Prophets with Red Noses: What happened when I went to the Subcase Circus Festival in Sweden

Pretty much everyone has, at some point, gone to the circus. However, I imagine relatively few people from the UK have gone to the circus in Sweden. In Britain, Scandinavia has become increasingly known for crime dramas such as Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge. The city of Stockholm has been redefined by Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. You can visit the 7-Eleven convenience store where Lisbeth Salander buys Billy’s Pan Pizzas. However, if you’re looking to programme a Nordic circus show, you can also go to Subcase – one of the few performing arts festivals open solely to industry professionals and producers.

It takes place in Alby, an industrial looking out-of-town area in Botkyrka, half an hour’s bus ride from
Stockholm. It’s one of the poorest parts of Sweden. Subcase’s Artistic Programming Director Kiki Muukkonen describes it as “the ghetto”. This is where Subtopia, the organisation hosting the festival, has  its home and provides year-round performance and rehearsal spaces for artists, filmmakers, musicians, and circus companies including Sweden’s popular Cirkus Cirkör.

I’m here with a group of European journalists to find out what contemporary circus is all about. One thing it isn’t about, apparently, is Cirque Du Soleil. Whenever the multi-million pound phenomenon is mentioned it’s by someone who seems to hate it. It quickly becomes clear the majority of the performers at the festival want to do more than simply dazzle us with visual extravagance and money they don’t have. They want to challenge our expectations and show us something other then red nosed clowns and acrobats ‘flying through the air with the greatest of ease’. They want to make us laugh, gasp and cheer – but also think.

For anyone who’s seen large amounts of political theatre, this might be a chilling prospect. Monologues about why we should never have gone to war in Iraq and endless court case transcripts read out verbatim style aren’t the best advert for performances with ‘things to say’. But circus has something that many small-scale fringe theatre shows don’t – the ability to attract an audience far bigger than a few liberal minded friends who already believe whatever right-on message is being peddled.

“All art is quite useless,” Oscar Wilde once said. But many artists seem to disagree. Pop band Pulp asked us to ‘Help the Aged,’ Bob Geldof to ‘Feed the World’ and the cast of 1980s children’s TV series Grange Hill to ‘Just Say No’ to drugs. Last year’s Festival of the World, at London’s Southbank Centre, even had the tagline ‘Art Will Change the World’. If this is possible, what better way of doing it than through circus – a style of performance that can be seen and understood by audiences all around the globe?

At Subcase, Ruby Rose’s EAT IT! is the show most obviously trying to question the way we think and behave – for me, a bit too obviously. In it, the all-female cast use clowning and other circus disciplines to satirise the way women are encouraged to dislike their bodies. A talk show host does a DIY facelift with gaffer tape, a aerial hoop artist deadpans seductive poses described as the ‘pain au chocolat’ and ‘pomme frite’, and a woman runs around the stage topless in an attempt to break free of it all.

The idea that you can achieve empowerment by stripping off feels about as feminist as a Carry On film – particularly as it’s only one of two options given for escaping the nightmarish universe presented. The other comes via a performer who shakes her body in order to emphasise its fat. Only
she isn’t really fat. She’s thin and fit like the rest of the cast.

While the company are fun and likeable, at times they can feel quite judgemental – like they see us,the audience, as empty vessels in need of educating and politicising. Who doesn’t know that magazines put pressure on women to be thin? Or that trying to live up to other people’s expectations of ‘hotness’ is less important than, say, becoming prime minister or going hang gliding?

The majority of the women depicted in the show are victims of the media or defined purely by their reactions against it. Rarely does anyone appear unaffected by the pressure. When we meet creator/ performer Rebecca Westholm, it becomes clear why.

Rebecca explains how she interviewed 150 women and girls and couldn’t find anyone who liked their body. She also tells me that she read somewhere that one third of Swedish women have had Botox. I question this, but she is adamant the same is also true in London. It isn’t. But for the last two and a half years Rebecca seems to have immersed herself in a world of women who have image and/or eating problems. As a result, this is the perspective she wants to depict on stage.

I ask her what the solution is. “There is no solution,” she replies, raising the question why create a show about the problem at all? Why not just do some clever tightrope tricks and juggling instead? “You as a woman should not hit other women,” she says. I presume she means metaphorically rather than literally – and people generally, rather than me specifically.

The camaraderie between EAT IT!’s performers is ultimately stronger than the hotchpotch of familiar messages that comprise the show. But the company’s ambition to depict women in circus as something other than spangly, featherweight, smiley things in leotards being tossed about by big, strong men is admirable and refreshing.

In the 1970s and 80s, circus began tackling social and political issues. While traditional acts involved sad looking lions jumping through hoops of fire or men with oiled moustaches being shot from cannons, contemporary groups such as Cirque Plume, Cirque Invisible and Archaos challenged audiences and their expectations. Many of the artists at Subcase want to do the same.

