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Circus Meets Literature: An Interview With Bianco's Firenza Guidi
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Circus Meets Literature: An Interview With Bianco's Firenza Guidi

Picture of Andrew Kingsford-Smith
Updated: 11 January 2017
Bianco is the 2013 creation by the UK-based circus company NoFitState. Created and directed by Firenza Guidi, this captivating show uses The Elephant’s Journey by Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago as its inspiration. We talk to Guidi, asking her about this fusion of circus and literature.

At what point in the creation did The Elephant’s Journey become involved with the show? Was the book the catalyst for the creation of Bianco, or was it a less overt inspiration?

NFS Bianco Steve Tanner
Courtesy of NoFitState and Round House Theatre | Photo ©Steve Tanner

When I read the book I was charmed by the simplicity of the story: An elephant (sent as an unusual wedding present) and its motley cortège journey on foot across the whole of Europe. Everywhere the elephant brings awe, bewilderment, wonder – transforming people’s lives. It struck me that Saramago’s convoy resonates with circus: a village, a community, a traveling world. Bianco is not an adaptation of Saramago’s novel but the book was there from the very beginning of the creation, like a wonderful reservoir of images and ideas. We used the words to fuel the performers’ imagination and wondrous echoes for some of the scenes.

But my fascination with Saramago started well before The Elephant’s Journey. The truth is that all Saramago’s writing is inspirational and not only in terms of content or storyline, but also in terms of form. Saramago only uses commas to punctuate his writing. This creates a flow, a pace and a rhythm that belongs to the here-and-now of spoken language, as if the reader was part of a thinking process.

For some, this is confusing and cumbersome. I can’t stop reading his work. It’s like an addiction. Like all truly inspiring artists, he blows life and new ideas into one. With some writers, however much you may enjoy the book, your journey ends with the last page: we are so-to-speak fed, fulfilled, satisfied. With Saramago the creative journey starts at the end of the book, where you are left hanging with a new creative hunger. Saramago’s writing is about process. My fascination with the form and content of his work and its affinity with my own writing and performance work, lies in the state of being in love with all the manifestations of a creative process: its unfolding, the different steps of a journey and the excitement of any little progress made. However minute the results of such a quest on a day-to-day basis, its unfolding is the very stuff life is made of.

Although not a direct adaptation of The Elephant’s Journey, is there an elephant in Bianco?

Bianco Photographer Steve Tanner
Courtesy of NoFitState and Round House Theatre | Photo ©Steve Tanner

There is no physical elephant in the show. The dignity, wonder and mystery of such an animal becomes metaphorical. So, where is the elephant? In the fragility of lost selves and lost wishes. In the awe-inspiring skill of the circus performers. In the ingenuity of the rigging completely exposed before our eyes. In the chameleon space of turning towers and floating architecture. In the music, a whole new landscape in itself. And if the performance was itself the elephant? We wonder, marvel, search, wait for the elephant to appear and don’t realize that he’s been there all along, right before our eyes.

Where did the name ‘Bianco’ come from?

The name ‘Bianco’ was inspired by the book. In The Elephant’s Journey, the mahout (the elephant keeper) is called Subhro, which means white. He’s poor, dirty and covered in rags but at the same time he is wise, cultured and has a beautiful soul. His real beauty is inside himself. For the beginning of the journey he’s washed and dressed, transformed into a magnificent figure on top of the elephant. Bianco, which means ‘white’ in Italian, also tells a story of a great journey inside and outside ourselves. The story of beauty rising out of ugliness and decay. The story of a journey through time, seasons and territories unknown. Its outcome we cannot predict. A hundred shades of white create the fabric of our dreams. Real or imaginary.

What was the process like of exploring literature through the medium of circus?

Bianco - Photographer Steve Tanner
Courtesy of NoFitState and Round House Theatre | Photo ©Steve Tanner

The performers come with a skill that takes years to master and perfect. But they also come with a past, their hang-ups and obsessions, their vulnerability and fears, their thirst for life and sense of humour, their life scars and their hopes. Like a visual artist, I paint and make narratives weaving their physical ability with their memory and desire. I cajole a particular colour or emotion out of them. I sometimes push them into unknown territories. The fusion of all this makes a new narrative even though the tricks used are part of their bag of tools.

I will use Freya (one of the performers) as an example. Freya’s specialist skill is cloud swing, which appears in the second half. For her performance I combined her personal memory of breaking down in a dark country road with Saramago’s passages about wolves (The Elephant’s Journey, p74). I imagined a scene where Freya uses her aerial skills to tell us about her experience. Her speech (which I edited from her own memory) is vaguely reminiscent of Saramago’s words, but it has now become a new narrative. A different kind of literature:

The fuel gauge says half a tank. I’m losing power,
There is a slope, the gauge jumps to a quarter, luckily there is a slip in the rope,
I pull off.
Dead. And the engine cuts out.
It’s pitch black
I get up a hill, turn left, another hill, all kinds of landscape
Swallowed by the night
The wolves appeared shortly after that
They didn’t seem to have come for war
Their stomachs filled by the nights hunting
I’m in the middle of a narrow lane, steep hedges either side.
There is no one around. Nettles sting me
Then an Angel comes to rescue and the wolves
Slowly disappear
And I’m back on the road again

In The Elephant’s Journey a beautiful image echoes the content and inspiration of Freya’s scene.

The wolves, who, from the
moment they arrived, had been sitting utterly motionless,
silhouetted against the backdrops of clouds, were now
moving off, as if gliding rather than walking,
until they disappeared, one by one

(The Elephant’s Journey, p75)

But which comes first? The book reference or the performance creation? It is impossible to say. It’s a mutual inspiration and very often I first create the image and then go back to the book to find a fortuitous correspondence.

The story of The Elephant’s Journey spans through multiple cities and cultures. Did your journey through creating this show resemble this at all?

Bianco - Photographer Steve Tanner
Courtesy of NoFitState and Round House Theatre | Photo ©Steve Tanner

Another correspondence with my work is Saramago’s constant preoccupation with place. Whether it is a cave (The Cave) or an abandoned mental hospital (Blindness) or the state archives for life and death (All the Names), or indeed a journey across Europe, a place is at once inspiration and constraint: A container and co-player, a framing and distancing device, a memory and identity. A place is never just a place and In the end, we always arrive where we are expected.

For Bianco we use four white giant towers and a trampoline.

These towers will move quietly or turn savagely. At every revolution the city changes. The world changes. The music changes. The mood changes. Perhaps the language changes. In the creative process, every configuration of the towers acquired the name of a city: New York apartments (toppled towers and aerial lamps), Buenos Aires (tight-wire), Paris (parkour sequence). Space and place changes, but time doesn’t.

Bianco is first of all a physical landscape which both performers and spectators can inhabit. It is a journey through a visual, physical, sensual territory crossing past present and future. Through the metaphor of the journey, it talks about change, transformation, a new beginning. Hope. But it is not only the places, but also the people who change. They visibly metamorphose through a constant theme of shedding unnecessary clothes (or wigs), questioning a plurality of identities. Our creative question was this:Are there more people in me than just me?’