There is no such thing as zero risk

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There is no such thing as zero risk

Talking to Rémi Lecocq from company Cirque Inextremiste

An Interview by Valentina Barone

Rémi Lecoq defines himself as a performing arts craftsman. His training started, aged 6, in a French amateur school, where the older children taught the younger; each generation learning from the other. That context made it clear what a professional circus performer was; a necessary individual in a collective work, where even the behind-the-scenes work is equal to the artist on stage. He later attended the École Nationale de Cirque de Châtellerault (ENCC) and the Académie Fratellini, where, following an accident, aged 21, he found himself paralysed from the waist down. He decided to reaffirm his identity as an acrobat by involving himself with new possibilities and solutions, using his new bodily mobility in the service of circus attitude and expressive risk. In 2010, together with Yann Ecauvre and Sylvain Briani-Colin, he founded the circus company Cirque Inextremiste. For more than ten years, they have been touring with the show Extrêmités (2011), which became a classic of contemporary circus. With irreverent irony and frightening virtuosity, he performs as an acrobatic base in a wheelchair. With Cirque Inextremiste, he also created the show Extension (2014). On stage, he controls a mini-excavator and moves the other two acrobats. Realising his childhood dream of love with bulldozers, he takes ironic revenge on his fellow performers through his newfound hyper-ability. In his own words: “Disability or not, the circus is a passion you have inside you”. For this edition of VOICES, I asked Rémi to tell me more about his career, and his experiences on and off stage.

At the age of twenty-one, you lost the ability to move your legs. How did the accident change your life?

We were young, but the school had a crazy pace. And at the end of the first ten months, in June, I became angry with the teacher. So, I did something stupid; I put together a series that was too complicated for him to follow, and my new life took off in a helicopter. When I fell, I was conscious, and in those moments, I realised that four times during the year, I had had premonitory dreams in which I saw myself deprived of a part of my body. When I fell, the least shocked about my accident was me, as if I was already prepared. I thought to myself: “what am I going to do now?” Well, I told myself, I will only be an acrobat with my arms. It doesn't matter, I will always be an acrobat. In my head, it was immediately so clear that it became complicated only later, because the people around me didn't see it the same way.

Were you aware of your condition while the people around you could not understand?

From my point of view, it was also a bit difficult to assume: “don't worry, I will continue”. If I had been able to say: “I will continue with the Academy”, maybe I would have even finished it. I could have received my degree. I don't know. However, it was because I stopped everything I was doing and tried to do other things, especially music and video. But something was missing, and that something was always acrobatics.

How did you rebuild your relationship with acrobatics and how did your physical awareness transform over time? 

I participated in a series of residencies for an artistic project and in each workshop, I experimented with new possibilities. All I didn't want to do was use a wheelchair on stage - I tried everything to avoid it. I did contortions on the floor. I built a skateboard with moving wheels. I sat cross-legged trying to find mobility. And then I got an idea from a nightmare in which I saw myself being thrown into the rubbish in pieces. I said to myself, why don't you try putting yourself in a bin? And from there the idea of getting into an eighty-litre bin was born. It is exactly my size and makes the centre of gravity very low. It allows for rotations and is like many break-dancing figures. The first time I got into it, I did two spins, and, crack! it exploded into a thousand pieces. I thought, “whoa, brilliant, that's what it feels like when a bin explodes into a thousand pieces all around you!”. It was my favourite circus apparatus - I even started decorating it. In Extension, they put me in the bin as if it were a punishment, in a dangerous situation that hung in the balance. I manage to get out of it by pretending it's not my element, using it as a constraint.

How did your adventure with the Company Inextremiste begin?

Yann Ecauvre knew about my accident and already had the idea of contacting me. He was performing in his solo show, which was already called Inextremiste. For me, he was a kind of cross between a street artist and an animated cartoon, a trampoline terrorist who was already playing with gas canisters, someone who did risky and impossible things. We attended a workshop together and doing the final presentation, there were three of us by chance; me, Yann and Basco (Sylvain Briani-Colin). We are the kind of silent acrobats who don't talk much, but the chemistry between us was magical. After showing those first fifteen minutes, we decided to continue our research, and so Extrêmités was born. From the first performance onwards, we were unstoppable, and participated in as many festivals as possible to finalise the final version. The first year was epic because we were always performing outdoors, on all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather. In those days we didn't care much about avoiding risk, we knew how to do everything.

