In a recent feature for the Skinny, Róisín O’Brien asks, why is circus so popular? Speaking to two circus performers – Bram Dobbelaere from Belgian company Cie Ea Eo, and independent artist Ellie Dubois – she parses the gap between old and ‘new’ circus (which has been hanging around since the 1970s), and the seemingly untarnished thrill of modern circus. Two notable observations come out of the piece: firstly, it is more usual to respond with vague awe than informed interest about circus itself, still the domain of stunts and shock as it is; secondly, seemingly working against this bland awe, circus has moved from travelling tents to the theatre, and has begun to employ many of the techniques – emotional, structural – of theatre in its presentation.
This internal contradiction of reception and presentation lies at the heart of Swedish company Cirkus Cirkör’s morally engaged, well-meaning but somewhat straining Limits. Its performers have clearly asked themselves, what is circus for? If it is so popular, how can its popular platform be used for something other than pure entertainment? Their answer is to create a loosely narrative work inspired by the migrant crisis, laden with some shocking statistics about the numbers of people forced to leave their homes every hour, and drawing on the stories of two immigrants to Sweden, Qutaiba Aldahwa and Javid Heidari, who have fled Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, so worthy of the attention of the complacent European middle class. The probem is: the audience are here to see some backflips. They’re here to see Sarah Lett spinning like a dervish bacchante on a lyra. They’re here to watch flying acrobat Saara Ahola balance in a handstand on Peter Åberg’s uplifted arms, her legs in box splits, even as she warmly draws comparisons between the act of balancing and the metaphorical necessity of global movement to keep the earth in balance. They’re especially here for Åberg’s stage-filling charisma and his musical juggling, though doubtless they appreciate his naturalness with delivering awkwardly devised monologues about the wretched state of Europe’s immigration laws and hostility to immigrants.
The show is so scattered with morality lessons that there is a worry they will become like ball bearings under the feet of the performers, eventually tripping them up when they’re trying to do a trick. Cirkus Cirkör make clumsy comparisons between training for circus and opening our borders to terrified, desperate human beings in need of help, using analogies that range from a little daft to patently absurd. Particularly unforgettable is Ahola’s observation that, as she and Lett cats-cradle themselves through aerial silks, limits can be good for the body in training, but it’s important to work towards strength and suppleness, to prepare for the work of a circus performer; in the same way, we should prepare our European bodies, our countries, for the arrival of migrants. I mean, it’s true, I suppose? For the given value of true? I guess? But also? This could be so much more clearly expressed – perhaps without the aerial silks? Just a thought?
The second half, admittedly, fares better than the first. Seemingly implausible metaphors from the first half make a little more sense as they are developed in the second. There is an anecdote, told in the voice of either Aldahwa or Heidari, describing a man phoning his younger brother back home and realising how much he misses him. This is followed by some teeterboard acrobatics from Einar Kling-Odencrants and Anton Graaf, which play on a fraternal dynamic. Here is the successful marriage of theatrical and circus techniques which O’Brien uncovers in her feature, a success that is unfortunately too rare in Limits.
There is some hope that the piece, delivered in brightly coloured, neo-clownish, ‘hippie casual’ costumes as it is, will at least appeal to and provoke questions from the children in the audience. Limits does sit a little unsurely in that regard: the aesthetic feels sweet and CBeebies, but Åberg definitely swears (“pissing on a chicken”) and some of the metaphors are really quite complex. No one embodies this confusion as clearly as the one-man band providing soundtrack, Samuel Andersson, who is by turns jovial and bouncy, and pure Nordic rock. (“I love the band,” my companion says happily. “He’s what would happen if System of a Down all became one person and then ran away to the circus.”)
Is Limits a good piece of circus? It is certainly very entertaining, charming, and as filled with gasp-inducing stunts as the next piece of circus. Is Limits a good piece of theatre? Unfortunately, no it is not, despite the truisms so stumblingly delivered. It is a credit to Cirkus Cirkör that they have attempted to take on such a serious and urgent subject matter; it is a shame they don’t quite pull it off.
Cirkus Cirkör were performing at the Royal Festival Hall. Click here for more details.