In the Snow and on the Streets – “Circus Artists Are Gradually Sneaking Everywhere” - StageLync
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In the Snow and on the Streets – “Circus Artists Are Gradually Sneaking Everywhere”

Due to our rather challenging climate outside the warm spring and summer months, Finland hasn’t traditionally been known for its street circus scene. However, recently there’s been a change with new outdoor events and circuses with their own touring tents popping up – even in Lapland! Contemporary circus shows in Finland usually take place under a solid roof. In recent years street circus, circus tents set up in different locations, and outdoor events have become increasingly visible. We chatted with a few artists and companies to see what’s going on.
Midwinter outdoor circus in Lapland

Traditional circus certainly has a good, long history in Finland with the most famous company, Sirkus Finlandia, touring the country for almost 50 years. Over the years other tent circuses have also been seen setting up shop on fields and parking lots.

Saarni Sirkus, originating from Rovaniemi, acquired its own tent a few years ago and has now completed two summer tours. This winter they’re teaming up with Tian Zhang, another local entrepreneur, in the creation of Rovaniemi’s Snowglow Winter Park, which is a novel combination of circus shows, light art, and outdoor activities such as ice skating.

The Snowglow Winter Park will occupy Rovaniemi’s Keskuskenttä, a multi-purpose football stadium, from 18 November all the way to 20 March. Saarni Sirkus has a troupe of six circus artists, who will stage a circus performance twice every evening. One of the performing artists is the director of Saarni Sirkus, Aarni Pahajoki.

Pahajoki explains that the circus show is planned so that it can be performed outside in any weather conditions. “Of course, that presents its own challenges to the performers. We need to consider a lot of different things so that it won’t be impossible for anyone. During the four-and-a-half-month period we’re going to perform a few hundred times.” A circus show that’s performed outside during winter for such a long period definitely represents a whole new kind of outdoor performance culture. Pahajoki agrees that their concept is indeed unprecedented. “I don’t know if anything like this, at least on this scale, has been done in Finland before!”

Touring from north to south

In the summer, Saarni Sirkus tours the country with their own tent. Finland is a large country and the long distances between towns, especially further north, set their own limits for touring. During its summer tours, Saarni Circus changed locations once a week, so the pace of the tours, according to Pahajoki, was quite tight. “First, we move, then set up, then have a day off, and for the rest of the week, we perform. Then, directly afterward, we dismantle, move, and start building again. But it’s not quite that simple, of course. There are always new things and challenges to overcome.”

“In addition to the tent, we need a lot of other infrastructure, such as seating, sound and lighting equipment, a performance stage, and a truck with a semi-trailer to transport all this. Although there is a tremendous amount of equipment, the tent is actually the smallest part of it, even though it is the most visible when set up,” describes Pahajoki.

Saarni’s circus tent set up at Haukiputaa in 2023. © Aroi Arya

The traditional circus images associated with tent circuses are also reflected in Saarni’s activities. Many people expect to see animals and red-nosed clowns in the circus tent, but these do not belong to Saarni’s repertoire. “We do things a bit differently. The tent is a very traditional space where various circus acts can be performed, and there hasn’t been much contemporary circus touring in a tent in Finland. It’s enlightening for many viewers that something different can be seen in a tent,” says Pahajoki.

A traveling circus is a good way to introduce contemporary circus to new audiences, especially outside major cities. Pahajoki states that this has been the case for Saarni as well. “We have brought the circus to places where it has been seen less. In almost every location, we also hold open workshops and the audience can come and try various circus props. It doesn’t commit anyone to anything, and it’s free. There’s something in circus for everyone, and we want to make it known in this way as well.”

Turku – From former capital to street circus capital

With restrictions to indoor performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, street circus began to gain more ground in Finland. Street circus activities have been particularly noticeable in Turku, which may be on its way to becoming the capital of street circus in Finland.

During the summer of 2023 Turku was host to not only one but two separate street circus events. In May Circus & Theatre Association Aura Company organized the second edition of Kadunvarsi-etkot, a street circus pre-event of their annual Radanvarsi Festival.

Aura Company’s Just Dont Let Go at 2023’s Kadunvarsi event. © Tapani Teittinen

Aura Company’s Pekka Laamanen has been doing street circus for 16 years, and other members of the company also have a street circus background. Therefore, expanding the Radanvarsi festival beyond indoor venues seemed natural, and the organizers felt that street circus provides a low threshold opportunity for people to see shows. The audience feedback for Kadunvarsi events has been positive, and many have enjoyed the idea of bringing performing arts to urban spaces.

From an artist’s perspective, street circus presents different challenges than a more conventional circus performance, where the audience in the seats is ‘committed’ to the performance for its entire duration. Laamanen reflects, “It is a bit nerve-wracking when you have to think about making the performance interesting for passersby so that they stop to watch.” On the other hand, the audience contact in street circus is more immediate, and some spectators gladly stay to chat with the artist after the performance.

