Swedish Circus Is Not Letting Up The Pace of Innovations - StageLync

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Swedish Circus Is Not Letting Up The Pace of Innovations

It certainly sounds cliched by now to say how nice it is to feel the energy and power of live performance around us again. I will say it anyway. The same is true for professional gatherings, where we are finally out of the screen. My first in-person professional event last year was CINARS 2022, where the innovative talent and coherent representation of the Nordic region got me inspired. 

For its Biennale, CINARS was in its full swing and capacity, presenting 22 shows from eight countries in their official selection and more than 180 performances in the OFF-CINARS. CINARS 2022 took upon itself and exceeded expectations in examining how the pandemic shifted realities and impacted the performing arts ecosystem. Panels, presentations, group discussions, and even artistic creations were curated around topics such as audience diversification, representation, the digital shift and its consequences, and the importance of the environment.

Within this context, the prominence of artists and projects from Nordic countries was noticeable. During the official pitch session, where a jury selected the projects that were given the opportunity to be shared with agents and presenters during the CINARS Biennale, four out of eight selections were from the Nordic region: Carte Blanche—the Norwegian National Company for Contemporary Dance—and choreographer Tony Tran from Norway; Aura of Puppets from Finland; and Teater freezeProductions from Denmark. Even in the exhibition hall, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway presented themselves on a unified platform called the Nordic Square. All this made me even more excited to attend the Swedish circus showcase that brought together an inspiring and diverse array of artists and creations. I was eager to have a conversation with showcase organizer Mette Klouman, founder of the agency   Illimité, and one of its presenters, Viktoria Dalborg, Artistic Director of Kompani Giraff, about their work and circus in Sweden.

Talking to Mette and Viktoria brought up memories from Tilde Björfors’ interview with CircusTalk from 2018. I couldn’t help seeing in Viktoria and Mette a continuation of the work and mission that Tilde began in the early 1990s when contemporary circus first started to boom in Sweden. The roots of contemporary Swedish circus go back to a young theater artist: Tilde herself, who got inspired by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil and founded Cirkus Cirkör, and the rest is history. I remember Tilde sharing in the interview how she has viewed circus from the beginning as a mode of creation that responds to the paradigm thateverything is possible. “Circus is all about the risk, and making the risk a possibility while it transcends boundaries between art forms and bodies,” she said. She also talked about the matriarchal nature of the circus arts—and here I am with two powerful women from Swedish circus who carry the legacy of those founding roots. 

Andrea: We all have had unique journeys into the magic of circus. What were your journeys? Besides the physical course of events that brought you to this art form, I am most interested in knowing, what was your inner drive, the more transcendent piece that captured you about circus?

Mette Klouman, Illimité Agency and Production Manager of Kompani Giraff

Mette: I started out as an actress and performed with various independent companies during the early 90s. I had always been passionate about literature and gradually switched over to that field after a few years of university studies. I then spent 15 years as an editor at a big publishing house, but started to feel that I really missed the performing arts and that I needed a more extroverted line of work. I went to a job coach, who after a series of personality tests and interviews, just shook her head and said, “I really don’t know what to tell you—maybe you should run away with a circus?” I thought that was a brilliant idea, so I contacted Cirkus Cirkör. I ended up spending a decade there, working in marketing and international relations, before I quit to form my own Swedish circus agency. Today I work mostly with Kompani Giraff, but I also do some lecturing and PR work for Swedish circus. 

I love circus for its way of communicating feelings and experiences so directly from body to body. I also love the fact that circus is such a warm, extroverted, generous, and globally accessible community. Circus has become my home. 

Viktoria:Circus came into my life quite late. I started with acting schools, and I was also educated at a mime and clown school. When I was 25, I worked with a theatre director who wanted me to learn some basic circus skills for a performance, such as walking on a wire and doing some basic tricks with the trapeze and tissue. I took private classes and started to get to know more and more circus artists. I became more and more obsessed and passionate about the art form, and the challenging training was so fun. When stepping into the circus community, I found a generous family culture and creativity side-by-side with the adrenaline I got from training in aerial acrobatics. I was a fast learner and I felt somehow that I found myself through circus.

Circus art stimulates my mind, and when seeing a strong circus performance, I get the same sensations as if listening to a great piece of music. Circus speaks to me at a “larger than life” level. I believe circus and other physical art forms have the potential to lead us into unexplored places within ourselves.

Andrea:  I love how you both—independent of each other—commented on the powerful driving force of your local circus community.  Can you tell us about the Swedish and the Nordic circus community and ecosystem? 

