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Lucho Smit is the new artistic director of Circus Festival Circolo: "Our festival will become even more of a place for encounters between creators, students, audiences and society."

"My accent, my heart is with the people involved in circus. I therefore want to put them at the centre." Lucho Smit (1983) has been artistic director of Tilburg circus festival Circolo, which starts on 13 October, since April this year.

He wants to put the festival, which has been around for 15 years, at the centre of society even more than it already is: "I very much want artists, audiences, students involved in circus to meet each other. As much as possible and as easily as possible. I would like visiting a festival to become another kind of experience, of which the performance is then a part. That means perhaps becoming a little less of a programme festival with a programme where you can see a performance and then go home again. The artists then come to play and disappear backstage, to get something to eat and then you don't actually see them anymore. "

Festival Circolo in Tilburg takes place this year from 13 to 23 October in the Spoorpark.
Read the transcript of the podcast here:
Wijbrand Schaap: And, welcome to the CulturePress Podcast. Today is the second episode in the series around Festival Circolo in Tilburg. The Circus Festival that's been around for a long time, right? Lucho Smit, our guest today?

Lucho Smit:I would say 15 years.

Wijbrand Schaap: How old are you really yourself?

Lucho Smit: I recently turned 40. I don't know what that means, but it is the case.

Wijbrand Schaap: The previous podcast I made with the Glorious Bodies shows that you can still be a circus artist even at 60. In that respect, it's a timeless profession. I understood from the research for this interview that you are responsible for the founding of Circus Rotjeknor.

Lucho Smit: You have read up well. Responsibly, I wouldn't say, but accidentally. I was indeed about seven or eight years old and I wanted to do circus. I also really have no idea why that was the case at the time. Must have been a very good reason. And my father then put up a note at the primary school where I was at the time. I'm looking for someone to give my son success. Someone responded to that and that was Johan Bot. And so it started with a group of children from the school. Wednesday afternoon Circus class.

Wijbrand Schaap: You took a whole group of children right away. I think that was the secret of Rotjeknor?

Lucho Smit: Well, we played circus together and Johan then founded Circus Rotjeknor and was director there for many years, of course, and is still involved in Circus Rotjeknor today.

Wijbrand Schaap: As for your career after that, you started looking for circus training courses. There weren't any in the Netherlands yet.

Lucho Smit: That's right. After secondary school, I did indeed take a gap year. I made a small street performance together with a friend and a girlfriend I knew from Circus Rotjeknor, and we travelled around Europe while hitchhiking. That way, I indeed found out that there were other professional circus schools, especially in France. I visited those during that trip and then I came back and decided to go for that and audition. 

Wijbrand Schaap
That trip you took with those friends, that's also really a bit of the bohemian existence. There's also a kind of romance around that.

Lucho Smit
That's right. I had my final exams, I was not yet eighteen and we just hitchhiked. We didn't have a dime, of course. And then in the afternoon we would play in a square near a couple of cafes and pass the hat and we had enough money to sleep and eat at the campsite. Then we could spend the rest of the day doing something else or hitchhiking. You can have a very romantic view of it, but of course we did it. It was summer, late summer, early autumn and, of course, I don't think you can sustain it that way in winter. But it was and was a beautiful adventure.

Wijbrand Schaap
Yes, and then you found out about training in France.

Lucho Smit
What appealed to me at those circus schools I visited on that trip in France, Italy, England and Spain was that circus was still being made in a somewhat different way. At least in a way I had no knowledge of. Of course, they are all young people who are involved in circus, who want to change the world, and that naturally appealed to me a lot.

Wijbrand Schaap
How should I see it in such a school?

Lucho Smit
I think it has something to do with youth. Perhaps at the physics faculty I might go to, there were also a lot of young people who want to change the world. That might have more to do with youth than the circus.

Wijbrand Schaap
From physics, you would say you can physically change things in the world. But circus?

Lucho Smit
I can learn to describe the world as a physicist. And I don't know if you can change the world even with circus. But what you can change, and this is what I have learnt, is maybe the people around you a little bit. That ultimately comes down to changing the world.

