het Theater Festival

Dancer-acrobats Axel Guérin and Emmi Väisänen on Screws: ‘I always enjoy hanging upside down with the boots’

VE 11 Sep 2020

Screws are used to connect and keep together things through a twisting movement. In his performance, Alexander Vantournhout twists dance and circus together to create a world in which gravity is defied. Performers are pushed and pulled into every possible direction. Curious about this experience, we talked to dancer-acrobats Axel Guérin and Emmi Väisänen. 

Jasper Delva & Nina Cools

© Bart Grietens

You are both performers in Screws, but have different backgrounds in contemporary dance and circus. How do you look at each other’s disciplines?

Axel Guérin: ‘I have a background in circus. When I started acrobatics, I looked up to dancers. They could move more fluently and elegantly than me. I wanted to become more of a dancer, so I did a lot of dance workshops.’

Emmi Väisänen: ‘I come from dance, so for me it is a bit vice versa. You can take things from both disciplines. We learn a lot from each other.  That is also how Alexander (Vantournhout, red.) works. He has a background in both circus and dance and is interested in bringing them together. Because of how we are trained, our minds work differently’

How would you explain each other’s way of thinking?

Emmi: ‘In circus you work a long time on just one discipline and become an expert in it. In dance, we touch upon different things. Circus is more spectacular, more dangerous. Circus is more about acrobatics. The body needs to be stronger.’

Axel: ‘Dance is much more varied. I’m an acrobat so don’t ask me to do a trapeze. That would be very hard. I notice that dancers often have less upper body strength, but they have amazings legs and balance. I don’t. But maybe that’s my long lengthy body. (laughs) Dancers are always really grounded. Acrobats have strength all over the body because our focus is more general.’  

So a dancer and an acrobat have different bodies? 

Axel: ‘We focus on getting our body strong. Dancers focus more on their skills, not on strength in particular.’ 

Emmi: ‘In circus, strength is very important, also for safety. Dancers work with complexity. They talk a lot about the different qualities of their body, for example doing something softly or fast. This is less so in circus where the body is more functional.’


‘Together we are able to fight gravity’


What is it like to work together with Alexander?

Emmi: ‘Alexander combines both worlds. We work in a way that needs a functional purpose, but at the same time there is also complexity. That’s why for me it is hard to define Screws as either dance or circus. It is somewhere in between.’

Axel: ‘This is my third creation process with him. I start to notice patterns: Alexander likes to find a movement and then explore all its variations. He investigates all the possibilities within this movement. He knows what he wants to achieve. He wants to make the movement progressive. This results in a steep learning curve. It always goes up up up. At first, I had troubles with this. I had to adapt to this. I needed to learn this way of thinking.’

Emmi: ‘I really enjoy the fact that we take one specific thing and go really deep into it. I love research. I love nitpicking. With Screws, I had to adapt to the strength of the movements. According to our different backgrounds, we found different challenges in the performance.’  

© Bart Grietens

What’s your favorite but also hardest movement of the performance?

Axel: ‘I enjoy the ice shoes. We are on a wooden pallet with spiky shoes. This duet is also the hardest part of the performance for me. It is a dangerous movement. I often wonder: what if I make a mistake and spike my partner? But this also keeps me on edge. My partner is smaller and when we lean against each other, the balance is unequal. There is a lot more tension. This asks more of my long body. It asks a lot of my attention.’

Emmi: ‘For me, it changes every time we do the performance. But I always enjoy hanging upside down with the boots. It is also the hardest move. It is not normal to hang. You need to get used to it. To hang from your ankles for eight to ten minutes is very hard. Something that I love as well is the closeness of the audience. It gives the performance a certain intimacy. Every section of the performance has a moment that gives us the opportunity to look at the audience. I really enjoy this. To see their reaction is amazing, especially when the kids are baffled and completely tongue-tied. You can feel the connection, something you don’t always have when you perform on a classic stage with the audience in the dark.’ 

How did you like performing at KANAL?

Emmi: ‘KANAL is great! During Working Title Festival we had a great time performing Screws. A big reason for this is the sound in KANAL. The performance has a section where we jump with the spiky shoes on a wooden pallet. The acoustics really magnify the sound, making the experience even better.’

Axel: ‘I haven’t performed in KANAL yet. I have only seen it from the outside. The building looks amazing though. The fact that it is an old car factory also makes me excited. I am really into the world of car mechanics.’ 


‘What if I make a mistake and spike my partner?’


As people we are often not aware of gravity. How do you as a dancer and an acrobat experience gravity?

Axel: ‘During rehearsal, Alexander said that I needed to jump higher in the section with the shoes. Not really higher, but lifting my legs more so it seems higher. This was a moment when I could really feel gravity. I asked myself the question: “Why can’t I just jump higher?” These boots are very heavy. You need to do more because of the extra weight. In the beginning, you jump in the way you always do, but this time the boots hold you down. You have to learn to jump higher. You need to be aware of the extra weight. Now I find myself jumping higher, defying gravity with every jump.’

Emmi: ‘For me, gravity is most present when I’m hanging upside down. It is a strange and uncommon sensation to move while hanging. Squatting upside down feels unnatural. It is in these moments that I experience gravity. Another moment is the section with the bowling ball. The bowling ball weighs eight to ten kilograms and really emphasizes gravity for me while moving. As a spectator, you can see gravity doing its job with the performer.’

Axel: ‘The end scene, where we move and crawl together, is another moment where you can feel and see gravity. You lie and lean against each other to move. In those moments, you truly understand what balance is. When you are not in the right position, you get sucked into the black hole of gravity. You need the force of your partner to move. We tried to do it individually in rehearsals but it is not possible. Together we are able to fight gravity.’

© Bart Grietens

Do you need to defy any other forces besides gravity?

Emmi: ‘All the different sections have very different forces at work. Think of the forces of the objects, the forces of your partners. The performance comes down to push and pull. You feel a push coming from somewhere and then a pull. You respond with a push or a pull. It is a game that does not stop, especially – but not only –  in the last section. It is a very delicate structure. It needs to be precise. You need to be equal in the amount of force you use. It comes down to exact placement, precisely because there are a lot of forces in play.’ 

Axel: ‘Also, regardless of the different body structures, it is important that we are equals when we move. When you are a heavier person, you need to lean less than a lighter person. You need to take that into account during the movements. The lighter person needs to lean more to counterbalance this. It really comes down to moving as and in a group.’

What are your plans for the future?

Axel: ‘Emmi asked me the same question yesterday. I have the premiere of Through the Grapevine with Alexander at the beginning of October and will continue playing Screws and Red Haired Man, all of them together with Alexander. But I am also thinking about creating my own work. It is still very much in development. I want to work with bicycles. I am a big fan of mechanics and bicycles. I want to build my own circus bike and use that as the starting point for a show. But I am a floor acrobat, not on a bike. I can cycle but that is not the same. It will take some time.’

Emmi: ‘For me, I will start a new creation with Alexander in November that will premiere next year. I will also work on two other creations with another company. After that, I will need a little holiday.’ (laughs)

© Bart Grietens


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

Tags: , , , , ,