By Margareta Sörenson*
Τilde Björfors is the woman who brought cirque nouveau (new circus) to Sweden in 1995. Two decades later, this particular hybrid art form (which combines circus disciplines, dance, mime, music and lyric theatre) is well established in Sweden, with training and education for primary school children to university students. The Swedish national University of Dance and Circus (DOCH) is one of Europe’s most respected in professional training, with BA and MA courses. Tilde herself continues to work in cirque nouveau as a director, most recently with large and reduced-scale versions of Borders and Limits, a multi-disciplinary performance on migration.
When I meet her, during a stolen moment in her busy schedule, she is, of course, late and arrives like a whirlwind, wearing a red jacket and a sun yellow sweater, drinking a cup of green tea. It is said about Tilde Björfors that, if you tell her that something is impossible, that becomes the her starting point. She cannot be stopped. Cirkus Cirkör, the company she established, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015. During those two decades there have been several occasions when it has looked, seriously, as if its adventurous journey was coming to an end. When, finally, new circus education in Sweden was elevated to a place in the university system, she was left outside and had a crisis. Recovery and a new balance in creative work took some time, but, today, she is again in good shape and one of the many to meet the stream of newly arrived refugees in Sweden with training programs and other activities, especially for young people.
“I never worked for the money, but, rather, for creating,” says Björfors:
Cirkus Cirkör was always deeply underfinanced. We always wished to do more than we ever could mobilise in a budget. To me, it is okay. I am used to eating noodles! My inspiration is an art form in which everything is possible. By chance I became the leader, simply because someone had to be. I was the one who always stayed longest at night, turned off the lights and locked the door. And I was the one to start new projects. There was a strong need of a place where circus people could train, just as dance had its centers. I was a bit crazy. I was 24 years old and had no clue. I just got started and did it.
The winding way into new circus started for Björfors at a Rudolf Steiner primary school in south Sweden. The school had invited a theatre teacher, working in the spirit of Grotowski. When Tilde was a teenager and time had come to go to high school, she felt that she was not meant for a traditional school system:
Learning is a great joy. No one tells a baby how to learn crawling, the child learns because it wants to. In the same way, I wanted to learn more and learn new things. Maybe we were a kind of elite class; but we decided that we wanted this theatre teacher as our main teacher and that we wanted to create a high school class with him. He lived in Järna, the center in Sweden for the anthroposophic movement. Other young students from different places in Sweden were brought together, and we started a special high school within the Järna primary school, with one class only! This was 1986; the national board of schools sent inspectors, but we were accepted. We selected and hired the teachers that we wanted to work with, and the whole idea was really working. This lasted only for three years, and then that was that. I have been so lucky! Such wonderful teachers I have met! I had the chance to keep the pleasure of learning.
The school class visited Poland and worked with the ideas of physical theatre more deeply. The human body as an instrument that the actors learn to use is a central point in Grotowski’s tradition, and often there is a profound appreciation of folk and vernacular arts, such as dance and acrobatics. Sometimes this theatre has been called “anthropologic,” as it studies and works with ageless folk arts, whether it be the mask painting from Inuit cultures or voice techniques from the Greek attic theatre.
During school, Björfors’s class worked in a Swedish summer theatre project, which was much-influenced by Théâtre du Soleil and Ariane Mnouchkine in Paris. After leaving school, the next step for Björfors was to go to Paris and cooperate with Théâtre du Soleil and Pei Yan Ling from the Beijing Opera. She also became associated with the circle of Peter Brook, who, following his famous, massive-scale project The Mahabharata, worked in a smaller scale with a work involving African actors entitled The Costume.
Paris meant a first meeting with the “cirque nouveau” in the early 1990s, when new circus had taken a place in its own right within the performing arts. Her neigbours in the Paris house were artists working in a new circus company. Björfors discovered that she could train in the disciplines of the art form in École National de Fratellini in Parc de la Villette.
She saw, and was fascinated by, French companies such as Archaos (an anarchic new circus group which performed using motorbikes and chainsaws), the poetic Cirque Plume, the visual Cirque Baroque, Cirque O, Les Oixa Fous, and Les Arts Sauts. She realised that this was what she wanted to do with her life:
This was a time, when I met many artists—Swedish ones, other Scandinavians and people from other countries. It became evident that we, in Sweden, needed a place where we could be, for training, for rehearsals. We dreamt of great productions that would change Swedish cultural life totally. We were longing for performing arts that moved and struck us the same way as new circus had done. We wanted change!