Wijbrand Schaap
You finished that school then. What is life like after that?

Lucho Smit
I obviously made a number of other people and friends on that course and met people and made friends. I then formed a company with some of them towards the end of the course with which we started making a performance. We were lucky that that performance was a good one. That performance had a lot of success. We were able to play a lot with it and we travelled a lot with it. That was also one of our goals why we were together and wanted to make circus. Because we didn't do it for the art per se, but because it was a good reason to meet people, bring them together, go on a journey. We did a lot of that with that show. We bought a circus tent, equipment with it, stands, trucks and yes, we played that show for maybe six or seven years.

Wijbrand Schaap
Which performance was that?

Lucho Smit
That one is called Risque Zero. Which also happened to be at Circolo at the time, when it was still in Liempde. Yes.

Wijbrand Schaap
There is a kind of dichotomy in the circus world, in training. You have people who perfect an act and sell it directly to circuses or shows. And you just made a complete show that was full-length and then that just became a travelling event. Was that an exception at the time? 

Lucho Smit
Of course, there are many companies that make performances, and we were one of them. It is indeed the case that when you complete an education - and that certainly applies to the Netherlands as well - you graduate with an act with which you can sell something. That is typically Dutch. And it is also true that in the beginning you often start working as a performing artist with existing companies or companies that are more in the cabaret or traditional direction, because that fits within a programme. However, more and more people who have completed an education go out on their own or with friends and colleagues and then set up a company. But it is true that you cannot learn everything on that course. The course lasts only four years and you are mainly busy learning techniques and the like. Developing your own style as a maker usually comes a bit later, when you have more work experience and perhaps learned more from life and the world around you, so that you can reflect on that and eventually incorporate it into a performance.

Wijbrand Schaap
What exactly was the reason you stood out so much? What do you think was the decisive reason for its success?

Lucho Smit
What was particularly striking was that we were a close-knit group. You talked about the romantic circus life and travelling. It was one of those shows you could go to and then want to travel with the circus. There was live music and a lot of energy. We were a bit cheeky, a bit insolent. We could kick everything, but in a fun way, and that really appealed. It was about risk. Of course, that's an easy theme when it comes to circus. But apparently it also appealed to people in their daily lives and made them think about what risks they take themselves. People often lingered after a performance and just wanted to have a chat. They ended up not talking about the performance at all, but just talking about themselves. And then you know you have touched something with your performance. If people do talk about the performance, like "Yes, that trick was really great", then you know you did a good trick, but you don't know if you also said something other than just that trick.

Wijbrand Schaap
Were those also the reactions you got from people afterwards?

Lucho Smit
People often lingered after a performance and just wanted to have a chat. They ended up not talking about the performance at all, but just talking about themselves. And then you know you have touched something with your performance. If people do talk about the performance, like "Yes, that trick was really great", then you know you did a good trick, but you don't know if you also said something other than just that trick.

Wijbrand Schaap
Yes, what was that actually like? What also made you realise that circus can be more than just spectacle?

Lucho Smit
Yes, perhaps. You always have that suspicion, of course. And you always have the ideal, of course. We would all like to tell something more and something different with circus than just the performance. That is certainly not easy. There are some obvious things and themes like risk and gravity, which are of course strongly linked to circus in one way or another. But how do you find out that this is possible? You've obviously seen other performances that touch you yourself. Usually it is impossible to describe or figure out why then sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. That's a very tricky analysis. There is no recipe for that. Creating a performance is a process and not a procedure. You go into it with a certain mindset and a certain number of people, and you don't know exactly what is going to come out of it. That does underlie it. 

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, I saw your performance l'Ane et la Carotte two years ago. Maybe that was the reason you eventually became director, but I'm not sure. In any case, it was an extremely impressive performance with a very nice story. It also had a form of imperfection in it that was perfectly executed. Was it difficult for you to look at that first success of your first performance? I think that first success is always hard to match. Was this already your second performance or was it the third? Did you have any failures or anything in between?

