Bringing contemporary circus to Sweden

When Cirkus Cirkör was established some 21 years ago, it was always going to be about more than simply getting shows into the big top. Maria Roberts repots

Our vision is to change the world through contemporary circus,’ says director of international relations Lars Wassrin. Formerly head of production, he’s been at the company for a decade, and it’s obvious from his enthusiasm that he’s dedicated to the Cirkus Cirkör cause – as well as the company’s pioneering vision, led by founder and artistic director Tilde Björfors.

It’s a grand statement: what artist doesn’t want to change the world through their work? But in the case of Cirkus Cirkör, Björfors backed up her words with actions – she instigated a range of operational offers that would make a real difference to the Swedish circus community and beyond. If charity starts at home, then Björfors is an example of just what can be achieved.

As a 20-something actress influenced by the Cirque Nouveau movement that started in France in the 1970s, she decided to embed a modern philosophy in her own artistic practice. After being inspired by a chance meeting with some circus performers that trained and performed in Paris, the actress made the switch from theatre to circus, and never looked back.

It was to be a life-changing encounter that set into motion Björfors’ momentous decision to introduce contemporary circus to Sweden, where there had previously been no established tradition of the art form, via her own new company Cirkus Cirkör.

Her commitment is unwavering: in 1995, Björfors launched Cirkus Cirkör as a non-profit organisation, then a few years later in 1998 she founded a private corporation strand owned by the non-profit arm. Now Cirkör’s secondary school, continuing education and pedagogical programmes (for both schooling and leisure purposes) are all run by its non-profit organisation; while corporation Cirkör AB (‘AB’ signifying a limited company in Sweden) produces contemporary circus acts and performances for public stages and corporate events.

The real journey began in 1997, when Cirkus Cirkör took possession of a space in central Stockholm and launched a post-high school education programme called Cirkuspiloterna, as well as leisure circus training sessions for kids. This eventually led to the building of a permanent base in Alby, located in the Botkyrka Municipality in the south of Stockholm. Botkyrka, says Cirkör CEO Anders Frennberg, is home to people from all over the world and part of a poorer area of Stockholm.

‘There were a lot of issues here that the Cirkus Cirkör team felt inspired by,’ he explains. ‘Now, through the training schemes, a young person can start in circus aged five, advance to secondary level training and further circus education, before applying for university-level circus training in Paris, Montréal or Stockholm. So there is now an established stairway up to professional level training for Swedish circus artists.’


Cirkus Cirkör, 2013Knitting for PeacePå bild: Alexander Weibel Weibel

In 2005 Cirkus Cirkör was granted the full status of a regional artistic institution, and now receives fixed grants from the Swedish Arts Council, the City of Stockholm, Stockholm County Council and Botkyrka Municipality in order to support its engagement work. ‘From the very beginning, Cirkus Cirkör did not work like an an ordinary performing arts company,’ says Wassrin. ‘It spearheaded a lot of projects and attached itself to a number of social goals. Now it operates more like an institution, working for the progress and the development of contemporary circus in Sweden and around the globe.’

Two decades on and Cirkus Cirkör publishes books, has formalised university-level circus training at Stockholm’s University of Dance and Circus, and Björfors has made history as the first professor of circus studies in the world. Not bad for an accidental tourist. The company also led the establishment of CARE (Circus Art and Research Exchange) to encourage research into the artform. Challenges and issues are shared with other circus companies, including discussions around how to create work in a difficult financial climate or how to focus creative practice on innovation rather than repetition. CARE is made up of seven partner companies from six European countries: Cirk La Putyka (Czech Republic); Circo Aereo (Finland); Cahin-Caha and Un Loup pour l’homme (France); Nordic House (Iceland); Cirkus Xanti (Norway); and, of course Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkör.

The full article is published in Vol 12: Issue 3 of International Arts Manager.