Friday, September 12, 2014

Memet Bilgin and the Art of Restoring Balance

Lately I've been aware that in a number of areas in my life I'm lacking focus, discipline and balance. I periodically find myself mired in this way and draw inspiration to move beyond it, in part, by immersing myself in images and thoughts, along with the words and insights, of dancers. After all, these are women and men who, like gymnasts, jugglers, acrobats, and other types of athletes, cultivate and maintain high degrees of focus, discipline and balance. They do so in order to move and operate with grace and flexibility from a core of strength and power. I find such language and imagery an instructive metaphor for the spiritual life (one of those areas I need to work on!) Indeed, I like to think of myself as having the soul of a dancer. Perhaps you feel that way too!


Strictly speaking, Memet Bilgin isn't a dancer, though he definitely has the physical strength and grace of one. In his youth, the 36-year-old Turkish Canadian was a member of the Turkish national sailing team and seemed set for a career in computer programming when he turned to the arts in his early 20s. By age twenty-four, he was half of the award-winning aerial duet Wings of Desire, which combined an eclectic mix of dance, traditional mime and aerial acrobatics. Currently, Memet is performing the "Sanddorn Balance" act which, although designed by others, he has very much perfected and made his own. When I was in Australia earlier this year my brother Chris and his wife Cathie generously treated me to the show Empire, staged in a carnival-style venue on the rooftop of the Crown Casino in Melbourne. Memet is one of the performers in this highly theatrical and entertaining show, and his Sanddorn Balance act is a definite highlight.

Following is an excerpt from Jessica Leo's Advertiser article about Empire and Memet's understanding of his role in it. Basically, he sees his act as a metaphor for the restoring of balance in a world of misplaced priorities and depersonalizing objectification. This understanding of the importance of and need for balance is applicable to a range of situations. I certainly find it speaks to me and my life at this time. I also appreciate the emphasis on restoring balance. This is helpful in two ways. First, it reminds us that our experience of balance is often fleeting, and so we shouldn't beat ourselves up when things aren't perfect, aren't one-hundred percent of the time harmonious. I like how in this post's opening image, Memet looks as though he's "picking up the pieces," which brings me to the second point I want to make: the seeking of balance and all the practices and exercises and "starting overs" that this involves are all part of the journey . . . and maybe even where it's at! We find balance in our seeking of balance. In our spiritual life, this might mean something as simple as the one prayer or the half-hour of meditation we did today that we didn't do yesterday or haven't done for quite some time. (Memet's act starts with a simple feather balanced on a small stick!) In such simple heartfelt acts we begin to restore balance and harmony. And through these we can experience oneness with the transforming love that is the sacred source and sustainer of all.

Memet Bilgin is one of the stars of Empire, a show which walks the line between burlesque, circus and comedic cabaret.

Around a decade ago, Istanbul-born Memet Bilgin left a career in computer programming to run away and join the circus. It’s not a common leap for most to make, especially someone who as a child was deeply immersed in the laws of physics and mathematics but for the disarming Turk – who these days calls Montreal home – it was all about rounding out his inner desires.

“I think it happened because I was looking for something artistic in my life and I think my artistic half was always there …. but it was in my early 20s I started realising I was craving arts,” he says.

And he’s not about to head back to a desk job anytime soon, even though his current gig, touring Australia with Spiegelworld’s new show Empire, is keeping him away from two other passions – renovating his Canadian cottage and building a boat.

In fact, Bilgin’s role in the show – which includes a deeply focused finale in which he balances a feather on a collection of precariously balanced branches – couldn’t be further from life in front of a computer. Performed night after night to audiences stunned into silence it’s an act that requires Bilgin to enter a somewhat meditative state.

“The good thing about the act is it really does clear me mentally. It’s not an act with residual stress, like a desk job when you come out of an eight-hour shift and you’re exhausted from it mentally,” he says. “For me it’s a very rejuvenating act mentally but it is very tiring physically.”

It is also a role that brought him out of three years’ retirement from the circus with Bilgin joining the cast just before Empire left its debut town of New York City to tour Australia.

For Bilgin – and most of show’s cast – there is plenty of meaning imbued in Empire’s subtext even if for audiences it’s simply billed as an “outrageous night out”, walking the line between burlesque, circus and comedic cabaret.

“The show for me is really about the last six years including the economic crisis of 2008 and every major theme that has run through those six years,’’ he says.

“There is a facet mirrored in this show – from the Bubble Girl, which for me represents our admiration of all things beautiful even though we just want to trap them in plastic cases, to the Gorilla Girls, which are about ‘sex sells’. . . and I think initially what it was is the branch balance number was about restoring balance at the end."

And now for an added treat! Here's part of's October 2013 interview with Memet. Enjoy!

Tell us how you were approached to be part of Empire?

A fateful phone call, one November day… (that was in autumn, for us northerners).

Who came up with the name “Stick Guy”?

Stick guy just came out of the ether of the show: at one point or another, everyone has gotten a diminutive shorthand name associated with them, and this was the one that stuck with me.

We saw your performance in Empire last time you were in Melbourne. We were gobsmacked at your sheer strength and concentration it took to balance those long sticks, how do you get your mind and body into that shape to perform something so physically draining and impossible for us mere mortals to achieve?

This act really solicits many disciplines I’ve done elsewhere in my life and career. From mime and dance training, to my personal hobby that is freediving, to the strength I got as an ex-aerialist. Ultimately, it is years of being on stage and knowing one’s body and mind.

Where did the stick balancing idea originate from?

The branch balance (or Sanddorn Balance as it’s originally called) came out of a Swiss circus company called Rigolo. Rigolo has been doing these kinds of shows for over three decades, and this was just one of the many original ideas that came from their endless creative process. As with all art, it came about accidentally, and funny enough, this number was originally almost cut from the final show it was in. But thank goodness it wasn’t, and instead was taken to its full potential to what you can see today.

How many hours a day or week do you practice and what does your training involve?

In life, I train in one discipline or another at a very minimum of one hour every day. This is my strict minimum. When we are in creation or rehearsals, it is like a full time job (or even more), with 8 to 12 hour days. Being on tour is a special kind of regimen, and usually involves an hour or so of warmup and/or rehearsal 6 days a week (plus the 2~4 hour “high alert” state you have to remain in throughout the duration of the show). In my younger years when I was doing aerial work, my minimum daily training was more like 2 hours.

Everyone has a bad day, however as a professional how do you ensure that your performance is as flawless as possible?

This is an interesting question and is really, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of being a good performer.

I would say 99% of the effort and energy I put into my performance is in reducing risk and making sure things work properly. From the moment I get up in the morning to after the bows at the end of the show, I’m always aware that there is a performance to be done, and that I am depended upon. On stage, all of that sweat, all of the concentration is entirely dedicated to making sure nothing goes wrong. Sure, sometimes things can go wrong, but it is my job to make sure it’s as close to never as possible. For instance, in over ten years of performing, I have never missed a show, never called in sick (knock on wood). Come rain come shine, Freddy Mercury said it best: show must go on.

What about the sticks? Are they made from any special tree or do they have to be a certain weight?

The branches are dried palm fronds with very minimal treatment. I treat the tips of the branches so that they don’t fray or crack from wear and tear. Otherwise though, they’re just plain old sticks. They are, of course, carefully selected for their weight, but aren’t otherwise special.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
There Must Be Balance
May Balance and Harmony Be Your Aim
A Discerning Balance Between Holiness and Wholeness: A Hallmark of the Resurrected Life
Seeking Balance
The Soul of a Dancer
A Dance of Divine Light
Prayer of the Week – October 28, 2013
A Visit to Melbourne

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