Viktoria Dalborg, Artistic Director of Kompani Giraff

Viktoria:I would describe the Swedish circus community as fast-growing, creative, generous and supportive. Artists based and educated in Sweden often start their own companies and create their own shows as well as work in other companies’ shows. At Stockholm University for the Arts (SKH, formerly DOCH), the school of dance and circus,  students get a broad education and learn  how to work in both ensembles and as solo artists, and study entrepreneurship. In parallel with their artistry, many circus artists sometimes work as circus pedagogues for children and youth which creates a nice ecosystem of learning.

Funding bodies such as the Swedish Arts Grant Committee are designed to give support to individual artists, but if you as an artist wish to apply for one of the other funding bodies such as the Arts Council, regional and/or city funding, you need to have a company. There are training spaces open daily in six cities all over Sweden; there are also an increasing number of circus courses for children and youth, as well as youth circus groups. Cirkus Cirkör and the municipality of Botkyrka are running an upper secondary school in circus that is of great importance for the field. At SKH, you can study circus at the Bachelor, Master, and/or PhD level as well as take an independent course in circus.

It´s expensive to live in Stockholm, but the educational system is supported by the government and does not cost anything for EU members. We have a good infrastructure and support system to tour circus shows for children and youth, and more venues have started to program circus on a regular basis. In 2021 Riksteatern—the national theatre company of Sweden—was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to promote the development and spread of contemporary circus throughout the country. This is to create better conditions for circus artists to work in Sweden and, at the same time, make the art form available to a larger audience. 

I have had many different roles and worn many hats in the Swedish circus community,  first as a student, then as a circus artist, producer, director. Iworked atManegen, the national circus organization, and in  education at SKH. Now I am running Kompani Giraff full-time, and we collaborate with freelance circus performers. Our shows tour in Sweden and internationally, mostly for younger audiences. As a company, we are currently searching for our own space in Stockholm where we can create, rehearse and administrate.

Andrea: Thanks for this overview, Viktoria. Mette, I am curious to learn how your role as an agent/manager fits into this ecosystem. How do you work with artists and companies, and how do you select the projects that you want to work with? 

Mette: Great overview, Viktoria! I’ll add that we are fortunate in Sweden to have had contemporary circus as an active art form for a long time. Cirkus Cirkör was founded in 1995, and even before that, we had smaller circus groups around the country. Just as Viktoria said, the scene is really booming right now, with lots of new circus companies that are gaining momentum by creating new performances and touring them all over Sweden. Many of them took the best possible advantage of the pandemic by reinventing themselves. 

Personally, I started working in circus in 2010, when I joined Cirkus Cirkör as a research producer for Tilde Björfors, who was then working on her professorship at DOCH. I later worked in marketing and finally spent about six years in international relations and sales. Since starting my own contemporary circus agency in 2020, I’m now working full-time as head of production at Kompani Giraff, but during the last two years, I’ve also been the manager for Manegen and done some lecturing and producing at SKH. In November 2022, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee gave me the opportunity to bring five Swedish circus companies to CINARS, which was absolutely amazing experience. I would say that the last ten years have given me great insight into Swedish circus and a fantastic network of circus friends all around the world. 

Andrea:Mette, how did you choose the artists and shows that you brought to the CINARS showcase, and what inspired you about them?  Is there a palpable trend or style in these new creations that stood out for you?

Mette:I wouldn’t say that the companies that were chosen represent a certain trend or style. They do represent a younger form of Swedish circus, though, that is very diverse, creative, and forward-thinking. They are also some of the best companies that Sweden has to offer at the moment. In choosing which companies to bring to Montreal and CINARS, I wanted to make sure that they represented a very broad perspective of Swedish circus. Between them, they cover everything from large-scale performances that tour the world to smaller children’s productions. 

AndreaI would love for our readers to get a sneak peek at these companies and artists and their creations. Let’s dive in by asking Viktoria to share with our readers her opening presentation, the mission of Kompani Giraff, and their productions that are available for touring now.

Viktoria:Kompani Giraffwas founded in 2011. Our main mission is to create high-quality performances for children and youth, but we also play for grown-up and family audiences. Since 2020, we have had five people running the company: me and Mette, Sus Soddu, Axel Adlercreutz, and Stefan Karlström. We all wear many different hats and often shift roles depending on the workflow.

Artistically, we are visually driven and often combine circus with contemporary magic, object manipulation, dance, acrobatics, and other movement-based expressions.We carefully prepare for each new creation, working out ideas and concepts down to the smaller details, often already with an idea of ​​the chronology of scenes in mind. We tend to have the set design, costumes, music, and props ready at the start of the rehearsals. Unlike how, for example, theater companies work, where set design and props usually are ready during the last week of rehearsals, in a circus show, I think that is very crucial to give the performers maximum time to try out the set and props.Kompani Giraff likes to work with circus artists who are emotionally present, multi-talented, highly technically skilled, and creatively a bit outside the box. We work mainly with freelance artists, but we dream of a longer-term ensemble and/or longer-term collaborations.   

