Everything is possible! - Daniel Gulko on the Letni Letna circus festival and Moby Locked Up

Daniel Gulko

This week sees the return of the Letni Letna circus festival to Prague's Letna park, a festival attracting top-notch and avant garde theatre and circus ensembles from both the Czech Republic and abroad. American performer Daniel Gulko - of the Cahin-Caha Company - is one of the more well-known performers who will be premiering a solo work-in-progress inspired by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick". It's titled Moby Locked Up, about an oil tanker captain who unhappily sinks his ship. Jan spoke with Daniel recently about the show, but began by asking how he saw the importance of Letni Letna, now in its third season.

"Mainly it really brings focus to a form and brings it up to a really visible level. It's true these forms have always been here I mean, the Czech Republic: how many pantomime theatres? The Czech Republic doesn't have an overly strong circus tradition but there have always been small family circuses and, puppets - puppets here are HUGE! So [Letni Letna] is not necessarily changing that. But, the fact that the form is given such a big visibility, and the fact that they put on the same level these big companies from abroad and the few big companies from the Czech Republic, and then these small crazy things, student projects, small projects here and there, that they put all these on the same level, really helps the form evolve. It's becoming a really important festival: compared to what's happening, what I know in different countries, it's really committed to the circus tent. There are three, and this also is very rare."

Earlier, you discussed some of the different trends in circus around the world at the moment: what are some things you are looking forward to at Letni Letna?

"Ha! Well, you know, I know the foreigners so... it's true: what I'm really looking for are the 'unknown' things. My critical scale is very different from audiences: I'm really for something, even if it's not yet well made, I'm looking for people doing things in a different way. I'm always curious about a combination of physical work with a political view of the world. Of course, much of circus is not that, much is really about entertainment."

You say you know the foreign shows, but the Czech audience may not be familiar with them, so what are some [shows or] elements they should take note of?

"I think people get a really good spectrum. You have Malabar that is absolutely gigantic, we call it 'pageant', where it is this very, very spectacular, huge show, often made to move along like a parade. It's such a level of organisation, you don't see it that much. So many people, time and money! Cirque Trottola - who are friends of mine - it's really a great example of what's called 'New French Circus' - a little bit kind of dark and at the same time really great technique. Once again, I think it's difficult for Czech artists to have this level of technique: it's five or six years of intensive training and to do this you either have to be really rich or you have to have state-supported schools. To spend six years just doing push-ups and handstands, so I think that level of technique is really exciting. And, Escarlata is really different again: less the French 'aesthetic'. It's much more the Spanish: joyful, playful, fine construction, you know? It's great!"

Tell me about your own show: I get the sense it will be very technically demanding, very physical?

"I've always been attracted to both some kind of political clown show; you know, I wish I were just a sort of 'political clown' - already I would be so happy! But, then this kind of 'body ritual'. So I guess that I'm trying to combine two forms that already are not very mainstream. {laughs} Putting them together is a little difficult. The show demands some very physical things, not just to do a good 'trick' although people will see it's spectacular, but it's also about getting into a bit of a physical 'state'. It's a little bit esoteric maybe, but it's really different for an actor to walk on stage, sit at a table and say a text, from running onto the stage at the end of a chain and then climbing up three metres into the air on a very unstable structure and THEN sitting down at the table and saying the text. You are in a very different state. So this is the physical work, combined with this text from Melville."

Earlier you mentioned typical elements that are part of the circus language - the trapeze for instance, the clown nose - why are certain such elements not part of your repertoire?

"I love those elements, it's not all a rebellion: I always dream of being on trapeze, I always want to put on a clown show with the clown nose, but I guess I take them for granted. For me, circus was always part of my vocabulary, since I was seventeen and began as an artist. So, I never took them as exotic. If I want to use them I can use them, if I don't want to I don't.

But, at the same time the kind of artistic universe that I developed in, or that spoke to me, was really experimental theatre, ritual performance, and street performance that I did a lot of. So, I guess what I'm looking forward is so different, I'm trying to create a different world. What's true is that these elements are so strong, do you know what I mean? If I put a table on stage you can't tell me what will happen: theatre, dance, a conference, a press conference. But, you put a trapeze on the stage you know exactly what will happen. A four-year-old will tell you what will happen, he knows. So this kind of expectation that it creates, if you like, it doesn't really help me. Since I'm using circus techniques it doesn't really help me to announce to you what will happen. And by using 'everyday objects', then we really are in another world; and we don't really know what might happen. I might climb up on the light bulb! I might... destroy the table! You don't know, everything's possible!"

The name of the show is Moby...

"Moby Locked Up. Or Moby Imprisoned could be [another] translation."

Of course it's a story with a story theme, strong emotions including... obsession.

"Um! You know, I'm now on my fourth reading - well fifth - I read it when I was twelve-years-old {laughs}. Six hundred pages, that's 2,400 pages! Three time in English and now in French! And the more I read it, the more I love it! You know, Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with killing evil, basically says a version of 'that's evil, I'm good, you are either with me or against me!' Don't know if that sounds familiar! But, unlike this cowboy in a nearby country who kind of has that kind of discourse, the way Melville has his character say it, you can not just say he is stupid or evil himself. You can't. Because at the same time Ahab is saying 'I am not just going to live my life simply to wake up, go to work, have dinner, and go to sleep. That is not living. I want to really live. I want to live a passion, I want it to take all of me, all my life's energy. I want to realise my quest. That's just a really powerful message. We all want to realise some greater purpose.

And at the same time, by obsessing on this whale and this evil he is not living his life. He is not living, for sure, he is not taking care of himself, his boat or his crew, and he is going to die, so Melville is also saying, yes, it's important to have a greater life purpose, but not to the point of excluding what it means to live: to love, to care for others, to build something and to take care of this. If you forget this, your obsession leads you nowhere. I think, right now, when we're living in a society of obsession: consumer obsession and now terrorist obsessions, where we're being simplified to slogans, this is really what I am trying to work on. We are attracted by this really 'clear' vision to go somewhere. But, at the same time you really have to live your life for others. You can't live for your obsession."