Lucho Smit:
Actually, there were a lot of failures in between. Well, failures... Nice and beautiful performances, also successful ones, but not with the same power as that first performance. At some point you start comparing things, while each performance also has its own value and uniqueness. But yes, looking back, that first performance was indeed a strong performance. You only realise that afterwards, after you have also made other performances. l'Ane et la Carotte, which you saw a few years ago at Circolo, is indeed a performance I made myself. I usually work with groups or in collectives and I want to tell something about circus and its history. So I talked to people about it and asked what they thought of it. Everyone said I should mainly do it myself.

Lucho Smit:
So that became a solo and so I never do that again. It was a long time and it's very intense to carry and do that all by myself. Of course, there is a team, with someone on stage with me as a fellow performer and people for technology, lighting, sound and production. So yes, there is a team, but ultimately you do it all yourself. That's tough, though, and I also found out that I actually prefer working with other people. Creating a show and being responsible for something that is about me is quite a challenge. Who am I to talk about myself for 1.5 hours and make people look at me? That's quite an exercise.

Lucho Smit:
Yes, I tell you, modesty is something you learn a lot from, but can also go wrong.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Sounds like a tough period, by the sound of it.

Lucho Smit:
It is heavily enriching, but also heavy of course.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, because are you now the artistic director or artistic director of a festival? Does that also mean you put a stop to your executive work?

Lucho Smit:
No, definitely not. I think it's important to stay active as a maker as well. On the one hand, I need that and, on the other, it is important for my position as artistic director of the festival. It's how I stay abreast of what's going on in the field, with creators and artists. So yes, I have a show I'm still playing in. That still plays on, albeit on a low level, because I don't have much time left. I am also going to make another new show, this time with a lot of people, and it will be ready maybe in three or four years. So I will definitely remain active as a creator.

Wijbrand Schaap:
With all these experiences you have gained, how will you fill in your artistic leadership of the festival? Where is your emphasis?

Lucho Smit:
My heart is with the people involved in circus, which is what I want to put at the centre. I would like artists, audiences and students involved in circus to be able to meet each other. I want a festival visit to be a different experience, where the performance is a part. Not just a programme that you can see in a performance and then go home again. I also want to involve the artists more, so that they don't just come to play and then disappear backstage. I want to create a place where people can meet more easily and exchange ideas. I also want to attract more projects and artists who are also involved in socio-cultural projects and themes that are socially relevant during the creation process. Not just abstract themes like gravity, but performances that deal with what is going on in society. Those are two things I want to focus on in the coming years.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, that is also where we are heading, with the emergence of multiple circus festivals and circus schools in the Netherlands. How will you use circus separately or not at all? 

Lucho Smit:
Well, I think what I have just said is already a stretch. Circolo also has the chance and opportunity to host companies in a tent. So that will definitely continue in the coming years. This year, for example, we have a circus festival and performances in tents. Well, good. And that is definitely something we will continue with. I wonder if Circolo can also play a role in promoting the movement in circus that has to do with magic. Nouvelle magic, which is still quite rare to see in the Netherlands. There are already some creators active in that field in the Netherlands. For example this year you have Julia Campi Stany, who performs the show Beluga. There are already some elements of nouvelle magic in that, from Belgium.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, it is what it is, but we'll see what happens.

Lucho Smit:
Well, you can compare it to how the new circus differs from the traditional circus, the same way you can distinguish magic from the traditional magician. It's not so much about the illusion and the trick of the illusion or the amazement involved. But it is about illusions that happen without you realising how they happen, contributing to a story. Or yes.

Wijbrand Schaap:
I can't mention an example because I think it sounds rather vague.

Lucho Smit:
Yes, definitely. But contemporary circus or circus theatre is also very vague. What is central to that is the narrative and the pressure. And that is also the case with Magie Nouvelle. Only that a certain circus technique, especially magic, is applied in a different way or in a way that adds to the performance. And for example yes, you just have to go and see that performance of Julia. Don't go.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Well, she says, people are cut in half and no rabbits come out of it.

