Kat and Jared van Earle, 32 and 31, are dance artists from Oulu, Finland and Temora, Australia, based in Oulu. They have been bringing contemporary dance into the modern circus scene, contributing to the evolution of circus performance in general and partner acrobatics in particular. Their latest partner acrodance ”Shapes of Water” captures how personal climate change can get, deeply exploring the dramatic relationship between humans and nature.
TaikaBox: When and why did you choose partner acrobatics and how have you decided to put in the contemporary art element in it?
Kat: I’ve danced since I was a child, yet I graduated from the university as a music and primary school teacher. The thesis and all the instrument exams – I was doing piano and saxophone – were, among other things, about sitting, sitting and sitting again – all day long! I felt my body would break, I indeed had to move, that is how I got back to dance. So I left for travel with an aim to find a professional dance school. At that point I was 26.
Being 26 years old, not having done ballet training and wanting to go through serious professional dance school was a bit of an impossible combination. I couldn’t find a school anywhere in the world. That is how I ended up doing a lot of acroyoga, which somehow came through climbing, yoga and other body movement. Spending 3-7 hours a day doing acroyoga in a park was getting more and more acrobatic. It felt like something I want to always do. Unlike with a dance school, it was actually realistic to find a circus school within the given context, and keep doing the acrobatics alongside dance and music.
Have you missed the music as the core of your performing? How did you involve your musical background in your artwork?
Kat: Music prepared me to perform. I was doing a lot of projects with dancers or with theatre playing music live, that has been a helpful experience. Now it feels a little aside since there is already so much research and action within the movement. Yet I feel one day I will combine playing live and dancing…
Jared: Beginning to dance was similar to me: I started off with a job where I was sitting a lot. I was doing graphic design and different multimedia arts in a graphic design agency, often for music festivals and different events. I was sitting all day, every day, really long hours. I quit, I wanted to move. That is how I started doing yoga and other movement based things. Somebody took me to partneracrojam in a park and that’s when I first saw partner acrodance, people lifting each other…
That’s where you met?
Jared: We practiced partner acro for three years before we met each other.
Kat: We both did partner acro and acro yoga before we met. We’ve left acro yoga aside recently, because it is more static and Jared still doesn’t want to be on one spot….
Jared: I don’t want to be stuck again (both laugh). I still want to move around!
How did the circus system respond to you bringing in the elements of contemporary dance art? It is often very different from what the mass audience is used to see in the circus – an institution with very strong tradition of aesthetics.
Jared: Circus is definitely changing. The days with the lions are totally far behind in the past. Circus is branching out to other movement means to make things more interesting. Classical circuses just showing tricks do still exist. But there’s also a new wave of contemporary circus which is much more about dance and abstract concept.
Kat: We met about one month before we started the circus school in Spain. I applied there aiming to be an artist with a rope, an aerialist – partly because I couldn’t find a partner. But then we met and I changed to partner acrobatics, quickly making an audition piece for an application. We’ve always wanted to make something that would really tell stories about feelings.
We were very lucky to have two very encouraging, ”contemporary” teachers: one taught dance, the other taught acrobatics, and they were actually a couple. They inspired us to research, to play around with different concepts and ideas. That was our luck – such approach is still not the common case everywhere in the circus world.
Jared: Our partner acrobatics teacher was very good in creating stories and meaning, engaging feelings and the dynamics. He was positive even when we were frustrated, supporting the deeper exploration. It was so much more than just practicing a trick.
The traditional concept of a circus has at least three powerful images: a sad clown, a scary clown, the circus artists’ constant nomadism. All three have been traditionally ignored in the circus performance context: sadness, true self-image and nomad tiredness were hidden under heavy make-up, shiny costume and the big fake smile. Has the contemporary dance element made circus more honest, triggering to show emotions in their complexity? Is the very evolution of the circus about the new honesty?