Our goal was to establish the art form of new circus in Sweden. It was necessary to have a pedagogic plan, a school which would offer education and possibilities to train in circus disciplines. No infrastructure existed, none. My mantra was: “everything is possible.” But it was not that easy to persuade artists to come to Sweden. For our very first circus festival we were able to borrow a theatre in Stockholm which was in a former mechanical workshop. Our company and included two mime artists; one who left mime for acrobatics and one who developed multi-disciplinary skills. I was fairly wild and crazy, I think. We worked very hard and crossed artistic borders. We worked with visuality and tried to shape an aesthetic of our own. Our first productions was The Creation—Out of Chaos Everything Is Born, which was generously invited by a big Stockholm festival, who labelled it “performance art” and “international new circus.” It was programmed for 11 p.m., after all the other shows. However, we got our first bookings, and people wanted to come and train with us. We started to do exchange programs with public schools and borrowed sport halls to host our own training.
For three years, we were able to use a culture house belonging to the city of Stockholm. It was restored and adapted to our needs. We were able to start “The Cirkus Pilots,” in 1997—a training program for college students. In fact, a traditional circus school already existed in Gävle, a city north of Stockholm, which, for a long time, served as the winter quarters of circus companies. Now, we could offer something different: an open stage and a house for professional training.
Björfors always says “we,” but one wonders how much of this “we” was, in reality, her alone. For the world outside new circus she is the profile and the leader of the art form in Sweden.
I think I was the only one who had a vision for the future. Many among us wanted to create a performance, many wanted the training, but I was the one to ask for grants and sponsors. I was the one looking into structures that could help us. Also, the dream of creating a school was mine. I was still the one who stayed the longest in the evenings, and who did the work of founding an association and a company with statutes and a plan; all of which was required to establish the art form in Sweden. On the other hand, I never worked alone, but the people I worked with were different ones all the time.
So, cirque nouveau was established in Sweden. Soon, Cirkus Cirkör was looking for more space and a place in a part of the city that really wanted “to change the world with the help of new circus.” A home was found in a so-called “difficult” suburb in the south of Stockholm, where there was, it was said, “nothing” for young people. The National Touring Theatre, Riksteatern, based in a commune in the same suburb, became a partner. Now, a wide range of activities could grow, for children, teenagers and adults. Five years ago, the training program that was aimed at professional circus moved back to the centre of Stockholm and the National University of Dance and Circus, where, without doubt, circus became the pride of the institution.
Sharing was always my way of thinking. Some of the work was very unconscious, we just went on working. We collaborated with different theatre companies, institutions and art forms—it was great. By and by, we realised that we had become a vitamin kick for others, instead of learning something new ourselves.
Coming into a national college or conservatoire was a great present for us—it meant money and stability. But the process was painful—everyone is longing for a change, but no one wants to change her or himself. At last, the professions of two art forms met, and I realised that I had to let go of this baby. It would be impossible to keep control in my hands forever. Change is in the nature of new circus, as is the crossing of borders.
Extremely long working processes are typical in the work of Björfors and Cirkus Cirkör. After a period of research and testing, the work moves forward to a production, ready to meet its audience. Together with other circus groups in Europe, exchanges and co-projects were established. The 20th anniversary, in 2015, was celebrated with Borders, a huge production for the winter circus in Malmö, in southern Sweden. Here, the city theatre’s actors worked with circus artists around the theme of migration and refugees. In 2016, a smaller touring production, entitled Limits, was produced.
If there are no possibilities to finance long working processes there are other ways. We have tried out work in pre-production, as we did with Knitted Piece. After a second period of rehearsals, Knitting Peace, was born; it has since travelled the world. Through Knitting Peace a residence in Marseille was created, and a recidence at Watermill, the workshop and working place of Robert Wilson in Long Island outside New York.
Borders, also the geographical ones, are the theme of Limits, the now touring production:
To never repeat or reproduce has been my credo. I always want new things to happen. However, I never understood that new circus could be seen as a closed area, as “mine.” My drift was my vision, I never realised that I challenged the power positions of others. Now, I have learnt a lot about this. That other people might not see the “purpose” as I see it, but that they might be more interested in a safe job, power, a career. To work is, for me, euphoric; it took a lot of strength for me to learn to let go, to loosen the grip I had.
Now, the big challenge is to build an infracstructure; to bring together stages and managers; create new stages and venues; and support the art form. If these things do not happen, the new professionals will dissapear once they have their diploma.
When I think of the enormous amount of work achieved, and how much has happened, I almost get tears in my eyes.
For a moment she looks very serious over her conclusion, almost sad. Cirkus Cirkör is today well known internationally and in demand. The art form is blossoming in Sweden; more than 400 international students applied to the DOCH and the circus line in 2016. It would be impossible to describe the work of Tilde Björfors and Cirkör as anything but a great success. Yet, a high price was paid for always learning something new.
*Margareta Sörenson is president of the IATC. She is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, specializing in visual and crossover performing arts, as in the specific case of contemporary puppetry. During the centennial commemoration of August Strindberg (1849-1912), she wrote a play for young audiences on Strindberg and his youngest daughter, showing how the divorce almost broke their relationship, but it was saved in the end. Sörenson is the author of several books on performing arts and children’s culture, and has published a book on Mats Ek, with photos by Lesley Leslie-Spinks.