I’m going to start by talking about the psychologist James J. Gibson’s work on affordances because his ideas there have really shaped my thinking.

What Gibson did in his work was link insights in the field of visual perception to Gestalt psychology and to the existing concept of ‘affordances’, which is a word describing the possibilities that an object or environment enables. So for example, a chair affords sitting, the floor affords walking, or a pen affords writing. Gibson built on this to argue said that in our perception of the world we perceive things immediately with their obvious affordance. It’s not that we see an object and then our minds work out its affordance; rather, when we see a chair perceive both the object and the possibility of sitting down. Gibson says the reason for this is we’re trying to get a grip on the world and interact with it in the most efficient way possible.

That’s a very simple explanation, but now you get the basic concept.

Circus was something I thought I would never be able to do. I didn’t think of myself as a very capable person, but then I started juggling because it was really fun. I juggled more and more, and learned to do five balls, then five balls with a turn – and on and on.

There’s always some risk involved in juggling, and yet I still like to juggle three balls, when there is almost no risk for me. Instead it is just this feeling of: ‘I can do this, and I am doing this’. That’s what drove me to circus: this urge to get a grip on the world, but then mixed with a willingness to be absurd since it has no practical use.

In my juggling I still look for things which aren’t difficult; I like rolling objects on the floor, and even then, manipulating one thing on the floor, with no risk, I’m still experiencing the same urge as if I’m juggling seven balls – it’s the same kind of drive for me.

After I learned to juggle I got into thinking about what I was doing, and I read some stuff that said ‘circus is risk’ and ‘circus is danger’. And I felt that for me this is not true – but also that it’s quite an exclusive way of looking at things, because if you say circus is risk then you’re excluding everything that has no risk.

It’s also a negative way of explaining behaviour. To me that’s something that also doesn’t work or that comes out strange: why would you want to do something simply because of the possibility it can fail? I don’t climb a tree because I might fall off into the nettles beneath; I climb the tree because I want to climb the tree.

So what I’m talking about here isn’t really a definition, but it’s trying to find what’s underlying juggling for me – and to relate it to how I see other artforms. Dance for me is the urge to move, theatre is the urge to communicate, circus is to get a grip on the world.

If I had to put it into words I’d say circus is the exploration of the possibilities of objects and people. And I think ‘objects’ is a better turn of phrase than ‘apparatus’ in this case. I see that they both have a value, but I think that in the case of circus it’s this urge to get a grip that is just completely absurd. If the normal thing would be to sit on the chair then in the circus we stand on the chair or balance it. And that’s why I would say we’re not slaves of apparatus, as was written in the open letter, because we actually don’t do what the object tells us and we try to break this perception of a chair by seeing it as an object that can do many other things and that I can do things with.

The question that’s interesting is, Why do people want to look at circus? I think the main quality of circus is the same as when you watch someone try to thread a needle: they’re completely absorbed in trying to do it, because it requires all their attention. I don’t come on stage and pretend to thread the needle – I really do it. I think the essence of why circus is interesting is simply that in the act the person… dissolves, would be a good word I think.

That’s very subjective but often that’s what’s interesting for me – that moment when the person is absorbed completely in the action. It can also come with an openness – an artist can be completely invested in just looking and being with the audience.


Michiel Deprez is a circus artist graduated from ACaPA in Tilburg. The above is an edited transcript of the presentation he gave at the First Encounter at KASK in Ghent.