: “We’re not going to explicitly mention that we’re brothers when promoting the show. Those who read our names in the programme booklet will perhaps make the link, though.”
Kasper: “Then it’s just about two guys, who have some kind of connection.”
Matthias: “You want to tell a universal story.”
Vincent: “People don’t need to be told, they’ll feel it.”
Kasper: “At a certain point, we decided not to seek out those archetypes anymore, because they are innately there, within them, between them. You just feel that on stage. They don’t have to conjure it up from their imagination.”
Simon: “It’s true that we played it out a lot in the beginning. Until at some point we realised: ‘We don’t have to play it out, because we already are brothers.’”
Kasper: “For me, it’s a celebration of vibrations between people. It’s about the distance between people – figuratively, literally, metaphorically. Brotherhood aside, what does it mean to really connect with someone today? How topical has this become? Touch has become something very intense. Now the question is ‘who do you choose to touch?’ vs. the nonchalance of kissing someone in the past.”
What do you appreciate about each other as brothers?
Simon: “How extremely kind Vincent is with me and how he’ll do anything to ensure that I’m happy.”
Vincent: “I don’t know. A lot of things. I learn a lot from him. He’s very practical, helps me a lot. I’m more of a thinker whereas he’s a doer. He gives me the push I need to do things. I’ll call him on the phone even if I know the answer.”
Simon: “That’s also how it works for me, because I’m such a doer and he’ll say, wait, we have to think about that. That creates balance.”
Vincent: “He’ll be like, ‘Oh, sure, that should work’, but even when you know it can’t, you start to envisage it. But then it has to happen before he loses confidence himself.”
Simon: “And sometimes it works out really well.”
Vincent: “Yep, yep ...”
Kasper: “So, you see: that’s our dynamic.” (laughs)
Simon: “We’ve been together all our lives, since childhood. I’m a bit stubborn but I can spend all day with Vincent without things becoming difficult.”
Vincent: “It’s just easy, like before.”
How are you different from each other?
Simon: “Vincent is very precise, meticulous. I’m more inclined to just start trying things ... and if something breaks then I fix it after.”
Vincent: “I prefer to think about things longer, do research, and then try to get it right, from the start. In the meantime he’s already tried whatever it is three times. It could be that we end up with the same result, just via a different path.”
Simon: “I am also much more ... what is the word?”
Vincent: “You’re more dominant.”
Simon: “Voilà, that’s it, I’m much more dominant. On stage I often feel that way, like I’m taking the lead too much. Whereas he can also lead very well, but in a more subtle way.”
Vincent: “In other productions, I am sometimes very overbearing, but with us I feel restrained, I adapt to his position, because he’s my big brother.”
Kasper: “Physically, Simon is much more powerful than Vincent, of course, so he has to adapt to that. He who is not strong must be smart.”
Do you feel freer or more inhibited working with your brother?
Vincent: “I notice that he has a very different way of working from me. We finished our respective training six years apart, so it’s another generation. Simon also studied in France, whereas I think the approach is a bit more contemporary in Brussels. There was a lot of influence from P.A.R.T.S. (Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s famous dance school, ed.), we had to dance a lot, even though I didn’t like it.”
Simon: “I don’t agree with that.”
Vincent: “I do feel that it’s different, our way of working. Normally I would spend a whole day being physical, whereas with us it’s more about trying things and talking.”
Simon: “That’s just not possible with the teeterboard, doing the same thing for three hours. With Collectif Malunés, the way we work is very familial. We know each other really well. I remember being disappointed at the beginning of this creative process. With Arne (Sabbe, his teeterboard and acrobatics partner, ed.) I scarcely need to blink for him to know what I mean. That kind of connection was lacking with us in the beginning. In part due to the fact that we have the bit in our mouths and we can’t speak.”
Vincent: “We are still developing our language.”
How does the bit feel in your mouth? Do you have a preferred leather? How do you find the right fit?
Simon: “It took us almost a year before we could bear it. It’s already taken many different forms.”
Kasper: “Traditionally they would make them themselves.”
Vincent: “Now it’s a silicone boxing mouthguard, moulded to fit our mouths perfectly. This way the forces are distributed over each tooth.”
Does it hurt?
Simon: “Yes. All the muscles around your mouth tighten up. But it is getting better. The ease of doing something you’ve always done, like in my case the teeterboard, is no longer there. You don’t have much technique to fall back on yet. I think we’re still young enough for it – just. In five years’ time, I don’t think our bodies would accept it.”
Vincent: “It’s a real struggle, bordering on sadomasochistic. I dread hanging from it, because you know what’s coming: a headache, from all the muscles attached to your skull.”
Simon: “Sometimes you think you’re ready to go up, but then, when you feel the pull, you think, ‘no, stop, stop’. You’re just scared.”
And aren’t you worried about your teeth?
Simon: “No. Well, yes, we pay close attention to it, we have a dentist check for any cracks. She said once: ‘I certainly wouldn’t do it, but it’s not for me to tell you what to do.’”
Vincent: “She said, ‘don’t do it for too long.’”
Simon: “‘Stop after this show’”
Vincent: “I feel that it’s intense and dangerous for the neck.”
Simon: “But it’s great to put the teeterboard aside. To rediscover the fun.”
Kasper: “It also places the two of them on an equal footing. They’re both starting from scratch.”
What is the ‘iron jaw’?
The ‘iron jaw’ is a traditional aerial circus act. A performer is hoisted into the air by cable or trapeze, supported only by the bit clamped between their teeth. By moving their arms, the artist can spin faster or slower. The act is also known as the Human Butterfly. It’s a form of strength athletics, where performers with ‘jaws of steel’ lift cars and pull buses or trains using only their teeth. When we in Belgium think of strength athletics, the first to bob to the surface of our collective memory is Flemish teeth acrobat John Massis.
This article was originally published in Dutch in Circusmagazine #66 (March 2021) // Author: Ine Van Baelen // Pictures: Michiel Devijver // English translation: Jonathan Beaton