Chipmunk Forge’s Phågel is another all-female show at the festival which wants to redefine how
women are portrayed in circus. Unfortunately, the way it does this is so obscure it’s difficult to understand. Dressed in furry cat and bird costumes, performers Klara Mossberg and Lisa Angberg take part in an absurdist cartoon-like caper. There is the odd bit of tightrope walking, mysterious references to “hiding the animal within” and a whole scene that revolves around litter trays. Cirque Du Soleil this certainly isn’t. Quite who is going to buy it at a circus trade fair is unclear. After some painful attempts at stand-up and about ten false endings, I’m intrigued to find out what was going on.

“As female performers it’s often all about being beautiful and doing things you are good at,” Klara explains. “We wanted to break away from this kind of thing.” Sometimes, it seems, by being deliberately bad – not that this makes it any easier to watch. There are some nice moments, such as when the cat and bird swap fighting for friendship, but mostly it’s a disparate and confusing piece.

“I would love a normal audience to enjoy our show – something more experimental,” Klara says, “but that’s not easy.” It’s not, as the infuriated reactions of the majority of our group proves when we discuss it later on over dinner. However, despite Phågel’s problems, it does feel a shame that ideas which sound compelling in a post-show discussion are so difficult to enjoy on stage. Does circus with ‘something to say’ have to be anti-mainstream? If so, it seems unlikely that anyone other than those visiting a trade fair will ever see it.

Cirkus Cirkör’s Knitting Peace is one of the biggest, most high-profile shows at the festival. War is one of its themes – along with the struggle of the artist, the meaning of life, and pretty much anything else you happen to think of. It’s a sumptuous, epic production that includes a terrific musical score, spectacular set, and numerous circus disciplines – often performed simultaneously. It’s a real spectacle and very evocative, but in trying to tackle so many issues it ends up exploring none.

It’s only through talking to director Tilde Björfors afterwards that what we’re supposed to take from it all becomes clear – and even then this is a mixture of abstract, intangible ideas. It’s a beautiful production, but one that can’t change or even highlight the topics it sets out to explore since it’s not sufficiently clear, purely from watching it, what these are.

Slick double act Patrik & Wes aren’t trying to take on politicians, make you boycott Israel, or wear a badge saying ‘I’m a feminist’. The only thing they want to subvert is your preconceptions of throwing clubs in the air. Their show, Between Someonesons, is a stripped back, deceptively simple piece in which they create their own unique rhythm through juggling and dance. Their work is
artistic but accessible. They are one of the few acts at the festival that doesn’t rely upon funding to get by and they can make extra money by selling how-to DVDs to their fans.

‘Commercial’ can seem like a dirty word when it’s used by artists doing more thematically driven or political work. But for Patrik & Wes it’s a way of making more shows that more people can see – which is surely desirable whatever they’re about. Art certainly can’t change the world if it’s being performed to rows of empty seats.

In order to get round the problem that audiences tend to like safe stuff they’re already familiar with, filmmakers sometimes create genre movies that challenge the status quo. Thelma & Louise is a road trip, but also a critique of a male dominated world. Team America: World Police is a musical that makes fun of musicals. Both are entertaining and have plenty to say. Both are very successful. There is no reason why circus can’t also be challenging and commercial.

Maiurta is the one performance we see at Subcase that is quietly subversive, polished,
entertaining and non-patronising. The visiting Catalonian company’s name, Los Galindos, and the trapeze that hangs from the centre of the little wooden tent where it all takes place leads you to expect some kind of death defying flying act. Instead, solo performer Marcel Escolano delivers a wonderfully lo-fi clown show which involves elaborate leaps, jumps and tumbles from the safety of the floor.

He tells us afterwards that the piece was part-inspired by his time as a trapeze artist when he was younger, which he hated. “I was afraid,always, for twelve years,” he says. “I’m not a natural acrobat.” While the show’s not the most provocative thing in the world, it does depict an older clown parodying the high-risk acts of the young in a way that is playfully satirical and not at all preachy.

“I don’t want to be more important than you because I’m in the spotlight,” Marcel says. It’s easier to listen to someone who treats you as an equal, particularly when they’re so talented. It’s the ultimate flattery – and I imagine could lead you to buy into whatever their show had to say, however radical it might otherwise seem. “The revolution is going to be the day when everyone does what they love,” he concludes. This, he explains, will mean that no one will have any power over anyone else. It’s an appealing thought – one that you can’t help thinking would make a great idea for his next production.

As we leave Subcase for the last time, and wade though the blue white snow back to the bus, life in ‘the ghetto’ goes on as normal. Has anything changed? The lively, enthusiastic crowd coming out of Maiurta are certainly different to the sleepy, subdued bunch that went in. Maybe they’ll join Marcel’s revolution, quit the mind-numbing office jobs we might like to imagine they have, and set up high wires in their living rooms? Who knows whether art can change the world, but at its best it makes us believe it can.

Written for Unpack the Arts

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