Prague's Letná Park this Sunday saw the return of the Letní Letná festival of contemporary circus - now in its 12th year. Over more than two weeks, visitors will be able to view some of the very best that New Circus has to offer - beginning with an acclaimed production, entitled Bianco, by the Cardiff-based company NoFit State Circus.
According to the director, the production was partly inspired by a novel by Jose Saramago called The Elephant's Journey, whose main character Subrho means bianco in her native Italian, and white in English. She described the protagonist as "very humble and the lowest in society". Firenza Guidi:
"The most humble person in that society, in that community, was also the person who had wisdom, soul, and intelligence. He is dirty, humble, but he has a big soul inside and that, I think, is part of the show.
"Bianco is also a new page. When we write, as you are doing now, we have a white page every time. You don't write on a page already scribbled with words. And so, the show, as its format, has built into its form, the ability to change from one scene to another: every scene offers a different and changed environment. Every scene changes the space.
"You can enter from one side and within two minutes you no longer know where you are in the room in relation to the space. So bianco represents change, transformation and the ability to make something out of nothing."
"Thirty years ago in the UK, there wasn't really very much contemporary circus. We had to find our own way, and invent our own ideas."
Some of the images in the production, which The Guardian described as “breathtaking grace”, are already iconic - not least a suspended aerial artist “wearing” a giant and magnificent flowing dress. In those respects, the show is larger than life, but at the same time puts its audience front and centre. There is standing room only, and audiences are free to move, to reframe the action, to take in the performance as they choose, as tightrope walkers and aerial artists perform overhead. Director Firenza Guidi again:
"Of course, when we talk about circus, it isn't surprising that it is physical. But it is also a different kind of physical, as well. The performers are very close to the audience, the audience does not sit down. The performers are sometimes passing by, they are right above them. In terms of how I work with the performers I also use the word 'misbehaving'.
"I absolutely love when the audience thinks that some of the things or moments are not rehearsed or are not part of the show. Of course, they are. But there is a dirtiness that is the dirtiness of the human condition… Here it is the individuality of each performer which is important: ordinary people doing extraordinary things."
There are 20 performers in Bianco in all, including musicians who play live, andfive additional members who are also integral to the show, ensuring the audience has the best possible experience. Creative director Tom Rack, one of the original performers who founded NoFit State Circus back in the 1980s, explains:
"There are five who we call the stewards who guide the audience so they are close enough to the action so it is exciting, but just far enough so it is also safe. They also make sure that the children can come to the front and everyone can see and that the whole show runs smoothly. Together, it is a very big company with all of the crew and the technical staff: we have brought 35 people here to Prague to present this show."
Firenza Guidi adds that an integral part of the show is for nothing to be hidden: the audience can see all the scaffolding towers and wires which are used.
"When we talk about the magic of the show, the magic is in seeing all those mechanisms of the circus right in front of your eyes. These big pieces of truss - behind me is 'cloud swing' - they go up in the performance, they go down, it's not a motor, it's not an engine, they are big pieces of steel, that are also part of the scene, you can see, which is not hidden.
“Human counter-weighting also plays a huge role: when you see a performer go up in the air, it is because another has come down. And sometimes these are women. It is not just men. Sometimes there are moments when the entire company is involved in the one scene: either counter-weighting, performing, or otherwise. There is no 'Green Room' where I go for a cigarette and a glass of water and there is none of this 'I wait for my scene and I do only that'. Everybody does everything."
"Traditional circus is very bound by family but we have that, too. All of us working together, driving over, sleeping in the caravans, putting up the tent, preparing the performance, that sense of ownership, all add to the overall spirit. That is a big part of it for me, you know: the spiritual home of circus really should be under a big top and the traditional lifestyle of circus is part of it. It is exactly that: it is a lifestyle, a calling, it's not a job. You have to be passionate about how you work and passionate about how you live."
Tom Rack also discussed what it was like to forge a path to where the company is today:
"This will be our 30th year! Thirty years ago things were very different. We were five friends, performing in the street and if you aren’t any good the audience will walk away and you won’t eat. Thirty years ago in the UK, there wasn't really very much contemporary circus. We had to find our own way, and invent our own ideas, and meeting people like Firenza and others has helped us develop something of a very individual signature style."
"It is a lifestyle, a calling, it's not a job. You have to be passionate about how you work and passionate about how you live. "
Also discussed was the importance of the company’s unique tent, designed specifically for performances like Bianco, breaking the stereotypes of traditional circus.
"It is quite a big tent but because it is so low at the edges it feels very intimate for the audience. You know, nowhere is very far away and you can get a good view of everything. So, yeah, this is a unique tent, it is one-of-a-kind. Partly to also reflect the unique nature of the work: the tent is like no other circus tent, and the show is unlike any other circus show in the world."
I asked Firenza Guidi, nevertheless, how her earlier directed productions with NoFit State Circus compared to Bianco now, whether there were key concepts which had carried over or were consistent.
"Immortal was the first one, the second was Tabu and now Bianco. These productions which go back to 2002/03 have similar elements, beginning with no seating so the audience is 'inside' the world that is being created, live music, and all the company being part of the transformation of the piece... We are always excited when a new audience experiences it, and they arrive in the place and it is an experience and a very different world. This isn't about being in a delimited area where the performers are there and you are here."
Bianco is far from the only must-see performance at Letní Letná, but it certainly is highly-anticipated. From its unique tent, to the immediacy and closeness of the action, it offers a stunning experience. Scheduled performances include two family or children-oriented matinées which Tom Rack says will be slightly slower - perhaps less frenetic than evening shows - but are essentially the same and to use his words in "no way dumbed down".
NoFit State Circus is also clearly excited to be taking part in Letní Letná, which, over the years, has become something of an 'institution'. Tom Rack also said how much he was looking forward to the Prague audience:
"How thrilled are we to be invited to Letní Letná as well! Letní Letná is becoming one of the must-go-to events of the contemporary circus world. All of the companies are really thrilled to be invited here. Normally in August we would be in Edinburgh in rainy Scotland, we're really delighted to be here in Prague. We are really looking forward to the Czech audience into the tent because I have a feeling that they are going to be one of the most raucous and rowdy crowds that we get! I am confident it's going to be a great run here."