Caravans are out

STUDYING ELSEWHERE. You can study all sorts of things at university, even circus arts. Aleš Hrdlička will be the first Czech circus performer with a degree in the subject.

He can walk down the street on his hands, with a big smile on his face. He’s in his second year studying juggling and magic at Codarts University in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and he already gets offered so much work that he can barely keep up with his studies. His name is Aleš Hrdlička.

What kind of people study circus arts?
Nutters. But in a good way. All of the students are friendly and open, and usually very energetic. We do circus wherever we go. Handstands, tightrope walking and juggling anything we can pick up – we’re always playing with everything. You probably have to be a bit unusual to go into circus. In the Czech Republic I was “that weirdo”, but here I’m surrounded by people who are just as weird, and it’s great.

What did you have to do to get into university in the Netherlands?
For the last seven years, it was my dream to study at a new circus school. In my final year at secondary school I started training every day and preparing for the entrance exams. After I’d sent some videos and motivation letters I was selected along with 49 other people and invited to Codarts for a week of entrance exams. I really reached my limits. They tested our skills in practically all circus disciplines: floor, partner and aerial acrobatics, trampolines, handstands, dance, theatre, juggling… The main part of the entrance exams was a solo performance. At the end of the week they read out the names of the fourteen people who’d been accepted, and I was one of them.

So now you’ve got two homes?
That’s right. I didn’t feel that way last year, but now I’ve got to know Rotterdam better and soaked up its atmosphere, it’s become a home from home. But Prague will always be my home town.

When you’re on the coach and looking out of the window, in what ways is the view different in the Netherlands and in the Czech Republic?
When the coach is in the Netherlands there are lots of rivers, canals, harbours and bikes. When I’m travelling to the Netherlands I know there’ll be hard physical work at the university, but I always look forward to being with my circus family. When I’m travelling to the Czech Republic I’m looking forward to catching up with family and friends, and I also look back at everything I’ve done in the Netherlands. I can tell I’m getting closer because there are more fields all around.

As well as all the hard physical work, is there a lot of theory too?
We have anatomy, the history of circus, philosophy of art, and music. We also write lots of essays on creative processes, so there’s plenty of theoretical work.

What does an ordinary school day look like?
There are classes every weekday from nine until around five-thirty. The majority of subjects are practical, so they’re physically demanding. As well as major assignments such as creating two solo performances and one group production, we get lots of smaller assignments which you have to rehearse in your free time, so generally I leave the university around seven in the evening, and sometimes I stay there and train until it closes at ten. At the weekend I try to stay away from the circus hall, but sometimes I have to go on Saturdays and Sundays for training. When I get home I’m lucky if I have enough time to cook something and do my laundry.

What’s the most satisfying thing about studying such an unusual subject?
The circus disciplines I specialise in are object manipulation and juggling. I like the freedom. And also the fact that I can play and create something and share what I enjoy with other people, and I can tell them something as well.

In an original way…
Right! Combining juggling and magic is pretty much uncharted waters. Unlike acrobatics, a performance doesn’t have the fear factor, so it can be harder to impress your audience. If you’re an acrobat and you make a mistake, you get injured. If you’re a juggler, all that happens is you pick up your props and feel a bit embarrassed. In magic there’s no room for error. If you make a mistake, the audience can see how the trick works and the illusion is broken. Like other artistic disciplines, circus is very subjective – everyone likes something a bit different, so we never know what’ll work and what won’t. Not knowing whether I’ve chosen the right path can get a bit frustrating sometimes.

Do you ever feel burnt out?
I quite often feel that way at school. Most of my discipline is about learning from your mistakes, and I’m forever falling over and getting back up again, and it’s the same with my juggling rings. If things aren’t going too well, it’s very important to be able to zoom out and get a bit of perspective. I tell myself that I’m still doing something I enjoy, that I’m studying at circus school, which I was dreaming about for seven years, and all the falls, mistakes and repetitions are worth it because I feel that I’m becoming better as a performer and a person every day. And another reason why I don’t feel too burnt out from performing is that I work on lots of different projects.

