Skin to skin
On the history, concept and works of Overhead Project
von Melanie Suchy
Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2022: Circus in flux – Zeitgenössischer Zirkus (07/2022)
Always as a pair. But you don’t have to stick to it. Well-proven doesn’t mean glued together, and you can change the rules of the game. Overhead Project has changed, fundamentally, yet stayed true to itself. It is one of the distinctive features of the company. It started in 2008 as a label of two acrobats, Tim Behren and Florian Patschovsky; Tim Behren now directs it alone. When the duo moved to Cologne in 2009 and immediately delighted the audience – and the dance critic – at a small dance festival, it was the first time they appeared as a unit. They performed a ten-minute duet from the ensemble piece “[How To Be] Almost There” by the Freiburg ensemble HeadFeedHands. Designated as a production partner of that duet, Overhead Project had settled in the city for geographical and strategic reasons. The idea worked for the two of them – hand to hand, feet on hands and upside down. Behren and Patschovsky collected a number of prizes with their outstanding duo piece “How” – at dance festivals no less! Contemporary dance comes in numerous variations, partly because in its curious, reflective way it tends to pick inspiration and elements from everywhere. But to have a performer climbing on another’s shoulders as though he were sleepwalking, as though he were looking out over the clouds of his own dreams, or squatting on the knees of the seated counterpart like a nightmare, the mastery of balance in a landscape of upturned chairs – this was something new. Acrobatics without the triumphant pause for applause. Dance arising from a relationship built on the utmost trust.
The duo seemed like a signature piece. The Overheads entered the dance world with the unusual principle of getting choreographers to work up pieces with them according to certain principles of the circus guild. Reut Shemesh, a Cologne-based Israeli, created the dark, fairytale-like, unsettling duo “The boy who cries wolf” for and with the pair. Yet another game with the imaginary, with manifestation. This time with a memory of loss, bringing together two bodies, highly familiar to each other and yet strangers.
But Overhead Project didn’t enter the dance world as outsiders. Dance was part of their studies at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque in Brussels (ESAC), where they met and came together as acrobatic partners. Alongside France’s Centre National des Arts du Cirque (CNAC) in Châlons-en-Champagne, it boasts the most prestigious training Europe has to offer in Nouveau Cirque.
New circus. In Germany, the genre has yet to establish itself. But something has been stirring for a few years now, in no small part due to the commitment of groups like Overhead Project, with their performances and the founding of the “New Circus Initiative”, followed by a federal association of contemporary circus and the establishment structures for creation and festivals at last. But what drew the two young men to Brussels?
Different from the beginning
A moment’s thanks for children and youth circuses. That’s where Behren and Patschovsky started out. One in Tübingen, the other in Heidelberg. As Tim Behren says today,he liked the physical side, the possibilities of movement in circus, and the performances. The stage! He also got the opportunity to take part in rope-skipping acrobatics, the only boy among girls. An open atmosphere. But, as he explains, he was regarded as an oddity at school: you do circus? Yes, and he even wanted to do it as a career. He was fascinated by what they taught and performed in Brussels. However, he soon realised that he didn’t want a career “as a cog in a huge entertainment machine”, which is how he regarded certain global circus companies. He always saw himself as a choreographer, as a creator, “and I like it when circus is close, somehow – when you can see the gaze, when you can look into the eyes”.
Then in 2015 Tim Behren and Florian Patschovsky choreographed their first full-length work within Overhead Project, “Carnival of the Body”. They had seen a documentary about wrestling on Arte. That was the impetus. The feigned megalomania, the martial theatre, the testy duels, harsh light, from the bombast to the banal banana in the break – all of this resulted in a multi-layered performance, which was partly about images of masculinity.
Ideas of man and its ideologies is one of the foundations when you think about circus in the context of circus dramaturgy, explains Tim Behren, who specialised in the field at the CNAC in France. It reflects the origins of the circus, its traditions, the conventional forms that today exist in parallel with the forms of the new circus (since the 1970s) and, beginning in 1996, the contemporary circus. Using intensification to show how a person controls an object, an animal or their own body, virtuosity as a value, the roles of women and men: they had become stereotypes but were first questioned by the contemporary circus, which used this awareness to construct other images. Redistribute roles. Question physical virtuosity. Engage with time and space differently, more experimentally. Play with visual and sound dramaturgy. Address political issues. At least, that’s the case with Overhead Project. “What are we actually communicating?” is the reflective, animating question that Behrens asks himself.
Who are we?
The company has also changed internally. A big change came when Florian Patschovsky left the company in 2018 and embarked on his own path as a performer. By mutual agreement, and after ten years and eight jointly developed works. Not every acrobat duo in the circus world can do that, notes Behren. Since then he has been working even more closely with the long-standing core artistic team, the Berlin composer Simon Bauer and Brussels lighting designer Charlotte Ducousso, as well as other dancers, acrobats, philosophers and dramaturges. Exchanging perspectives, learning from each other, researching and experimenting – that’s how he developed his first trilogy of pieces, “Geometrie und Politik” (Geometry and Politics). Referencing the seating arrangement of certain parliamentary systems, the result was a piece arranged in the round, with benches facing each other and a frontal performance: “Surround”, “My Body is Your Body” and “What is left”.
What is left
The choreography itself did not stage democracy or despotism, but found its own peculiar effects of spatial arrangements and relations to address power, strength and metamorphosis, postures, momentum and pathways. And again and again: the gaze. “Surround” from 2017 added the movement of the audience, which at times traversed the performance space, back and forth, with something heavy spinning and swinging overhead. That was the pommel horse, hanging from the ceiling, stripped of its status. In the air.
In 2021 this tame yet menacing hundred-kilo object became a partner in “Circular Vertigo”. Mijin Kim, who went from dancer to dance acrobat with Overhead Project, handles it carefully, touches, listens, sits, hangs on it. Flies with it. In contrast to dance, the circus is more about interacting with objects (see Behren’s article in VOICES). Or, where it does present human-to-human relationships, they come with strictly allotted functions. Dissolving these hierarchies, introducing an alternation of dominance instead of one-sided manipulation – this also stems from philosophical research. This is a concern for Behren, and for his new trilogy, which begins with “Circular Vertigo”: “Mensch, Hyperobjekt und Transformation” (Human, Hyperobject and Transformation).
With this the circus is also transforming contemporary dance, enlarging the field of action upwards. Up in the air. If two people standing on top of each other tilt forwards or backwards from the vertical or spin around without falling, this momentum grabs the viewers more intensely, more physically than a single person standing would do. This is something you see in “What is left” (2021), for instance. This type of quasi direct contact with the audience, or even interaction, is a feature of Overhead Project’s pieces.
Overhead Project have received numerous honours, such as the selection as a TANZPAKT project picking up the CircusDanceFestival founded and directed by Tim Behren in Cologne in 2019, and the George Tabori Award 2022 from the Fonds Darstellende Künste, which comes with a 15,000-euro endowment. Actually, says Tim Behren, he prefers to work in the independent scene. He and Patschovsky have created pieces under commission at four municipal theatres, under completely different production conditions and greater time pressure. Behren gives himself and the team one to one and a half years for new overhead pieces – “almost a luxury”, but short compared to international circus productions, as he notes. “Searching is a big part of the working process, the interest in not knowing or still not knowing, daring to endure, to end up somewhere you wouldn’t have thought possible.”