It’s been a week since I’ve been in the company of Maartje Bonarius, Artistic Director and co-founder alongside Harm van der Laam of Tall Tales Company - a pioneer and figurehead of The Netherland’s contemporary circus scene. I will be following Maartje for the next two weeks thanks to the opportunity of participating as a fellow on the New Horizons Leadership Program, a European project led by Cirkus Syd, DYNAMO and Riga Cirks. My focus during this first week is to learn as much as I can about the company, to get to know Maartje and Harm and to observe how they artistically direct their company and studio and the artists of Tall Tales together as partners, and to understand their orientation and influence within the Dutch circus sphere.
We linked up in Germany for our first weekend while Tall Tales brought their show “Square Two'' to the No Strings Attached festival, a theatre and circus festival held at the Mainzer Kammerspiele Theatre in the quaint town of Mainz on the river Reine. During our first lunch together with the rest of the Tall Tales team, Harm demonstrated what I would soon learn to be the Tall Tales eagerness for digging deep and posed the question to the table "if you were a god what would you be the god of?". This was our topic of conversations throughout the duration of the meal and my answer eventually was of inspiration and creativity, because I'd love more of that at a click of my fingers.
SQUARE TWO - BEHIND THE SCENES TAKEAWAYS
Square Two is a site-adaptive, immersive, itinerant show performed by creator Harm himself, Pieter Visser and Sophia Oltmanns. It takes the audience on an intimate journey into a world of codes, formulas, frequencies and algorithms through the art of juggling and live sculptures. Over the three times I watched the show, I connected with it at a deeper and more complex level - never have numbers been so beautiful and never has juggling been so inspiring.
Over the weekend I got to see and learn from the inside about how a circus company and arts festival functions:
how, on day one, as a team Tall Tales swiftly accomplished their mission to scout sites for the route of the show and how they handled compromise on a preferred location over another.
How structuring the day ahead with a clear plan and scheduled breaks benefits the team and the productions.
How fundamental it is to express appreciation for the work that had been done, and how camaraderie before and after the show bonded them as a team.
How open and transparent conversation between artistic directors and performers contributes to a healthy working environment.
ON THE ROAD - LEARNING ABOUT THE LOCAL CONTEXT
In the bright and welcoming foyer of the theatre with the team of the festival and performers buzzing around, I talked with Nike Poulekos - the director and founder of No Strings Attached festival (since 1998) and Tom Piefer, the director of the Mainzer Kimmerspiele Theatre (established in 1985) which is home to the festival over all these years.
Both Nike and Tom told their inspiring stories on paving the way to make room for culture in the region of Reineland Pfalz, where back in the 1980s there was a cultural drought. There were no independent theatres in the region at the time and no funds available aside for state run theatres. The Mainzer Kimmerspiele Theatre was founded by Tom and his university mates forty years ago with 488 Deutche Mark (about €250) in an old cinema with 99 seats. Now it is considerably larger with an auditorium seating at least two hundred and a stage big enough to host companies such as La Bande a Tyrex (who were also performing as part of the festival) where nine trick bikers can cycle all at once.
Nike told me about Kultursommer - an organisation that supports the festivals and something that she was also involved in founding as well which, since 1992 has supported and promoted local cultural projects in all artistic disciplines. Kultursommer works to diversify culture in the region, to bring cultural programs to rural areas and extraordinary venues, to network independent art scenes and still since it's founding see themselves as “movement for culture” citizens.
BACK IN ROTTERDAM
Once in Rotterdam and after finally visiting the Tall Tales headquarters I experienced some valuable and insightful encounters throughout the week as to how the company integrates and collaborates with their partners and the broader circus community. We shared an exquisite dinner with Manno Van Dyke and Dirk Evers - artistic and financial leaders of Circusstad Festival. Manno shared his career story from juggler to artistic leader and programmer of Circusstad and what his role and responsibility entails.
I also discovered the depths of the company by meeting the board members of Tall Tales. The board is made up of five invited and valued members who act as advisors and guardians to Maartje and Harm. Two members I talked with are Arlette Hanson as the financial advisor who was also the director of Winter Circus Arlette Hanson, a traditional travelling circus founded by her parents that she had been producing since 1994 until 2018 and former Dansatelier director Kristin de Groot as the chairperson of the board. I particularly admired Kristin’s ability in holding the room, her leadership skills and maintaining structure to the meeting. I felt as if I was in an episode of Succession. The board discussed at great length current funding application strategy and advised on Tall Tales’ visions and aspirations for the next four years. I’ve learnt that Maartje and Harm are incredibly ambitious people who make a bulletproof team. Together they have each other to keep motivating, pushing, believing, encouraging and inspiring each other.
A topic within the NHLP-EU handbook (our internal working tool during this project), that revealed itself throughout the week was Partnership and Participation. This was a running theme as I was acquainted with some of Tall Tales’ partners and their intricate support network both within the company and externally within the wider circus community. All these impressions have helped me reflect and gather ideas for developing my own projects - especially for One Thousand Faces and how we can improve role distribution and responsibility within our collective. In the past week, one thing I have learnt already that will not only benefit my professional development but also personal growth (thanks to Maartje’s constant encouragement) is to express my curiosity and be courageous about asking questions.