Lucho Smit:
No, people are cut in half and no rabbits come out. But things do happen, things move by themselves and interact with them. It literally and figuratively affects the person's hair and it adds to the narrative. Yes, and it's not just something that happens and then it's over.

Wijbrand Schaap:
The festival also always starts with a conference or seminar. We are also going to make an episode about that. And I understood that the topic this year is consent. Is that something you suggested or did that arise naturally in the run-up to the festival?

Lucho Smit:
That kind of came about in the run-up to the festival. I had some conversations with Soesja Pijlman, who organises it every year, and together we came to the conclusion that that is the theme. It plays in companies, but also in training and in society in general. We thought it would be a good theme to highlight. We are going to devote another whole podcast to it, so I will briefly describe it. Consent, meaning permission. We're going to break that down into three pieces: consent in the context of learning, for example, with touch or acrobats catching each other. There's obviously something going on there, including in the relationship between teacher and student. There is also consent in the making process. To what extent does a player go along with what a director expects of him/her? And how does a director know that he/she is not overstepping boundaries with certain expectations or requests?

Lucho Smit:
There is also a dimension of consent towards the audience. As a spectator, you have certain expectations and there are unwritten rules when you go to a performance. But sometimes a theme can also be intense. It is important how the performer conveys it. Sometimes there can be violence in it or you can be touched. To what extent does the artist prepare the audience for that? Or to what extent does the audience go along with what is told and how it is told? Briefly. 

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, in itself, of course, this is a very broad topic. I myself have experienced situations where this played out. What was it like? Did you run into boundaries or did you find it difficult? I mean, I can imagine there are some things that say that. But, of course, audiences are demanding more and more. Sometimes makers feel that the audience is demanding more and more, when that may not be the case at all, but that you yourself have pushed your limits. Things like that also come into play.

Lucho Smit:
That may have more to do with the audience's expectations when they go to a performance, rather than consent. Yes, that is also a very interesting theme, by the way. Audience expectations and your own will or commitment as a creator. There's often quite a gap there. And how do you bring that together?

Wijbrand Schaap:
That might be an interesting topic for next year.

Lucho Smit:
A wonderful subject. But it should also be interesting for people who have nothing to do with circus.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, but I imagine circus is often about the body. It is a physical art. People touch each other in all sorts of places, because it's just the most convenient way to lift an elephant or make it fly, for example. People are also often scantily clad and do it for that reason. Commercial circuses used to be even more focused on scantily clad people than modern circuses. But is that one of the themes at play, for example?

Lucho Smit:
Yes, then you can also devote a theme to bodies, especially women's bodies, being sexualised in a circus context. That comes from a lot of history and past. But it is still sometimes one of the audience's expectations. And you can also subconsciously go along with that as a creator, because you conform to certain codes or expectations without realising it. If you think about it, it is often obvious why you attract or do this.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, that's what you said about how you wanted to break down the wall between us ever so slightly. So that. Well, the festival has always been good at that. People and audiences and creators have always intermingled. Do we still have regular bonfires at the festival? I don't know if that's environmentally sound these days, but those are things that might come into play later.

Wijbrand Schaap:
How do you plan to strengthen that? Do you have any plans for that?

Lucho Smit:
Well, you talk about getting people to meet each other more. I am going to encourage, not oblige, makers to share their work or what they are working on, their artistic experience, in other ways as well. The performance is one way of that. And, of course, you can also organise pre-conversations and post-conversations, meetings and workshops. Artists are generally quite creative and eager to look at their own work in a different way and get nourishment from that when they confront their audience in a different way. So I would like to leave that up to the artists themselves how they want to flesh that out and do that. So maybe other activities and moments at the festival that the audience can participate in.

