The born of Berlin Circus Festival – Josa Kölbel & John Hilliger

I met Kölbel and Hilliger at the Asian restaurant beside the theatre. They dress similar colors, sitting right across me. They are both German and the founder of Berlin Circus Festival; Josa Kölbel studied in Circus art and performance arts in France as a trapeze catcher; John Hilliger’s background is event management. They met each other back in the school. They always would like to do something together. During the period of working, Kölbel got an injury. They decided to start the organization of the festival. It was 2015.

The creating process is: Kölbel works more into the artistic direction, creating the program. It’s more about organizing and planning aspect. Hilliger works all the other aspect of creating the event, such as communication. They bounce them off each other consistently, deciding how they speak to the public visually. It’s quickly clear what’s working and what’s not. When comes to the aspect which is not so clear, then it takes lots of time or even creates conflict. In the end, they know this is an idea worth following. Because there’s needs and will to fight for it.

Slimane Brahimi2

Josa Kölbelz & John Hilliger ©Slimane Brahimi

The first circus festival in Germany

There are different things came together. One is there’s no circus festival in Berlin and Germany, dedicating to this special art form. There’s no platform or possibilities to present this art form. We want to on one hand create a platform, on the other hand, being able to see those shows easily here. We want to see them, show them and share the experiences in Berlin. From the practical aspect, our two experts came together and fit perfectly. We are as a team adapting to each other. We saw the free space to do it. There are not many festivals in performance arts which are outside, summer and ten days long. That’s the point Berlin Circus Festival start.

We were pretty surprised when we realized there’s still space. When people heard about it, many people said they had had this idea for many years. In the end, it’s was clear you need a lot of energy for making it happen. You really need to invest energy to move things forward. On the other hand, many people expressed that they don’t think it’s gonna work. It’s normal to hear this feedback when you just start a new festival.

It went quite fast when we decided to do this festival. It takes like a couple of months to make it happen. Everything we did for the first year was quite new in any case for both of us. We figured it out including the whole communication. It was the first time doing program involved with so many people at once and taking care of them. We are a small team, so it’s lots of talking. In general, we do have kind of the same idea about how the festival should look like. It’s about bouncing off, really cooking with things until it becomes dense with a clear core. This core is the starting point which goes into the festival, manifesting itself. At this point, we start to invite other people engaging in the working process. We exchange with other people about the look, design, and set-up from then on. This concept develops through the years. We learn how to design a few boundaries, letting go the rest and trust. As a team of the festival, it’s two of us most of the time. Other members are such as designer, technician, and stage manager. It grows to maximum fifty people plus the artists in our team if we count the people being active in one day. We always try to develop by asking questions afterward. It’s not always easy to work with feedback. It’s hard at the beginning which is turning out super good.

The experience was quite strong during the second and third year. Where after the second year, we didn’t have any funding, which is a big step from our previous editions. We had to realize the necessity to make a big step. From the first to the second edition, we came from having space with all equipment to building everything ourselves. Besides, we have more than two thousand spectators. In order to adapt to the new situation, we double our spectrum, adding six more tents and shows from the second year. The change was needed to happen. At this moment. We know we need to fight hard to make the third edition somehow. The feedback was rough, giving us a very insight to make small changes. Those changes allowed us to guide the whole team, creating the familiar atmosphere for the public. That makes the public to see the space as a community. The change was: communication, trust, and faith. Of course, it was about the experiences as well. The best part is to see the festival realized. When space is nothing fixed, it allows you to change. It’s also helpful for everyone to participate in a way. Many audiences are curious to discover Tempelhof- a place full of the histories. Space is open, making the exchanging space as one of the aspects to keep in mind. If people find the space, feeling themselves safe and covered, then it creates an even stronger exchange at that moment.

What is the contemporary circus?

It’s like a process. It comes from trying to get away from the tradition as far as possible. At one point you realize it’s just about reflecting what you are doing, putting it into contact with other art forms, disciplines, the circus itself and the place. For us, the contemporary circus is an extremely open term. If we see something might be the contemporary circus, although no one could recognize it, we know it is the circus. Because no other discipline could do that kind of performance. Of course, we always need to think about the circumstances. For our festival, we create the maximum freedom for ourselves. So to speak, it’s not just about the tricks, but the discipline. We create the space for any kind of potentials to happen. We offer a broad range of different shows for the audience to rediscover circus from different points of view.

For example, artist Jörg Müller was turning ‘momentum’ in the water. It makes the click when you know the performer has the circus background. It makes sense.

There was a really special moment in the first edition. It was three Scandinavian women who performed at the last show. Their show was quite feministic and political, not easily accessible. It was cold outside. Despite that, we saw the audience was so responsive, giving so many energy to the performance. That was the first time we realize we could actually speak to the wider audience. You need to believe in the audience that they would grab the message you try to deliver. The audience wants to see the experimental performances. They want to be challenged.

