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20 Years Of Backbending And Counting: Longevity In the Performing Arts

By Martin Frenette

Ask any artist how their parents reacted when they announced that their goal was to live their life on stage, for the cameras, belting tunes or flipping from stage left to right and you’ll often get an intricate facial contortion routine good enough for the three-ring circus!

Many will tell you that professions in the arts come with an early expiry date, without any retirement plan nor guaranteed success. Some will wait for what feels like a lifetime to get their break-through or even to be noticed. If those first steps are the hardest to take, what about the long run? Is longevity in the arts just as real as it is for those who teach literature or perform open heart surgeries? How does one remain in the lights, living the dream, while others are taking an early final bow? On one hand you have Merryl Streep and Chita Rivera who, at 69 and 85, are still acting and still being celebrated for their work, and then there are those Chinese contortionists who are retiring in their 20’s. There obviously are a lot of dancers, actors and acrobats between these two extremes and, deeply interested by the topic of  longevity, I met with Philipp Tigris, a German contortionist who has been backbending on stages, flying above audiences around the world for 20 years and who, at 43, has been making those “old Chinese contortionists” wait at the retirement office for quite some time!

Born in Berlin and raised by a physiotherapist mother and an orthopedist father who once compared his son’s acrobatic training to taking a spoonful of poison, quite far from Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar, needless to say that his desire to run away with the circus or to join the “State School” to train in circus arts wasn’t met with an enthusiastic Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Nevertheless, young Philipp had a dream when he attended the very traditional Big East German Circus, amazed by two young Mongolian contortionists, their physical and performance skills: “Oh dear, if only that could be me and my life!”

Without a coach, without the help of Internet and Youtube, but with motivation and the will to turn his dream into reality, he started his own contortion class in his bedroom with three simple rules: 1. Train tricks that fit in here. 2. Breathe and 3. Listen to your body.

Pretty basic, yet logical and, as years of patience and determination went by, it paid off, much more than his other careers as the “most incompetent and incapable waiter” (to quote Philipp) or as a literature university student. By the time Philipp had started university, he had spent more hours training over-splits and chest stands on benches rather than listening to lectures on Voltaire and Tchekov, sitting on them. That time also coincided with the rebirth of the German variety theatre scene in the 90’s. Prior to this revival, those theatres were mostly known for traditional Burlesque shows and cabaret singers, until they started introducing their audiences to a variety of polished acts linked together by an MC or a singer. “At that time, there were no international guest performers and no male contortionists, especially in Berlin, where local theatres allowed me to make my professional debuts. Back then, my uniqueness definitely helped me getting noticed and to book shows. I never even thought about whether or not I wanted to be in a show or if I was the right fit for a production, I was just grateful to have work and to be on stage.”’

If traveling and touring the world are common goals for many artists, Philipp openly admits that he hates traveling and never felt the urge to hit the road. He definitely enjoys being introduced to new culture, getting different points of view on the art world and experiencing new things, but the closer to home, the better! In fact, on most contracts, especially those in Europe, his biggest expenses, which he sees as an investment rather than a luxury, consist of train and plane tickets to spend his day(s) off in his own Berlin flat. Those regular trips help getting through a run of shows, that often last a few months, without feeling homesick and make packing much easier with the option to drop things off and to bring others that were forgotten when leaving for a new production. Those trips were however not an option when he joined the production LIMBO in Australia four years ago, which was the furthest he ever traveled for any show, but, to quote Philipp: “This was the experience of a lifetime that I could not turn down: the show, the cast, the act that I was asked to perform, the touring conditions, it was all too good to pass, even if that meant being very far away from home for several months.”

A few years into his contortionist career, as he kept going from show to show, mastering his skills and polishing his act, from the Wintergarten Varieté, to the Chamäleon Theatre or the GOPs (all German theatres), Philipp started experiencing back pain and, to avoid joining the retired Chinese contortionists club, worked on a second act in the event that he could no longer perform as a contortionist. Having always enjoyed hula hoops as a kid, before using them later on in his pre-show warm-up, the idea of creating an act with those hoops came to him.