Lucho Smit:
In the future? This year, I am starting a little bit to organise workshops given by artists from the main programme, aimed at students from circus schools in Rotterdam, Tilburg and Brussels. It gives students the opportunity to meet artists and exchange about working practices in a particular discipline. It is not so important what that discipline is. It is a way to meet people they might later audition with or work with. For artists, it is also a way to engage with their work in a different way and convey something to students. If this is a success, it might be expanded further in the coming years.

Wijbrand Schaap:
Yes, indeed it is. But comparing it to pop festivals, is your ambition to become a kind of Noorderslag? A showcase festival where agents, creators and policy people meet?

Lucho Smit:
I'm not so sure we want to be a showcase festival. I am not well informed about pop festivals in the Netherlands. It is a place that professionals come to, though. One of our goals as a festival is to contribute to a better circus climate and talent development. We show what can be seen in the Netherlands and internationally in the field of circus. We would like to attract more programmers, agencies and bureaus to include circus performances in their catalogue or programme, so that there might be more to see outside festivals and designated venues. 

Wijbrand Schaap
And this is also happening more and more: crossovers between modern dance, circus and theatre. A circus is, is. Do you have any ambition to write something about that? I'm going to give the festival a go with that.

Lucho Smit
Not explicitly, um, where we are now. And um, has that circus actually come out of its shell? We don't have to keep explaining what the new circus is. People now roughly know what it is and come to the circus because they know they will get to see something. Physically, it's about the body taking centre stage or at least playing a big role. There are indeed elements of dance, theatre, music and visual arts in it. And there will be in the coming years. Um, um. So far, dance is one of the obvious disciplines that circus has collaborated with a lot. The fine. And because Circo also likes to stay accessible to dance, there is no language in the performances. There are a lot of international companies coming, even artists who are in the Netherlands and have completed training are mostly from abroad. So if there is language in it, there can often be a barrier between a broad audience and a performance with a lot of text.
In a foreign language, such as French or English. Well then. Dance has so far really been something that is obvious to choose performances in that corner. And ehm, we'll just have to see how it goes from there. For me, it makes no difference whether a performance is strong and whether it contains text or not, as long as it deserves a place. And then it is up to me to bring it to an audience in a good way, but I will do everything I can to remove any language barriers.

Wijbrand Schaap
How long are you going to do this? Being director? Festival facilities. What? What are your ambitions?

Lucho Smit
Well, me. I don't have any ambitions. I mean, I'm here now and I'm doing it now for the first time this year. My predecessor Wendy still made the programme for this year. Um. I'm now writing the project for the new Arts Plan, so that's a four-year cycle. And um, I hope I get to bring that to fruition as well. So in any case, um, yes, um yes.

Wijbrand Schaap
Yes, the timeframe is of course fairly short. Within the subsidised arts sector, there is also an important dot on the horizon that you have in 10 years. Or that you.

Lucho Smit
I don't know. If in the coming editions I feel that I am contributing something and that I am of use to the festival and to the circus field in the Netherlands, but also internationally, then yes, I hope to continue. And if I find out that I am actually, yes, not doing it well or that I am missing the mark, then I will gladly hand over the baton. Yes.

Wijbrand Schaap
Well we won't assume that for now. I do hear yes, I think you have a good team around you, I have a feeling that if you give that he will leave that with you. Nice, if you were very lonely at the beginning in the programme that's a bit less now for sure.

Lucho Smit
I have a fantastic team at Circolo that has been working passionately for years. Um. And otherwise I wouldn't have ended up here either, I guess. I'll say it again: I really do it for the people who love circus and that's why I love circus. And fortunately, the whole team is dedicated and full of heart for circus, organising this festival every year. 

Wijbrand Schaap
Yes. Well that. Thank you Lucho Smit for this short interview. The festival starts on 13 October and lasts until 23 October. So well, a reporter from the culture department will be there to report and we are going to see how it will be again thanks to El Nino, probably fantastic. Or that we don't know either, is always a risk factor, but so far it has always gone well. I wish you the best of luck with your first edition and we will now say goodbye.

Lucho Smit
Okay, well thank you very much. And even if it rains you can get a warm heart at Circolo. I'll say that in advance, too.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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