What do you think about when you’re on stage?
I’m focused on being here and now.

Do you have any kind of ritual before your performances?
With our group Cink Cink Cirk we have a kind of chant. If it’s a solo performance I just warm up, do some vocal exercises and think through the entire performance from start to finish. Some performances don’t have a fixed structure and depend more on communicating with the audience, so before the performance I try to get into the right mood.

How do you do that?
I put myself in a good mood by listening to energetic music and just thinking about how I need to share my good mood with everyone else. It’s a lot easier when I’m on the road with my friends and I’m not on my own backstage; we play games and joke around.

You’re in your second year in the Netherlands. What are the pros and cons of studying in another country?
I live and breathe English. I’m learning every second of the day here, and I like that. Obviously financially it’s difficult in another country, because everything’s more expensive than in the Czech Republic. I have to think about what food to buy. The Kellner Family Foundation, which supports education for students abroad, plays a major role in my studies. I couldn’t afford to study in another country without support from the Foundation and the Czech Ministry of Culture, so I’m grateful for that. Another good thing about studying abroad is that it’s a new environment. Compared with Prague, where there’s almost no modern architecture, Rotterdam is another world. But Prague’s got its charms too.

What’s its appeal?
Prague’s charisma lies in the way it looks, and its atmosphere. The Netherlands’ charm definitely isn’t the weather. Even though I was expecting it to be windy and rainy, that doesn’t alter the fact that wind and rain is the worst possible combination. And I hate the long winters, when it rains almost non-stop. It makes life difficult. But the water here – the canals and rivers, and Rotterdam’s port – is magical.

Are there any big differences between the Czech Republic and the Netherlands? Apart from the weather and the prices.
Prague is more laid-back than Rotterdam. Here I feel as though everyone’s always in a hurry. Especially with all the bikes. And the Dutch are noisier.

Do you plan to stay abroad, or will you come back to Prague after you’ve finished your studies?
Prague is a kind of strategic location. It’s in the centre of Europe and the cost of living is low. But travelling is an integral part of my profession. So long as I’ll be working as a performer, I’ll be travelling to wherever people want to see me. I mainly want to travel and represent the Czech Republic abroad. Later I’d like to be based in Prague and pass on my experience, help to develop a young generation of circus performers, get involved in creating new productions and work on social circus with our organisation Magiciens du Monde (Magicians of the World). No one in the Czech Republic has studied at circus school. The technical know-how is lacking, and there’s a lack of teachers too. I believe my experience from circus school in the Netherlands can help a fresh circus generation in this country, where new circus is slowly emerging.

What does Magiciens du Monde do?
Magiciens du Monde is a French organisation for magicians who perform in hospitals, children’s homes and third-world countries. I helped set up the Czech branch, and after I graduate in the Netherlands, as well as doing my own projects and passing on my experience, I’d like to do performances for children and families in difficult situations.

That’s a beautiful idea. When you’re travelling, do you ever use caravans?
Caravans are out, unfortunately. For touring it’s easier to travel in a van, or by plane. And then we’ll just stay – rather conventionally – in a hotel.

How disappointing! Never mind. You’ve mentioned new circus a lot. What is it exactly?
It’s about contemporary circus without animals. It’s a new art form based on distinctiveness and individuality, among other things. And we can decide whether our fee is enough. No one’s forcing you to do new circus. If you don’t like it, you can do something else.

What do you think about traditional circuses and animal cruelty? Tigers jumping through flaming hoops, elephants in cages…
Circus animals are a controversial topic. It depends how they’re treated. I think in some circuses they’re better off than in most zoos. But if the principal scrimps on their food and keeps them in small cages, or forces tigers to jump through flaming hoops even though tigers are afraid of fire, that’s wrong. It also depends on the training methods. If the animals are punished rather than rewarded, that’s wrong.

Why is new circus so popular nowadays?
It takes people’s minds of things, helps them relax and forget about their problems. That’s something everyone needs.

@HANA ŠIMKOVÁ, the author is a regular contributor to Akademie LN
Photograph caption| “You have to be a bit unusual to go intocircus,” says Aleš Hrdlička


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