This act, like contortion, was almost exclusively performed by women when he first started and, to add to the uniqueness of it, he also created a character “The Sailor” that people would remember him by, beyond the tricks and the choreography, and that many in the industry still remember and will request today, years after its creation.

This was also the time where contemporary circus was becoming more and more present in Europe. Philipp witnessed this change first hand while performing in a Belgian festival with a group of young artists from Montreal’s National Circus School: their use of stronger, more theatrical characters and a more modern choreographic approach were quite different from what he had been seeing in the German cabarets so far. Getting this second act with a strong signature in a market that was still traditional in the early 2000’s made him stand out again and allowed him to go back and perform in venues that had booked him in the past, with a brand new act this time, strengthening his reputation as a reliable, solid artist.

As far as training goes, whether it’s contortion, hula hoops or aerial hoop, which came when requests for an aerial act started, even though the three golden rules from his youth still make sense, Philipp’s approach obviously changed as time went by, if only to try and stop the effects of time on an acrobatic body. “Of course, when you’re young, you don’t think, you are wild and reckless, you’re doing tricks because your body can, you don’t stop to think why or how those things are happening.” As an experienced performer who has been training regularly, regardless of the amount of shows in this month’s calendar, “because consistency and repetition are the key”, Philipp feels that he now knows his body way better than he did in his 20’s. In his early stage years, contortion was easy: “I just did it, had no idea why nor how, it just worked.”

Having to face the physical transformations that one goes through both by aging and by performing 6 to 10 shows per week, he started understanding not only the importance of warm-up, but how to train and stretch effectively, with the right exercises for his body, delivering the best performances possible and avoiding injuries as a result.

”The great thing about our work is that you keep learning about your body and the older you get, the more you know. Paying close attention to what colleagues of yours are doing and why, asking questions and having follow-ups at a good sport doctor are also essential in that learning curve and , finally, never be afraid to doubt yourself nor to assume that you might be doing it wrong, even years into it.”

In a youth obsessed industry, being able to stand the test of time definitely is a challenge, but Philipp finds that employers appreciate the stability and well-polished quality of his performances, his maturity, both on and off stage and that he’s a reliable individual. As he mentioned earlier, the fact that you don’t know your body as well and aren’t used to performing so many shows at the beginning of your career can lead to injuries or to a lack of consistency when the lights go on. A little bit of “Backstage Etiquette” also helps to last in the business, to be appreciated by your cast mates, director and the technicians that you’re working with: “DON’T MAKE DRAMA, be open and interested in  others, but mind your own business, respect everyone’s belongings and space, be reliable, on time, keep the common spaces clean and be respectful of everyone, regardless of their position.” These are just a few of his golden Backstage Rules.

Curiosity would be one of the final key ingredients when it comes to longevity, according to Philipp.

Curiosity for the industry, for what has been done and what’s in the making, for your own acts, how they could be improved, become more challenging, so that they don’t become redundant, and curiosity for other disciplines, other avenues, for what you would never consider doing. “Whenever I said that I would never do a project or a certain type of show, I most often got that exact offer soon after and would end up surprised by how different it turned out to be. You shouldn’t limit yourself, close your mind to possible shows and work opportunities by putting yourself in a box or on a pedestal.”

This ongoing curiosity is a huge part of his passion that is just as strong as when he first did the splits for a Berlin audience, of why he went from performing only a solo contortion act to a wide range of solo and duo routines in various disciplines, giving producers a variety of skills to pick from for their shows and, finally, it explains why, on his 42nd birthday, he mastered and presented a contortion trick that some of the “old Chinese contortionists” were still working on before heading to the retirement office. “Is longevity possible in the arts, even in something as demanding on your body as circus?” I asked Philipp before leaving him to his next training session. I’ll let you guess what the answer was, based on this article.

Thank you to Philipp for sharing his TheatreArtLife.

 

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