Embracing the circus | Rob Tannion

With international experience and accolades in dance, physical theatre and the circus behind him, choreographer Rob Tannion will be participating in the Malta Arts Festival this year, presenting Fecha de Caducidad by Organización Efímera. He speaks to us about the production – which takes its cue from the idea of ‘expiry dates’ – and his rich and varied artistic experience thus far.

Fecha de Caducidad by Organización Efímera. Photgraphy by Emanuel Adames
Fecha de Caducidad by Organización Efímera. Photgraphy by Emanuel Adames
Fecha de Caducidad by Organización Efímera. Photgraphy by Emanuel Adames
Fecha de Caducidad by Organización Efímera. Photgraphy by Emanuel Adames

How relevant do you think the idea of an ‘expiry date’ is, beyond the obvious link to mortality?

I believe the idea of “expiry dates” is very relevant in today’s society... and of course it reaches far beyond mortality or food going bad. Let’s consider relationships or friendships, love, joy, pain, confidence, power, failure... they all will reach a moment where they outdate, run out, finish, wear out, deteriorate or change – and for me, what links them all together is time. As a counterpoint during the show, the last thing almost always to “expire” is hope... it is a very positive side of the human spirit... the thinking that things will or can change for the better.

How did you go about adapting this theme to dance? Did you find it palatable to the form?

My background as a performer was dance and physical theatre, so now when I am directing contemporary circus, I find that inevitably there is a conscious cross-over or meeting point between all three genres.

I almost always am driven to make work of a thematic nature, which is both visually dynamic but also often has some social commentary. So yes, creating a work under the umbrella of a theme such as expiry date works very well in offering up new and interesting material. Working with circus adds the inclusion of the technical circus elements into the mix, so sometimes making sense of them can be challenging, especially if we want to push the work beyond just a series of techniques.

In terms of process, we research material, write, collect images which seem relevant to the show. I look to create scenes driven by what I want the scene to say – therefore material generated is often created from tasks to restrictions.

Non-verbal art forms should by definition be able to cross linguistic and cultural barriers with relative ease. But do you think this really is the case with dance most – or all – of the time? Are there any visual cues and codes that you're sensitive to when you perform abroad?

Personally I feel that the current trend in contemporary arts is all about cross cultivation. How pure is anything any more? Is dance still non-verbal? Is theatre non-physical? Circus, albeit in a great moment of growth and expansion, has for me always been a very all-inclusive art form. If a show needs a performer to talk or sing, or to dance or to be an actor or musician – then they have been used in a show.
I do believe that the work needs to transcend linguistic barriers for sure – and there are a variety of ways to achieve this, either verbally or non-verbally. It is much harder to create a show which is conscious of specific cultural codes, as each society has their own... but I do think that our audiences have very refined and astute visual comprehension, therefore it is easier to access a common visual language and to communicate clearly.

For example, it is hard not to feel tension rising when you watch someone balancing on a chair on top of four bottles, which are on top of a table which is balancing on top of four other bottles. The risk of failure is enormous and we as an audience know that... but it is the intrigue of not being able to stop watching. We see ourselves reflected in that person, and regardless of whether or not we want to see them to succeed or fail in that moment, there is an acknowledgement that they are really putting themselves on the line for us. That creates tension between the performer and audience which is unspoken, conflictive and yet powerfully beautiful.

How did you come adopt such a multi-disciplinary approach to your art?

I guess it is part of my own personal and professional evolution. I have now worked over lots of genres, from dance to theatre, to circus to musicals to site-specific theatre and it is a conscious choice to use and mix these art forms if it serves the work.  In my case with circus, it is impossible not to bring a choreographic eye, moments of theatricality and musicality into the work.

Regarding circus performance: What led you to it and how would you describe the contemporary circus scene, internationally speaking?

Well, it almost feels like a cliche saying this – but I fell into circus! We found each other about 10 years ago when I became involved as Associate Choreographer in a massive stage production of The Lord of the Rings. I found myself very motivated by the circus artists in the show and the richness of their skill base. In 2008 I directed a circus project in Madrid called CRECE, which literally was the turning point in my career. The process was very enriching and the show was a success – and I was hooked! I was already a bit disillusioned and bored with dance, and now working with circus offered me a whole new language and genre to begin to understand, push and to find my voice within.

What I love about circus is it is about ordinary people making the extraordinary possible, with both high level skill and calculated risk.

Contemporary circus is in a fantastic moment of exploration and expansion on a global scale. There are now many university level or superior schools of circus in many parts of the world, which is producing a new wave of artists which are hungry to push the boundaries of circus, in a similar way to how dance of the 90s was. Circus is hungry and it is taking risks and challenging its own conventions – in a way which I sadly feel that dance has forgotten to do.

Are you looking forward to performing in Malta?

We cannot wait! The festival programming for this year looks really very exciting – it has diverse and strong shows – so we are thrilled to be included. We have had friends perform in Malta previously and they loved it: the culture, the people, the food and of course its architecture and history. It will be a brilliant chance for us share our work with the people of Malta. Our last shows were in several circus festivals in Brasil, in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo... so we are looking forward to the response of the Maltese festival audience.

Fecha de Caducidad by Organización Efímera will be held on July 20 and 21 at Pjazza Teatru as part of the Malta Arts Festival. The event is suitable for all audiences. Rob Tannion will also run a workshop called Taking Risks on July  21 and 22 between 10:00 and 13:00 at M Space, Msida. The course targets dancers and physical actors.