At the moment, we are touring four different shows for children and youth between 3–18 years, and some of them we also play for grown-up audiences and families. This spring we will premiere a fifth touring show, “Goldberg Variations,” with one juggler and a dance acrobat that will be available for international touring. In 2024, we will premiere “An Inventory of Losses” with four circus artists and a puppeteer. We are currently looking for artists for this show and also co-producers and collaborators.

Our big dream for 2023/2024 is to get our own space with an office, workshop and rehearsal area, but it’s very difficult in Stockholm to find something affordable for a circus company. Right now we are waiting for some answers regarding a rental contract from a house owner, so let’s see what’s around the corner.

Andrea: I’ve heard circus professionals referring to Kompani Giraff as Sweden’s next Cirkus Cirkör, so I am excited to see and follow the company’s development.  Mette, can you introduce us to the other presenters at the showcase?

Mette: Below Zero is a young company that is run by four Swedish circus artists:  Axel Ahl, Sara Runsten, Klara Sköldulf Philipp, and Lukas Ivanow. They make performances in different constellations, ranging from all four of them on stage to one or two on stage. They are a very ambitious company that will for sure make themselves known worldwide in the years to come. Their show PACE is one of my personal all-time favorites. 

Svalbard Company might be the most internationally well-known of the companies that went to Montreal; they toured the world a few years ago with the performance “All Genius All Idiot.” The four-member company is very international, consisting of a German, a Spanish, an English, and a Greek circus artist. They all live in different countries, but come together in Sweden to create innovative, edgy performances and installations. Tom Brand is currently working on a show that will probably premiere in 2024, so keep an eye out!

CIRK L is a company founded by Magali Bancel, who is the head of circus development at Riksteatern, and her husband, Mattias Lindström, one of Sweden’s best circus riggers. Their latest production, “Sinfonia Volante,” reflects this, as it is a massive outdoor, high-flying creation that is performed on and around a specially designed rig. Based on wall acrobatics, the circus artists and musicians who hang from ropes and in harnesses make the airspace their stage. 

Last but not least is Emil Dahl, who is one of Sweden’s most innovative jugglers, or “balancer,” as he prefers to call himself. Through years of research, he has developed a one-man performance called “HOLY” that combines the aesthetics of simplicity with juggling in its purest form to create an intimate and quite breathtaking experience that evokes a sense of reverence. 

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The Swedish circus showcase at CINARS 2022 was a testament to the fact that in the years since Cirkus Cirkor first took the stage, the Swedish circus scene has not let up on the pace of its innovations. Circus in Sweden keeps cross-pollinating with other art forms while drawing in new creators and audiences as it keeps expanding. New companies and creators are on the rise throughout Sweden, all of them trying to see what else and what more can be done with the circus arts. We at CircusTalk are glad to give a voice to these creators, and we invite producers and presenters to read about them and browse their profiles in the CircusTalk company and show database. 

All images are courtesy of the artists.
Main image: Kompani Giraff  "Vi är Luftens Drottning,"  @Photo by Sören Vilks
Andrea Honis
Co-Founder and COO of StageLync -United States
Andrea co-founded StageLync, a revolutionary platform providing access to live performing arts, which emerged from the merger of CircusTalk and TheaterArtLife. In 2017, she founded CircusTalk, an online community for the international circus arts, aiming to create a level playing field for professionals by offering access to information, jobs, and networking. Andrea, a fifth-generation member of the Hungarian Eötvös-Picard circus family, saw CircusTalk grow to over 37,000 members from 193 countries in seven years, leading to its expansion beyond circus arts and the subsequent merger and the birth of StageLync. Before CircusTalk, Andrea worked in advertising and performing arts management, serving as Assistant Producer at Lincoln Center’s "Reel to Real" series. She holds a BA in Business Administration and an MFA in Performing Arts Management from CUNY.

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Andrea Honis

Andrea co-founded StageLync, a revolutionary platform providing access to live performing arts, which emerged from the merger of CircusTalk and TheaterArtLife. In 2017, she founded CircusTalk, an online community for the international circus arts, aiming to create a level playing field for professionals by offering access to information, jobs, and networking. Andrea, a fifth-generation member of the Hungarian Eötvös-Picard circus family, saw CircusTalk grow to over 37,000 members from 193 countries in seven years, leading to its expansion beyond circus arts and the subsequent merger and the birth of StageLync. Before CircusTalk, Andrea worked in advertising and performing arts management, serving as Assistant Producer at Lincoln Center’s "Reel to Real" series. She holds a BA in Business Administration and an MFA in Performing Arts Management from CUNY.