Kat: It is much more okay these days to actually speak and perform about the truth behind, the backstage. They can be brought on stage in modern circus. It’s okay to make a performance about vulnerability or failing tricks – which would have been a no go decades ago. You don’t have to put a mask on anymore if you don’t want to. You can definitely be much more honest. It’s no longer just ”show off and do your tricks even if you just broke your ankle”.
Jared: Circus is becoming more popular among artists – and thus branches out within the contemporary context, especially dance.
Kat: Similar big change can be seen in theatres… We made quite a conscious decision that we create pieces that can be towards theatres, emphasizing the dance element. Circus is still much about the nomad lifestyle: travelling with your trucks, tents and caravans. We have many friends in Circus Finlandia, for example, which practices that a lot. Some people might tour for twenty years and they only live in the trailer. It’s a beautiful ideal of a lifestyle and we have talked about it, but that’s not what we want to aim for.
As the circus evolution continues and the old touring models become out of date, do you feel the new wave of community based art? The one about building and sustaining legacy in one place rather than spending loads of resources on touring and leaving almost no trace except for carbon one.
Kat: Although there is still a lot of traditional touring happening, the change is emerging quicker because of the Corona. There are a lot of circus artists who care for the environment, they are climate anxious and they are implementing the change in the field and particularly in touring patterns.
Trying to figure out how to keep working and just survive within the restrictions, artists turn a little more to building communities and sustaining their work in one place. I feel it has basically evolved into streaming shows and performing outdoors or different – smaller – facilities. Circus has become smaller. Because of the Corona more and more circus artists make shows that can be brought into a living room.
Do you feel the Corona has blurred the borderline between political and personal in contemporary art?
Kat: We do blur the border between political and personal on purpose, and within the Corona context – even more. Everything now seems to do with the Corona, and the rethinking somehow brings us to the climate change and the change of the world. Then the most personal things can have a political sign.
Jared: Performance is always about connecting to people. The Corona reality, having limited that opportunity, has given me more time to think about what I actually want to create, the meanings I want to convey.
Is climate change the most irritating thing for you in terms of all the bad things that have happened to the humanity in the past years? What are the most inspiring positive and negative trends for you?
Kat: I feel that things that make me most angry are probably all politics and the stupidity of people who keep on voting in certain ways that make the racist and capitalist systems flourish. Yet somehow the things that make me really angry are not what I love to make art from. I am inspired by things that touch me in surprising ways. Climate change does. Look, how much it affects our lives! Corona is a part of it as well. Living in the North you see how it is all around us. Winters are changing. Every time you step outside you’re somehow affected by climate change, whether it’s a very cold day or a very warm day. You just live through climate change. Thus you can’t push it away, unlike other things that make you angry.
Jared: A lot of people are caught up in their lifestyles and habits. Climate change is so big and vast and it is happening so slowly, that it is usually very hard for people to see it in their daily lives. I don’t know if it makes me angry, but people just don’t get some issues that are affecting them and will keep affecting their children. That is why we do want to connect with people through abstraction and feelings, bringing in the personal element to the climate change. That is something that can make one aware and encourage action.
Are you optimistic in your attempts? What is the vibe of your piece now, since the audience has only seen glimpses of work in progress so far?
Kat: It was supposed to be more playful and happy…
Jared: There is deep emotion in it.
Kat: A lot of sadness actually. Deep emotion brings awareness to everyday things. I personally see climate change whenever I step outside – however, that’s not what everyone experiences. So we give a glimpse of that personal feeling of climate change – it doesn’t have to be remote, massive and abstract. You can’t comprehend and act up on climate change when it is so far away and so scientific. But presenting the climate change as a number of small everyday changes helps realize that you can act up.
Do you feel that while institutions which deal with words – activists, politicians, media – face crisis of trusts, contemporary art is taking the niche of raising awareness?