Inspirationally, one of the companies who were close to us from the beginning is ‘Cirk La Putyka’ company. With their energy of creating things, inventing new formats, losing fixed ideas and going different ways, I think we have received quite a lot of inspirations and energy from them. They were the first show that we programmed as well. Their spirits are ‘just do it’. They arrive, play and show. They made things happen in a very little amount of time magically. It feels like every year the community is growing out the zone of people we know. Our circle of friends is also growing who inspires us in all the different way. We are open to see how other festivals do things, how we can adapt or change. Artists who came are often coming back again. From the funding perspectives, we are one of the few festivals offer over fifty percent of our funding to artists who participate. We have a lot of volunteers to work over hours. Everyone stay to make this happen. In the end, everybody goes, you realize what you do there is not for the money but for everything else- friends, experiences, pleasure, fun, food and all of it. This is more than a job. This is a real encounter.

The audience, artists and the community

You don’t necessarily need the audience in the creating process. You can melt something together to build the art piece that it’s going to be finished, then you bring it out to the audience. But it’s something alive. It’s not something written on the stone. It would change through times. It would change during the performance. It would get richer because of the different reactions, different attention to details. Somebody would see something most of the artists would not even realize. It is the process happens when the show performing a hundred times. Only after one hundred times you start getting to know the show better; It does have its own lives. The exchange with the audience is necessary. It’s not fun to play one hundred times without them.

You need the audience to see where you can go deeper, add comedy aspect more or put more energy. For example, the tents we have makes the audience sit really close to the people on the stage. What happens is, unconsciously both side of audience exchange their experiences with the people on the other side. They live the same experience. It builds attention and strong energy in the tent. It makes all the people going out of tent hype from the experience. They had seen something with this collective energy. It’s very different from the traditional theatre setting which is you can easily think you are the only one sitting in the audience; In the tent, you can’t.

We created the exchange between artists and audience spontaneously. Sometimes it happens right on the stage. The artists don’t want to go changing. They sit down, have a Q&A with the audience. For the audience, it’s really good, because they get an insight which is lives. That explains another definition of the contemporary circus: community. It is something very special and specific. When you get deeper into this community, you realize you can go any place seeing someone you know. You can meet and exchange with people everywhere. For example, a Taiwanese festival visited our festival in the last edition. It is a big community around the world. They came here to see what’s happening here and we would also want to go over visiting. For the audience, it’s a great place to understand the creating process. They would hear most of the productions takes one and a half year to establish or the creation takes four to six months.

The size of the community in Berlin is not too small, but it’s always moving. Even if the active artists who are based here, eighty percent of them are working somewhere else. It’s very international. There is only two circus school in Germany, plus a third one just starting. There was a center of joggling, now being rebuilt as a residency. There is a festival showing circus now. On the other hand, the active performing part is relatively small because you don’t have so many opportunities to perform in Berlin.

Norvegian Ninjas 2 - Slimane Brahimi

Norvegian Ninjas ©Slimane Brahimi

What’s going on with your project ‘Die Originale’ collaborating with Berliner Festspiele?

Actually, It’s a completely different project. We have two tasks; First, we work here as curators for circus house, in general, is been asked questions from the director. Second, it’s a festival we create which is gonna happen in April. It is an interdisciplinary researching program around the contemporary circus. We try to inject the idea of the circus which is taking the risk, emerging different art forms. We invite artists to come together, meet and exchange within a week. They would create something which is oriented to the process and intuition without going too much into the imagination. Because they have to go. They have one week to present something. What they present doesn’t have any standard to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be finished or anything. It’s the tail of their experiences, having the dialogue with their audience. The concept is to create the space for researching, then sharing the research with the public, whatever it might be. It’s hard to know there’s no finished product to tell the public beforehand. No one knows what’s gonna happen. You have to let go of the expectations and be open about it.

How do you perceive the future of what you do and the development of the circus in Berlin?

We can only say what we saw from the last year. There’s a lot of space for development which is gonna happen. This year, the festival has three tents. We open up the program to show more different things. We hope the audience would come having fun. I have no idea how big the festival can be in five to ten years, but we do have an arrangement for maximum size to keep the feeling together. There’s a lot of happening right now. We try to make everything denser including the place, program and the language of the festival. Therefore, people can walk around and discover something interesting at every corner; performers would have more energy to create new things.

For example, it’s the first time our art project was being financially supported, which is created in Berlin. They would be shown at the festival. It’s great to support the work performers created. Compared to last year’s one German performance, this year we have four to five German performances. We try to develop the stage dedicating to the performances that are worth showing. We keep the quality, creating the formats that are more open, such as ‘meet the artists’ from last year. We gave the space to the artists presenting themselves for an hour. They have total liberty to do what they want. We just told them, ‘we would like you to create a moment for the audience to exchange with you and get to know you.’ It’s for the small audience. But it’s a real moment of encounter.

Any word you would like to share with our audience?

We love to have people from all over the world. we are lucky to have international audience and artists to join our festival. Start with the idea, doing things that haven’t been done before. Follow your ideas and dreams.

With many thanks to Berlin Circus Festival, Josa Kölbel & John Hilliger
For more information about Berlin Circus Festival please see the link.
Original article in Mandarin contributing to Red Bull please see the link.