Martin Zimmermann, here in Switzerland we find it difficult to put your work into one of the categories we are familiar with, we struggle to find the right terms and descriptions for what you do. How would you describe your work?
For me it’s clear, it’s a mixture of circus, dance and theatre – it’s just Martin Zimmermann theatre (laughs). The circus is and always has been interdisciplinary and incredibly innovative. And by combining my two areas of training, I have created my own universe. Right from the beginning, I deprived circus bodies of circus objects and circus equipment and placed these bodies in a stage space. My stage spaces are always there before we start rehearsing. They are like directives, they form a framework with clear rules.
Your spaces always have a unique architecture, with moving walls, false bottoms, sloping levels, doors, hatches, pitfalls and much more. They are challenging spaces.
Yes, the spaces put the characters in difficult situations and their instability means they are constantly threatening. And in the process of creation we sometimes set additional rules for certain characters that arise from the space. For example, in “Eins Zwei Drei”, a certain floor area was like black ice for a certain character. Whenever she stepped onto this floor, she slipped and lost her balance. It is my characters’ fragility, their insecurity and constant attempts to survive that concern me. Some characters then try to test or even transgress the limits of spatial directives. These characters always exist in a state of tension with the spatial conditions in my pieces.
The characters in your pieces always seem fragile, sculptural, they are bizarre, somehow dark and – they make us laugh. In “Danse Macabre” there are four characters, including you. How do they come about?
The characters are created along with the concept for a new piece, well before we start rehearsals. At this stage I have performers in mind for the individual characters – I never hold auditions. Nobody can be replaced in my pieces either, I never create a production that I could then simply perform with another cast. Naturally this is a nightmare for a touring operation. Over the years a family of performers has grown together around me, and it sometimes expands to include another member. I have a trusting working relationship with these performers, which enables all of us to go far with our creations. They are familiar with my universe and my language and they assume their own place in it. But finding the characters is like meticulously peeling them out, an incredibly slow process. Once you’ve found the characters, it feels like liberation. But that doesn’t mean the process is simply at an end, you have to constantly work on the characters and the space in which they find themselves.
How does your work during rehearsals look like?
Before rehearsals, I create the silhouettes of the characters not only with the concept of the piece, but also with the costumes. And in the creative process with the performers, which always lasts at least three months, I try to use improvisations to peel out the characters, to pull them out of the performers, as it were. The questions are always the same: how does this character move, how do they walk, what sounds and noises do they make? Then I can feel what is right for the character. I might notice, for example, that the voice is still too deep or we have to find a completely different sculptural form for the character that might contrast with their body. That is my field of work. And I feel that for a director to make good pieces, ultimately all the characters have to be on the same level, no matter how different they may be. I don’t create pieces in which some are better than others, no, the characters always need each other. And there is nothing instructive about the characters; they are surreal, grotesque, unique, they can never be fully grasped or understood. But maybe they will touch us and open up something within us.
This work on the characters that you describe isn’t necessarily something we would associate with contemporary circus, which is characterised more by the rejection of narrative and characters.
At the beginning of my career, that wasn’t an easy thing for me either, because at the time it felt as if this “character theatre” was somehow passé. But that’s my language, my world. I’m always looking for those characters in the dark margins, those grotesque characters who make me laugh. Jacques Tati, Charlie Rivel, Grock, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton – I feel very connected to this family of tragi-comic artists. These fantastic clowns influenced me and remain a great inspiration to this day.
Do you feel your work, or rather your work with these characters, also means making the world bearable or at least more bearable?
Yes, my characters are always concerned with human existence. And in my pieces I negotiate my experience, my perception of the world. Even as a child, I would always observe people walking and gesturing. I wasn’t really listening to what they were saying, I couldn’t really hear. It’s as if I gained a filter without which I might have sunk into depression, or not be here at all. Because the world is so violent and people can be so incredibly hard on each other. And if you can’t find a way of dealing with it, it’s hard to bear. I find humour helps – it allows me to step back and see people from a distance, as silhouettes. And it also lets me take a loving, tender view of people. Through humour I can contrast all this negativity with something positive. So humour is a key driver for me, and I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found my own universe and my own profession. I am very grateful for that.
After training at the circus school in France, you returned to Switzerland, even though cultural funding in this country didn’t cover circus at the time, it was frowned upon, even. Many others stayed in France for this reason – but you took the plunge and returned to Switzerland.
Yes, but coming back was difficult. Without the collaboration with a range of artists based in Zurich or in the funded dance and music sectors, I would not have made it in Switzerland. Someone like me, with decorator training and a graduate of a circus school? I would have had zero chance. Of course, I would still have looked for ways to do my work – I couldn’t do anything else, I still can’t. But this stigmatisation and devaluation of the circus – and of the clown as well, by the way – had an influence on me. People think the circus isn’t intellectual enough, not this or that enough. But you don’t have to question it, you just have to enjoy it, because it’s fantastic that it exists. For me, circus performers are like punks – they lead parallel lives that mirror and reflect our lives and society in a different way.
1 Swiss Culture Awards: Martin Zimmermann, Quirky stage worlds, Swiss Grand Prix for the Performing Arts/Hans Reinhart Ring 2021, https://www.schweizerkulturpreise.ch/awards/en/home/darstellende-kuenste/dk-archiv/dk-2021/martin-zimmermann.html, accessed on 24/05/2022.