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Alexander Vantournhout

Perhaps the best way to describe Alexander Vantournhout is as a scout. He approaches unknown territory with the curiosity of an explorer, avoiding well trodden paths; he is no longer interested in that which he already knows. He cautiously identifies a route through his new environment, assesses its possibilities and limitations, to finally plant his distinctive, artistic flag. It is precisely this attitude, characteristic of a tracker, which makes this qualified circus artist and dancer something of a maverick in the circus and dance community.

Vantournhout is a relative newcomer to the performing arts landscape. After leaving the Superior School of Circus Arts (ESAC) (2007-2010, specialisation in roue Cyr, mono wheel) he studied for two years at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's dance school, P.A.R.T.S, where the physical development he had built up as a circus artist - a body trained for extreme performances related to a single discipline - was reshaped into an agile body allowing greater employability. Awareness of his practice simultaneously deepened and was enhanced thanks to courses related to philosophy and dramaturgy. The combination of these two study programmes, one focused on physical excellence, the other on artistic reflection, makes Vantournhout a binding figure, perhaps even the first in Flanders, a link between circus and dance.

Accordingly one could call his first full evening creation Caprices (2014) a choreographed circus performance: in the first part of this triptych, Vantournhout engages in an exploration of his specialisation, the wheel, though at the same time Caprices rests on strong content and musical dramaturgy. Vantournhout engages in dialogue with music by the contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino – not by devising beautiful dance moves but by viewing Scarrino’s music scores as the movement's conceptual foundation. Music is a constant in Vantournhout's budding oeuvre, as demonstrated by regular collaborations with the guitarist Niko Hafkenscheid and with the jazz cellist Harald Austbø, with whom Vantournhout formed the improvisation duo WAK in 2014.

The virtuosity of the stunts is not suited for telling the story of the failing man. So, you have to go in search of a new circus language. This type of circus demonstrates a humanity that is far more tragic than the circus that is created to 'outshine'.

According to Vantournhout the essence of the circus medium is shaped by three decisive factors: a relationship with an object, the presence of danger and the display of virtuosity. The circus world can physically demonstrate a particularly close tie to the latter, but Vantournhout believes that this obsession with virtuosity has become outdated. Vantournhout: “In many traditional circuses the artist strives to elevate himself to a type of superbeing, but this cannot be maintained if you want to express the contemporary human condition. The virtuosity of the stunts is not suited for telling the story of the failing man. So, you have to go in search of a new circus language. This type of circus demonstrates a humanity that is far more tragic than the circus that is created to 'outshine'.

In the solo ANECKXANDER (2015), developed with the dramaturge Bauke Lievens, the three decisive circus elements come together in a tragic but sometimes also humoristic choreography that portrays the artist as a lonely body. ANECKXANDER is not a circus performance, but a choreographic reflection on a body's vulnerability.

The artist on the stage evolves from an everyday figure - a man in a suit - to a dancing body, slowly becoming aware of his nakedness and physical imperfections.

Vantournhout repeatedly dances the same phrase to a simple piano tune by Arvo Pärt, but after the first time the dancing becomes increasingly hindered by an object that 'extends' his body: high heels, boxing gloves or a lace collar.

With these 'prostheses' Vantournhout emphasises his body's vulnerability, and he asks the audience to look beyond these 'defects' as the initial factor for determining his identity. Further still, he gradually uses his imperfections as an asset: where they originally hinder the choreography, they slowly evolve to become a tool for comfort, an accessory. At the end of ANECKXANDER the gloves, shoes and collar enable him to do things that would be impossible without them. The objects become a tool, instead of an obstacle.

Vantournhout: "My identity changes to reflect the way in which I use my body on stage in a performance. I try and develop a 'different body' for each production."

ANECKXANDER was crowned with several awards at Theater Aan Zee 2015, with the 'popular' Public Award as well as the ‘artistic’ KBC-TAZ award: proof that Vantournhout and Lievens strike a chord with an audience of connoisseurs as well as with a broader group of art lovers. The clear view and totally open and almost naive (clown-like?) attitude with which Vantournhout confronts his audience undoubtedly has something to do with this. So much personality on the stage is common ground in dance, but rather rare in circus, where the meticulous reproduction of a stunt is more important than the performer’s vital presence in the here and now. Bauke Lievens: "We start out from the autobiographical qualities of Alexander's body. This is extremely important: the fact that Alexander's body is not interchangeable in ANECKXANDER, that it would be unthinkable for anyone else but him to perform this piece."

Moreover, to Vantournhout each performance is primarily a self-assessment that has to provide an answer to the question: What does circus or dance mean to me at this moment? Vantournhout himself says on the subject: “My identity changes to reflect the way in which I use my body on stage in a performance. I try and develop a 'different body' for each production. At the same time, Vantournhout directly pushes the boundaries of the different media with this self-study. He is not interested in combining circus and dance to arrive at a homogeneous mix; it is more about a thrilling 'contamination' of one discipline with elements from the other.

This research process does not need to be restricted to dance and/or circus either. In the next production Dummy, a new collaboration with Bauke Lievens, Vantournhout will explore unknown territory once again, this time that of puppet and marionette theatre. Is a doll a (circus) object or a fully-fledged dance partner? How can a dancer, bound by the laws of gravity, relate on stage to an inert body that is capable of anything?

Author:
Evelyne Coussens

Evelyne Coussens writes as a freelance cultural journalist for the newspaper De Morgen and various cultural media, such as rekto:verso, Etcetera and Staalkaart. She teaches cultural theory and policy at the Artevelde University College Ghent and a practical course on art criticism.