The Call of the Air
Compagnie XY and their sensitive architectures / Airelle Caen and Rachid Ouramdane in conversation with Tim Behren
von Tim Behren und Compagnie XY
Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2022: Circus in flux – Zeitgenössischer Zirkus (07/2022)
Airelle, you co-founded Compagnie XY, one of the largest contemporary circus collectives. Your creations are based on acrobatics in the group, the community, the collective. What did you want to achieve and what phases has the company gone through on its artistic path since it was founded?
AC: We started 15 years ago as three duos doing hand-to-hand acrobatics with slightly academic training. We got to experiment a lot with duos, which more or less reinforced them. That is how the collective adventure came about. We started with six, today we are forty. The more bodies, the more possibilities. I have the feeling that we have always followed a path. As if we were pursuing a feeling. It’s the same artistically. Our work is portées acrobatiques – carrying and being carried. The important thing for us is the community aspect of this discipline. We take on such broad themes and explore how we can render them physically, with our acrobatics. But we also ask ourselves – how do we incorporate dance? How do we incorporate movement? For us, acrobatics and movement belong together. How can you walk, climb on top of someone or fly through the air with the same ease? I feel like the more we progress artistically as a group, the wider the spectrum of our possibilities becomes. And we bring in people from outside, which also helps our work to grow enormously. That includes Loïc Touzé, who accompanied us in our last pieces, and Rachid Ouramdane for “Möbius” – the friction between the different perspectives also allowed us to develop our practice further.
With “Möbius” you were inspired by natural phenomena for your work ...
AC: The question of joint movement would always come up in our projects – both as a group and as a collective. The mere question of how to move forward on stage as a group, how to move together. We quite naturally arrived at the connection to the swarm behaviour of starlings. That was a fascination we shared with Rachid. So we came together and observed and analysed together what exactly this form of swarm intelligence or kinaesthesia was, which can connect people and connect living beings in an even broader sense. It’s something very instinctive. There really is something of the pack about it, running together in a very large group, it is something galvanising. As an individual, it makes you highly receptive to the sensation of distance between people, their positions in space and their speed. In “Möbius”, for example, our course is not fixed to the millimetre. It’s more like every day we work on the capacity for being as open as possible to the energy of the others.
Rachid, you are not a member of the collective, but as a choreographer you were involved in the artistic creation of “Möbius”. How would you describe the way acrobats relate to space?
RO: For me, working with the XY collective was a great encounter and, above all, an opportunity to explore a new choreographic dimension. By that I mean that as a choreographer I had actually never explored the aerial space in this way. And I’ve always been fascinated by the movements of large groups, crowds and ensembles. But until now all of this was happening on the ground, with a choreographic style that seems like a kind of chaos at first glance. But as the choreography unfolds you understand that there is actually an inner logic behind it. As Airelle mentioned, it is inspired by the flight of birds in formation, the movement of flocks of starlings which might appear completely improvised and anarchic, but which nonetheless follows an inner logic. I’ve never had the opportunity to work with people in the air in this acrobatic way before. For me, this encounter with the XY collective was a chance to look at these choreographic patterns which collapse as soon as they are created. That might generate a certain frustration in the viewer, but there’s something euphoric in the frustration. You’re never sure if you actually saw what just passed before your eyes. And it was the collective that opened up this path for me.
As director of the Chaillot – Théâtre national de la Danse in Paris, you brought the Compagnie XY to the house. You speak of “expanded experiences” that the arts enable. What role does XY collective play in that?
RO: I want to show that you don’t just find choreography in the world of dance. You can find choreography anywhere in our environment; other artistic disciplines, such as the circus arts, are also choreography at heart, at least in the way the XY collective practise them.
The way they inscribe themselves in public space, with their project “les voyages”, for instance, I find quite magnificent. How they make the environment through which we move every day seem alien, and poeticise it through their actions. With an unexpected presence of bodies, choreographic or human constructions that make us question how we look at what surrounds us.
In the company, do you separate the physical training from the moment when you create artistically?