How did the programmers react at the beginning, were they cautious about inviting you?

We are starting to calm down now that we have been touring for ten years. In indoor venues, they are sometimes worried about the floor and want to protect it, but deep down they know everything will work. The show is broken in, but in the beginning, it was, frankly, scary. They thought: “these are dangerous, they do incredible things, then they party, then they put on a show again, still involving themselves with risk and fear”. That's why it was good, because of the fragility that lingered in the air. We had an awful reputation! Even today we know that we touch the audience's deepest fears because our balances are full of tension. We convey an electrifying mood, a mixture of sudden laughter and crazy emotions.

How would you define your approach to interpretation when you are on stage?

There are always different reactions between us. Today we are more confident, but we are always afraid of falling. We don't work a circus technique to be perfect, we involve ourselves with possible solutions. On stage, everything is very real and direct. Personally, I do not force comedy, and I remain open to what happens. I was 6 years old when I started doing shows in front of 1400 people. I have a kind of detachment, but I stay attentive. I know they are watching me, and I know when they are laughing.

In Extension, your figure makes me think of a superhuman. How does piloting a machine change your perception of acrobatics?

In my childhood dreams, I always wanted to manoeuvre a crane, to move heavy things by pushing a button. The idea of using a mini excavator, however, was Yann's at first. He wanted to try to use it to make a Korean bascule. My role is always to listen to the agile. He is the one who tells me if there is a problem, with eye contact. In Extension, it changes, it’s no longer so direct. With the machine between us, I have learnt to minutely control all the movements, gaining another level of connection. The first time on the mini-excavator, I didn't want to get off - we did crazy balances. The irony is the same in both shows, as are our personalities: the asshole, the villain, and the victim who is no longer a victim. In all balances Basco always chooses the more unstable one. Yann compensates for this: he needs to be in control.

Is the audience aware of the difficulty and risk of your manoeuvres during performances?

I remember that in the early years of Extrêmités, there were people in the audience who could not stand the tension and left. Others stayed and were happy to have overcome their fear. The years pass, but this is still our way of bringing things to the stage, even if we have softened over time. And as a result, fewer people are shocked. In Extension, they don't realise how dangerous it is, especially when we call for volunteers. Sometimes it has happened that a person from the audience came on stage, totally unaware that they were endangering me, the volunteer and themselves. We try as much as possible to avoid hyper-problematic situations by making everyone safe. We say that the audience is aware of the fear. But like fear is, it removes all rationality as they are watching us.

The show is constantly on tour. How did you work with the people who replace you on stage?

I have always been constantly on the road, but my schedule is much slower now. I am starting to get into other things. I have three kids. At first, I toured Europe together with my family. Taking the plane is uncomfortable for me. I only used it when we performed in China and Hong Kong. Passing the technique and the balances to someone else is not a problem. I can teach you everything, but it is the presence on stage that is difficult to recreate. Among the people working with us for Extrêmités is Karim Randé, an extraordinary acrobat who lost part of a leg after an accident. Karim can perform the show covering two roles, both mine and Basco's.

Do you think the perception of disabilities has changed since you started performing with Inextremiste? 

Behind the scenes, there have always been very attentive people who take care of all the technical aspects related to accessibility, while others at the other extreme did not. Now there are more ramps in the theatres and more care is taken. We have never given up a date because the theatre was not accessible, sometimes creating a bit of a shock among those involved. This is my body, and I control it and take it with me. The wheelchair sometimes upsets people. They think it's bad luck to touch it, and to deal with it. And there are people like that everywhere, inside and outside every family. Some people scolded their children because they were playing with my wheelchair. Kids really like it. Once they try it, it's like a giant skateboard, and they can do stunts with it and play with it for hours. And my children, who handle the chair very well, enjoy it.

What are the themes and challenges – both in and out the world of show business – that fascinate you today?

When I started touring, I was much less aware and concerned about the issue of sustainability. We went everywhere. Bringing people into contact with the show was the most important thing, living the tour. Now that I am 41 years old, quality begins to matter, as does awareness of consumption. For example, in Extension, we power the mini-excavator with petrol and polluting less really started to be a really important issue. And so, I started to slow down and plant trees.

Watch the trailers of the performances Extension and Extrêmités.

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