Kat: Absolutely. Politicians and scientists try to bring awareness by saying: ”This is how it is, trust me”. Contemporary art can bring much deeper awareness by saying : ”Feel it, have you experienced this? Trust yourself”. That is a massive difference. Corona has given everyone much space to think about what is important in life and how bad things can be going towards. It is a very fertile ground for contemporary art to raise awareness this way – suggesting people to feel something themselves and trust their feelings rather than telling them what the truth is and demanding trust.
Feeling positive about contemporary art and the possibilities of increasing awareness through it, I am not optimistic about where the climate change is going and what we actually are going to do about the planet. This is not looking so good.
Do you think the Corona has equaled the independent and traditional art sectors since everybody has to be online, which makes the latter – known for usually avoiding hard topics, distracting from them and putting emphasis on light entertainment – lose its privilege to be heard first and louder? Do you feel the contemporary art sector has received more space to be heard thus?
Jared: Definitely. When the playing field is levelled between these two, you get more connection with the side that has always been developing the deeper meaning.
Kat: It is easier for an individual artist who is a freelancer and doesn’t have the massive wheel to turn, to find options to get the message through. You can find a connection between just one artist and one person! In that way, when the independent and traditional sectors are leveled, it is harder for the latter to adjust. We exactly know how difficult it is because we are also a part of Oulu City Theatre’s big stage performance. Within that project we just have to wait until we can perform it again. It is sad. What we are creating now doesn’t make us worry too much of the Corona. The most important thing is to get the message through. If we can have only eight people viewing the performance plus us two in the room (ten people is the maximum according to restrictions), it’s okay as long as someone can get the message. And we can always stream it.
Jared: We can concentrate on the message knowing that the form – performing live or making a video – would only change the concept a little bit.
You have worked a lot abroad. What is so special about working in the North, except for feeling climate change on a daily basis?
Kat: I feel very lucky to be here. Oulu has had so much underground culture going on alongside having a great theatre and a symphony orchestra and all the big establishments for so long – very vibrant, especially in music and also in performing arts. It’s a very good ground here to do so many kinds of things and to reach quite versatile audiences. I feel it is very easy to connect here: there are no big hierarchies, everyone can sit down on the same table and be on the same page, same level, you can talk person to person. This makes Oulu a very supportive environment.
If we manage to build our careers and lives here as we like to, I hope to give that back to the community one day. We came here as new faces in town, professional artists trying to find work, and people who have been more established reached out and supported us wanting to help us make a stand here. It has been so amazing that I really wish I could support new artists the same way we were supported. We are planning to open an artist residency in Oulu in the future to somehow spread the love.
Jared: I feel we are really finding a niche here in Oulu, there is for sure space to do what we want to do. It’s the right place to be right now.
Kat: Especially compared to what we had in Spain, for example. In Madrid it was so difficult for any circus company or anyone to find space for rehearsing. It was generally harder to find your space, same applies to Helsinki…
How do you feel the audience changed throughout the last years, especially because of the Corona? Do you think people might have changed seeking the new honesty – the one the circus and theatre evolution is about? Do you feel they are reaching out more?
Kat: I’m sure people will come back with more hunger for arts, experiencing big feelings and aesthetic experiences more. It’s a little bit hard to say now, because we’re not properly back yet to having cultural spaces, still in lockdown.
Jared: I feel people would definitely want to go out and see more and feel more.
Kat: I’m sure that people are craving for arts. But maybe craving for the new meaning is only one side. They’ve gone through so much reflecting on their own life and reflecting on the world and the survival, that I’m sure there’s going to be a group of people just looking for entertainment, something light and fun. And all the artists who have shows that are just fun and happy are going to be in demand.
Jared: I’m also wondering how quickly it is going to happen. Corona’s going to last longer, and people have developed new habits by now. They are getting used to being at home and watching things on the Internet. So it would be very interesting to see what happens to that shift. Obviously we will want to go out and connect with more people just like we did before. But there will be a new element, I am sure: the audience will value more to be truly moved by a piece of art.
Kat and Jared were talking with Lölä Vlasenko