Interview with Bernard Kudlak
By Nathaniel Herzberg, in Le Monde (27 October 2005)
One of the pioneers of a type of circus without sawdust, without clowns and without animals. Plume, the company he directs, is now a reference in its field.
Ouch! It’s his back again. Bernard Kudlak cracks a bright smile. Since this morning, Cirque Plume’s boss has been suffering from a sore back. A bad move while walking into the office/truck parked amidst the campers in the big-top area in La Villette park? A cold draft after last night’s show? He doesn’t want to think about it.
Half his brain is already in Franche-Comté, where he’s going for ten days to look after his two daughters and his garden. "I have three species of garter snake, I am a rich man", he says. The other half is still preoccupied with the show that, since September 21st, has filled the 1000 place big-top every night. He does some quick arithmetic. "At the end of November, we will have welcomed 50,000 spectators." Somehow confirming their status as a sure thing that, in the milieu of contemporary circus, sticks to the company like a leotard sticks to the skin of an acrobat.
Even so, the acrobats at Plume are still sometimes curiously dressed. About their status... "It is true that we are considered a sure thing." He draws a certain amount of pride from the statement. "We have 40 full-timers, we are 87% autofinanced, we do 100 shows a year, and people like the shows. We even allow ourselves the luxury of taking the time necessary for each show." He untangles his blond mop of hair. His bright gaze fades. "But, fundamentally, we still feel vulnerable, just like we did 20 years ago".
And therein lies the problem. How does one assume the responsibility of leading a generation when you established yourself in the margins? How does one become the spokesman for a large family when you had always fought at its periphery and contested its dogmas? Since their birth in 1984, Plume’s colour has been out of character. The circus cutivates the myth of wanderlust; Kudlak declares himself a "child of the Montbéliard area". Médrano, Gruss, Bouglione: their leader’s names are renowned, his is unknown. They come from many generations of traveling perfromers, he is the son of a factory worker who learned to juggle at the age of 25 from a children’s book.
He only exacerbated the situation by dreaming of a revolution. "Politics, of course, that was the era", he remembers. But above all, an artistic revolution. Plume effectively put itself in charge of revitalising the circus arts by taming the subject matter instead of animals, by subjecting the exploits to the beauty of gesture, by following the alternative pathways of theatre, dance and music.
The guardians of the circus temple smiled kindly: "Whenever someone saw us in a village, they announced the show using a megephone." It should be mentioned that they were not, in fact, very menacing. There were 8 of them in all, 4 "pros" and 4 amatures. The regional counsel of France-Comté coughed up 80,000 francs in the form of a grant, which was good timing because the bleachers had already collapsed twice.
He is already the director. He isn’t the leader quite yet. The popular method at the time was the "ideology of equality". He imposes nothing but suggests everything. The "poetic storyline" will never get left behind. Two work principles, still in place, are: give everything for the show, and no criticism without counter-suggestion. "We lived full of dreams of the road, images from Chagall and Fellini, but we also wanted to seize the subject matter. Nostalgia for a paradise lost, for fear, pain and the claim to the sublime."
Avignon 1986 (off, of course), Besançon 1988, Paris 1991: the creations follow one after another, the audiences and the accolades follow. This time the large families grumble. Others such as Archaos and Les Arts sauts are invited to the table and everyone is forced to share the pieces of the grant pie. Gilbert Edelstein, Cirque Pinder’s boss comes unhinged. "He said that circus was all about the ring, the sawdust, the clowns and the animals", remembers Bernard Kudlak. "It was clear, we had none of those things."
Plume is buffeted by the storm, but resists. An enduring nucleus, Pierre (the brother), Brigitte (the companion), Robert (the musician) and Jean-Marie (the technician), around which electrons collect, free by nature, flyers by function "acrobatics is not learned in two years" leads to "A real troupe" the boss summarizes. What next? Pirouette. "Lets just say that we don’t make the same mistakes twice. We learn how to avoid the interpersonal pitfalls."
Balance, little by little, imposes itself. Air, earth and fire, and for the latest creation, water have anchored each show in reality. In New York, in the summer of 2001, a huge air conditioner and its off-tune E-flat compel the musicians to re-tune their instruments. A drop of water. An idea germinates in the dumbfounded eyes of Bernard Kudlak. It is Plic Ploc, currently at La Villette, with its sounds, its notes, its jets, and its slides. "When there were thunderstorms, after the fear had passed we ended up swimming in the pockets of water that had collected on the tent. The joy behind a disturbing incident: that is what circus is all about."
The ex-juggler has done his best to reduce the number of unforseen incidents. Since 1998 he has abandoned the stage. Betweeen each Plume creation, he allows himself an infedelity by working in theatre, music or children’s shows. He is consulted and interviewed, on circus but also about the economy of live shows and the intermittent artist statute in France (ed note: an economic status that French live performers enjoy but is in jeopardy). While unknown by the greater public, he accepts his role as a cultural guru. He always leaves himself enough time for his garden, his sculpting tools, and his books. With Montaigne on the nightstand and Barthes and Arendt piled up underneath, he feeds his second passion: learning. "And because I am lucky enough to have a bad memory, things always seem new to me."
For his next show, Bernard Kudlak dreams about "constructing something around light as a susbstance". Seizing the immaterial. Bringing together, once again, reality and dreams, the everyday and the poetic, always staying true to his principes while reaching into uncharted territory. It’s a way of staving off the young artists who are always coming up from behind and who think that Plume is a bit too well-behaved. "They think we are too settled. I hope they are wrong, that we haven’t already been left in the past." Fear getting old? His 51 years respond in unison. "No. I’m busy living all the moments life brings my way. But I am not preoccupied with getting old." He grimaces. "Having a back ache though, that bothers me."
August 19, 1954 born in Audincourt (Doubs) in the Montbéliard region.
1984 created Cirque Plume.
1991-1992 Plume’s first big success: "No Animo mas anima" plays 223 times in France and in Europe.
2005 Plic Ploc, Plume’s 9th show, plays at La Villette until November 27th, at La Villette park, then continues its tour around France.