AC: I would say at the beginning of XY we had a very strict separation. There were the technical moments
of acrobatics and the creative moments. But I feel like the longer we work together, the more those moments blend, and I think it is exciting to blend them very early on. For example, in our previous creations we always had a phase for acrobatic research and a phase for technical training, for mastering the figures. At some point during the creation, we would ask ourselves where we actually wanted to place these technical figures in the piece. With “Möbius” it was almost the other way around; we developed a kind of score for the swarm movements. So at one point we need something that falls suddenly. How can we provide for that kind of speed in our acrobatics?
RO: At first I was a bit confused because they develop a kind of grammar, a vocabulary of figures that they sometimes haven’t even technically mastered yet.
That is, they know intuitively that they will create these figures in the future. So they set themselves challenges that they are convinced they can master in two, three, four or six months. It wasn’t easy for me in the studio at first, because I often start from what I see and develop the choreography from what I have there. Here, on the other hand, I often had to imagine things. It was highly speculative work, in a way, although at the same time it was almost certain that they would achieve the result because they know they will and they schedule the working time they need for it. In my work I feel it is important that the technique is not separated from the interpretation. Ultimately – and I think the XY collective feels the same way – it’s about a quality of presence on stage that we’re looking for. And that’s what we wanted to make visible. That is what surrounds this technique, a way of being there for others.
Carrying is at the centre of XY’s work. Carrying, being carried, trusting in each other, taking on each other’s gravity. Is the theme of community already inscribed in the choice of this discipline?
AC: I think that the basis of this discipline is cooperation. Without each other, there is no carrying. There has to be at least two people. And we explore that a lot. In my opinion, that’s precisely the beauty of this acrobatic gesture. In doing something together and with someone, in cohesion. On top of that, in acrobatics you have throwing and being thrown – and thus flying. As a flyer, for me it’s a kind of call of the air. There is something very mystical about it, this bird-like side to humans. And the longer I work as an aerial acrobat, the luckier I feel that I have the opportunity to fly through the air without technical aids.
Technical mastery of a figure is not enough. There is something much more intimate and deeper that emerges from acrobatic movement. As a collective, we are committed to the circus and we defend the idea that acrobatic movement has its own dramaturgical value. But we don’t want to disguise our acrobatics as dance either. We are working to put movement at the heart of acrobatics. It is a mixture of both, which ultimately forms a single entity.
RO: During the creation of “Möbius” I was initially quite amazed to see how acrobats work. In their partner acrobatics, what’s known as hand-to-hand acrobatics, they have to pay particular attention to their partners. This attentiveness, this highly pronounced attention is almost disturbing. Every mistake is unforgivable, if a partner is not there it’s dangerous. It’s risky and – not to overdramatise – it can even be fatal. This attentiveness to the other person, this urgency of being there for one another, is something you can feel in their everyday life.
Airelle, you speak of an architecture of the sensitive in connection with the project “les voyages”. What characterises this sensitivity?
AC: I think this connection with the sensitive is perhaps the sensitivity for reading the other person. In the project “les voyages” for example, it’s less about sharing visually, as in a performance where people are watching, and more about trying to connect to the physical sensation, the feeling of being carried. Because everyone carries this feeling within themselves. We were all carried as babies. And then you grow up, you forget it, the feeling dissolves. And I think there’s a kind of longing within us to reconnect with that. “Les voyages” has more to do with experiencing than seeing.
For you, does the collective go beyond the work on stage?
AC: Yes, of course, when I say collective I mean everything, all the aspects of our profession. And I believe that gives us a comprehensive philosophy of life that goes beyond the stage, well beyond the stage. Even if we don’t explicitly set out to do a piece about the collective, that’s what our performances radiate, this echo between us, how our bodies vibrate in sympathy, how we are there for each other. I think these are things that are directly related to everyday life and that are important for the functioning of a society. I find there is a beauty to collective experimentation in the world we live in, something that could be applied elsewhere, to ways of functioning in society unlike the ones that are imposed on us. Something very horizontal, where everyone’s qualities are promoted and carried by the collective. And maybe this cohesion, the desire for community, is a particularly urgent need in this volatile world.