Between 11 and 14 February 2015, Stockholm was bustling with contemporary circus activity even more than usual. Subcase Circus Fair was celebrating its 7th edition and attracted producers, programmers and other professionals from all over the world. Eager to be introduced to the newest Nordic contemporary circus productions, they came together in the aptly named cultural cluster Subtopia in the suburb Alby, where several circus companies and other cultural organizations of different sizes are located. While some performances could be seen in venues downtown, most of Subcase took place in Subtopia’s buildings, such as studio’s in the main building, but mostly in a large venue down the road, called the Hangaren. This 2300m2 former warehouse for wood, now turned into a multipurpose venue for contemporary circus, cross-medial performing arts, film and events, was decorated with charming details such as a digital fireplace at the entrance and real pine tree branches hanging from the ceiling. The large space was divided up into smaller areas, including two black box theater spaces, a ticket office, information desk, restaurant area, meeting space and market place.
Since it is a fair and not a festival, Subcase is not open to the public – only contemporary circus professionals can attend, paying a flat fee of 550 krona [about 58 euros] for the whole program. Subcase facilitates meetings between artists, companies, programmers, producers, students, researchers, funders and journalists, so it is constantly buzzing with conversation. After having seen a performance, professionals can easily meet the artists or other company representatives during lunch, dinner or in the market place that is predestined for this goal. This way, Subcase seems to achieve its main aim well, which is to ‘support Nordic artists in developing partnerships and connecting with the Nordic and international performing arts markets.’
Something for everyone
This well-organized event includes 9 full length shows, 7 works in progress and a few tours and lectures that serve as an introduction to contemporary circus in Sweden. Artistic director Kiki Muukonen wanted Subcase to be a good representation of Nordic contemporary circus, with a wide range of genres, styles and companies. Diversity is also clearly visible in the group of representatives from cultural organizations who were asked to select artists and companies from the 51 applications that came in. It included people from the Copenhagen International Theatre (Denmark), Cirko Center for New Circus, Helsinki Festival (both Finland), JONK Festival (Sweden) and Re Re Riga Festival (Latvia).
Together, they curated a program which must have something for everyone – from youth or family oriented shows like the color- and tasteful Marmelade by Claire Parsons Co from Sweden or the quirky and folkloric Land of the Happy by the young Finnish company Sirkus Aikamoinen, to work based on more abstract experimentations with materials such as rope, light and sound, such as Handspun by Ilmatila from Finland and the nouvelle magie in Swedish Cie Vu’s Artifice. Where Cie Betti Combo (an exception from France) offered tongue-in cheek fun with buckets and genders suitable for most ages, the Angela Wand Show, a work in progress by an exuberant and edgy American performer living in Sweden, provided very funny but much more adult entertainment.
She is but one of many non-Swedes who have ended up in Stockholm, if not to work with companies like Circus Arts or Cirkus Cirkör, then often to study, teach or do research at DOCH, a higher education institute which started a bachelor degree program in contemporary circus in 2005.
The importance of artistic research
Dr. John-Paul Zaccarini, who headed a seminar about artistic research during Subcase, also moved to Sweden to contribute to the development of contemporary circus there. This UK born director, researcher and teacher used to tour the world as a rope artist with for instance DV8 Physical Theatre, Archaos and Company FZ, of which he was co-artistic director. In 2012 he completed his PhD thesis, which takes a psychoanalytical [or circoanalytical] approach to the circus artist and his/her practice. During his interesting lecture, he made the distinction between research for a product [a finished, marketable act or show] and artistic research that is more about the process of discovering what circus can be, how it can be approached, what kind of knowledge it involves, et cetera. This doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a finished performance – it is the process itself that is the most important.
Sweden already had a strong tradition of artistic research in other art forms and contemporary circus is starting to investigate its own approach to it. Zaccarini’s colleague Marie André Robitaille – a former artist from Canada, now active in education and research at DOCH and artistic director of the Gynoïdes project – takes it in a different direction, investigating feminist strategies in circus composition. Her work in progress at Subcase involved an all-female cast, dressed in skin-colored costumes, showing some results of experiments with circus techniques and sound. This led for instance to a striking, raw and vocal hoop act that was skillful, elegant, primal and jarring all at once, and certainly pushed some boundaries. In other moments, playful but basic collective displays of female strength and virtuosity could suddenly move without seeming to try to. It would be interesting to see which parts will survive when the project, after years of research, will eventually lead to a longer performance at the end of 2015.
Another interesting result of artistic research in contemporary circus came from Louise Bjurholm and Henrik Agger, partner acrobats who have been working together since 2001 and starred in for instance Cirkus Cirkör’s Wear it Like a Crown. During Subcase they performed Extreme Symbiosis, an investigation of the interaction between them. It was originally presented as a result of research they conducted for a Master’s program at DOCH and was not meant as a performance. As a live fragment of their daily training together, executed in front of a screen showing old footage of them performing the same movements over and over again through the years in many different contexts – from training halls to traditional circus tents all over the globe – it provided deep and surprisingly moving insights into what the practice of a partner acrobat is really about. It was remarkable to see something so understated – with no stage lights, make-up, costumes and only a little music – have such a strong emotional impact.
Fresh perspectives on contemporary circus
Another more experienced artist who dares to see and show what is going on beneath the surface is Johan Wellton [pictured above], a street artist and juggler with 15 years of experience. Despite having a commercially viable career, he started feeling empty and dissatisfied and ended up in an improvisation class led by American actor and musician Stephen Rappaport. They started a process together that after 3 years of experimentation became the 80 minute performance Glitch. The time taken is clearly visible in the result, which is very rich, layered and daring. As it involves a lot of semi-improvised speech, pyrotechnics and very carefully composed light and sound engineering, it is quite a risky enterprise. There is plenty of room for error and unevenness, but at the same time it feels fitting for a show that addresses themes such as control, failure, feeling alive and being in the here and now. Some moments were highly exhilarating, others borderline exasperating, but overall it was a very memorable experience.
Counterbalancing the soul-baring types of ingenuity were lighter, quirkier performances by two young all-male groups: the Svalbard company and the trio Sisters, all graduates of DOCH’s bachelor program. The first offered fascinating fragments of earthy, funny madness in progress, where categories between man and animal, dead and alive were blended, twisted and turned upside down – resulting in hand-to-hand with a semi-interred base, among many other things. Again it will be interesting to see what will survive the creation process and live on in the final performance.
Clockwork by Sisters was an amusing, accessible, well-balanced mix of incredible teamwork, goofy male humor and technical creativity. The way existing circus apparatuses like Chinese pole and slack wire were attacked, showed the time taken by the group to investigate new ways to treat their technical material, making it feel very fresh. The energy of and chemistry between the three very different artists was infectious. The group has been touring quite successfully so far, and judging from the reactions of the Subcase audience, it will continue to do so.
There are many things to take away from the multifaceted experience that was Subcase 2015, but what struck me most was the focus on innovation and experimentation that was present in almost every performance or presentation. The program was a good representation of the many levels on which ingenuity can manifest itself, and the diversity of the results it can lead to. New ground is being broken in the Nordic countries, that much is clear; especially in Sweden and Finland, where the infrastructures for contemporary circus are a bit more developed than in other Nordic countries. Let’s hope these new conceptions of contemporary circus make it out into the wider world, which is of course exactly what Subcase is for.
Subcase takes place every February in Stockholm, Sweden. For more information, see: http://www.subcase.se