Later in the summer, Turku also hosted another large street circus event at the Old Great Square – the Multi Bueno Festival. The program included about ten performances in one day, both from local and visiting circus artists.

Kai Kuutamo, a Turku-based circus artist who organized Multi Bueno, explains that the idea of the festival was to bring proper European street circus vibes with movable stands, food stalls and all the other works to Turku, and the event succeeded in that. Although the one-day festival was a considerable effort for a small team in terms of organization, permits, and other arrangements, the result was excellent, both for visitors and performers.

Street circus is a form of entertainment that was not familiar to everyone in the audience. One of Multi Bueno’s goals, according to Kuutamo, was to make street performance culture known in Finland. The success of the event suggests that street circus is increasingly interesting to people, and successful events grow further interest.

International performing arts in Salo

In addition to Aura Company’s Radanvarsi festival, another artist-run circus festival has recently established itself in Southwest Finland. Salo Circus Festival was held for the first time in 2019, and since then, the festival has featured a significant number of Finnish and international contemporary circus performances each year. In 2023, the festival focused specifically on outdoor performances.

“I had seen in other parts of Europe, especially in France and Sweden, what kinds of events are organized there, and I wanted to bring something similar to Finland. When I moved to Salo, I thought there could be fertile ground here to organize a performing arts event,” Eikka Alatalo, the festival’s director and founder, recalls the early stages of the festival.

Arctic Ensemble at Salo Circus Festival 2021. © Ville Saarikoski

“From my perspective, there weren’t many places and events to perform in Finland. This is a common experience for many Finnish circus artists and one reason why many of them redirect their careers outside Finland. Local events like the Salo Circus Festival are therefore crucial in determining what kind of job opportunities circus artists have in Finland, especially outside the Helsinki metropolitan area.”

Despite the years of COVID-19, the Salo Circus Festival has found its audience, largely from the nearby areas in Southern Finland, but also farther away – even all the way from Barcelona. According to Alatalo, the festival has regular visitors, and some of them apparently plan their festival visit for the next year as early as in the fall.

Establishing stability is important from this perspective, but often artist-driven events must assemble their budgets from various sources, whose continuity from year to year is not guaranteed. “The hope is to get into the circle of actual festival grants instead of small and uncertain target grants. This would significantly facilitate the planning and development of the event,” reflects Alatalo.

Opportunities for growth but also need for support

Circus activities outside traditional venues are on the rise in Finland. All the operators interviewed for this article have had good experiences collaborating with municipalities and cities. For example, regarding the Salo Circus Festival, Eikka Alatalo is pleased with how the city of Salo has been involved in the festival by providing funding, marketing support, and advice.

Kai Kuutamo performing at Multi Bueno Festival. © Matias Silmunen

Kai Kuutamo points out that local decision-makers are often interested in revitalizing urban spaces with good performances. Aarni Pahajoki of Saarni Sirkus adds that sometimes municipalities could have a better understanding that it’s worthwhile to collaborate with a mobile performance space, as a tent can host various events beyond circus performances.

Pekka Laamanen of Aura Company notes that while street circus is often associated with summer, it is possible to carry out street performances even in less favorable weather conditions, especially in cities in Southern Finland, where, for example, Turku has a heated pedestrian street. Eikka Alatalo reminds of Finland’s strong Christmas market culture, which can provide opportunities for street circus.

Pahajoki also believes in the growth of circus seen in touring and outdoor events. “It’s good that things are happening. I believe that the role of circus will only grow everywhere. We will see circus in places other than tents, as circus art works in many contexts. Circus artists are gradually sneaking everywhere,” says Pahajoki.

So, it’s worth keeping your eyes open when visiting Finland – you might well encounter an unexpected circus performance!

 

This article was originally published at Circus And Dance Finland. / Main image: Saarni Sirkus’s troupe at the SnowGlow Winter Park.

Circus and Dance Finland
Advocacy Organization -FINLAND
We are an independent expert organisation representing the circus and dance sectors in Finland. Our activities are funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture.
We produce and disseminate information about the circus and dance sectors’ activities and actors, conditions, results and impacts, and aim to develop these arts in our country. We also facilitate international cooperation and exports in these fields.
A large part of our activities is carried out in the form of projects for which we seek separate private or public funding. We cooperate on an ongoing basis with numerous Finnish and international organisations working in the performing arts, as well as with Finnish Cultural Institutes and Embassies around the world.

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Circus and Dance Finland

We are an independent expert organisation representing the circus and dance sectors in Finland. Our activities are funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture. We produce and disseminate information about the circus and dance sectors’ activities and actors, conditions, results and impacts, and aim to develop these arts in our country. We also facilitate international cooperation and exports in these fields. A large part of our activities is carried out in the form of projects for which we seek separate private or public funding. We cooperate on an ongoing basis with numerous Finnish and international organisations working in the performing arts, as well as with Finnish Cultural Institutes and Embassies around the world.