The show begins. A bearded man’s shadowed profile engulfs the white wall of a fabric tent. Wire figurines of circus performers spiral around him. This whimsical opening signals that the next few hours will be filled with pleasant storytelling. The oom-pah-pah of a bass trombone, and the sweet melody of an accordion are a warm invitation to Circus Days and Nights, the latest collaboration between Tilde Björfors, director of Cirkus Cirkör, and composer Philip Glass. Based on writings by Robert Lax, the production creates an affectual experience. There is rolling poetic text, gorgeous vocal arrangements, stunning circus feats, and delicious design features. But more than anything, I was left abuzz with a sensation that sits amongst and between these elements–a sensation that feels hard to pin down. It’s part nostalgia, part fantasy. It feels like being on a journey–when you are simultaneously propelled by history and summoned by the future, which creates a palpable immediacy to the present moment.
Lax’s trilogy of long poems, “Circus of the Sun,” “Mogador’s Book,” and “Sunset City,” which comprise his publication Circus Days and Nights, are products of his time spent traveling with and recording the lives of the Crisitiani family in the mid 20th century. By immersing himself in the circus lifestyle but maintaining his role as an observer, Lax extracted an essence of not just circus as a performing art but circus as life. And in reciprocity, his poetry also captures what life has to gain from circus. His poems are valuable ethnographic accounts of acts the Cristianis performed as well as the lifestyle of the traveling production.
The show’s liberetto, a collaboration between David Henry Hwang and Björfors, teased out phrases from Lax’s work that highlight circles and cycles. References to Christianity are far more overt in Lax’s writing than they are in the production, but the show robustly presents the themes of ritual and repetition. Lax compares the macro cycles of nature and life to the micro cycles of the circus, specifically the daily setting up and tearing down of the circus tent. I have often read and heard the magic of the circus compared to a religion. By watching performers overcome gravity or do the impossible, it is something that gives faith, hope, a sense of energy and accomplishment beyond the terrestrial world. This feeling is prominent in Lax’s work and preserved in the stage production.
The show has a philosophical air. It loosely follows how Lax organized his writing: morning, afternoon, evening, midway, and night. (I appreciated that the traditional midway, being a liminal space, was considered a time more than a place.) There are characters but no dramatic conflict. As lightning designer Ellen Ruge said, the show is like an impressionistic painting. Your eye and ear keep moving across the canvas; moments are brush strokes full of color and texture.
Hugely impressive circus skills polka dotted the two and a half hours. All performers displayed the high level technique and multidisciplinarity that has come to be expected from Cirkus Cirkör. Stand out performances were given by Aaron Hakala and Andreas De Ryck who displayed ambitious and impeccable skills on teeterboard. Peter Åberg’s juggling sequences were exquisite, and Pierre Heault opened the show with a gorgeous swinging trapeze routine. I wanted to see more of the expressive Karolina Blixt and Simon Wiborn in their joint ringmaster-like roles.
The show was a live streamed event, and therefore had a few predictable compromises. While it was hugely satisfying to hear applause from the fifty or so live audience members in real time, it was also a bit lonely and disconnected to watch it online. The multiple camera angles allowed for beautiful close-ups of performers, but sometimes a spectacular feat was cut off by the framing, or I was remiss that my eye was being directed rather than free to wander around the stage. The challenging directorial task of creating full stage pictures for a live audience and keeping the virtual audience engaged through shifts in perspective was overall thoughtful and very well-done. The virtual audience was even treated to a special aerial view of the big top’s canvas spiraling in preparation to be pitched.
Glass is well known for his iconic use of repetition, which can create an intense driving affect or a meditative lulling. The score to Circus Days and Nights seemed a bit of a departure from this quintessential motif, but was satisfying nonetheless. In a short video of interviews played during the intermission (linked below), Björfors comments on the constant and life long repetition necessary for circus performs to excel at their craft. This is true of opera as well, and due to each discipline’s specificity, when these performers are placed side by side on stage, it is easy to end up with a multidisciplinary work in which they simply share the stage rather than truly fusing the two performance genres. Circus Days and Nights does both. It waxes and wanes between highlighting Glass’s complex composition, outstanding vocal performances, thrilling circus skills and more dramatic, narrative moments; each segment drifts to the forefront of the production and then recedes again into an enmeshment of the genres.
Circus Days and Nights joins a canon of work in which circus and opera have been fused, specifically in conjunction with Glass’s compositions. His Portrait Trilogy have welcomed Gandini Juggling, which wove juggling into Akhnaten (2019), Björfors layered Satyagraha (2016) with circus elements, and Daniele Finzi Pasca meshed circus with Einstein on the Beach (2019). This production also adds another title to the list of shows that, to me, are period pieces about western traditional circus. Two recently examples from here in the US are Circus 1903 (2017) and Cirque Mechanics 42’ (2018), both of which, through acts, costume, set, story, and mood, pay homage to the vibe and aesthetics of traditional circus. But this production takes it one step further.
Lax’s poetry translated circus into words. This production filters Lax’s text and infuses it back into performing circus bodies. The alchemy that has occurred through this double distillation has created a show that taps into the intangible feeling of nomadic troupes in which art and business were tied with familial bonds and there was no boundary between circus and life, life and circus. Lax’s character appears at three ages, a young boy, a young man (played by bright-eyed Margaux de Valensart) and an older man (played by joyful Anton Ljungqvist). The spectator experience is also doubled: we witness Lax observing the circus, asking questions about how the performers do what they do with such grace. Mogador (played by the sincere Nikolas Pulka) replies during a quiet moment, “The flesh doesn’t lead the spirit nor the spirit the flesh.” Through Lax, and now through the live production of Circus Days and Nights, the audience gets to step inside circus in a unique and intimate way.
Featured image: Performer Nikolas Pulka. Photo credit: Mats Bäker.