Circus News

From Plan to Premiere: Creating a Show with Cirkus Cirkör

I’m standing on the stage at Södrateatern in Stockholm, hands linked with some of my closest friends, taking our third bow as the audience rises to their feet. Four years ago, almost to the day, I was sitting at the back of the first balcony in this very same theatre, watching my first Cirkus Cirkör show. I remember the excitement of having just started circus school, and fantasizing (somewhat ambitiously, I thought) that one day I might play in this beautiful theatre. Now here I am, and we just played our show  Bloom in the city for the first time. 
How Did I Get Here? (Once in a Lifetime…)
hand to hand duo
Acrobatic duo Elisabeth Künkele and Ben Collis. Photo credit: Klara G.

How does one go about getting a job like this? It’s pretty close to being a dream job by my standards. I’m touring a show that I’m excited by,Bloom, created by my friends and I, on a full and well-supported tour, paid the sum we should be. I don’t want to sound smug, we worked hard to get here and I really believe that our circus world would be better if more performances were created in this way and had the support that we had.

Cirkus Cirkör has had a pattern of making a big show every couple of years and overlapping the creation of one with the tail end of the previous tour. With this creation, they wanted to do something different, to reach the venues and towns where their previous shows didn’t fit, to be lightweight and adaptable.

Bloom is a collaboration between Cirkus Cirkör and three cultural institutions: Cirkus i Väst, Nycirkus Öst and Södra Teatern. It is the result of an open call. A very open open call. Some of you might have seen it, if my memory serves me it went something like this: Are you a director? Group of acrobats? An acrobat who wants to be in a group? A director who wants to direct a group of acrobats? A juggler? Juggling club?… Basically it was as open as an open call could possibly get. I find it quite brave of Cirkör to take this approach and I’m very pleased that it has worked out.

I think that part of the reason we got this opportunity was that we basically offered all the ingredients for a show on a plate and Cirkör pressed the go button. We were already planning to make a show together. Elisabeth Künkele, Philomène Perrenoud, Felix Greif and I graduated from Doch School of Dance and Circus in the same class in the spring of 2018. Sofia Mendez finished Codarts Circus Arts a few years ago and came to us through another classmate who was originally intended to be part of the project. We had got to the stage of booking residencies and were ready to take the long road to making a show over the course of a year or two. We already had quite a lot to go on, and when the Open Call came out, we jumped on it. After a few weeks of intense writing and developing, we applied. Apparently Cirkör received an overwhelming number of applications from every continent but Antarctica, and somehow after two interviews, we were lucky enough to be chosen. Looking back to that period, I still get excited to realise that all that work paid off and we got the job. So in the end, we applied with a fairly well-developed project. We had a cast, directors, disciplines, a concept, background research, etc. Importantly, we all knew each other beforehand and actively wanted to work together, avoiding the potential clash of forcing together artists unknown to one another.

Before I go further, perhaps I should introduce us. I’m Ben Collis, and I work with Elisabeth Künkele as a hand to hand duo called Analogue Acrobatics. Felix Greif and Philomène Perrenoud are teeterboarders going by the name Team Red Pants and Sofia Mendez does rope and straps. The five of us made the show Bloom, directed by Sade Kamppilla of Sirkus Aikamoinen and Julien Auger of La Meute and 100% Circus. Together they are the brains behind Circus I Love You.

Pre-Creation (What to Do With All This Enthusiasm?)
Banquine trio
Bloom artists Felix Greif, Ben Collis and Philimēne Perrenoud perform a banquine maneuver. Photo credit: Mats Bäcker.

We had a slightly unusual scheduling situation making this show.DirectorsJulien and Sade were on tour a lot with their show  Circus I Love You, which meant we had to complete the creation four monthsbeforethe date of the premiere.

We had six weeks scheduled in Feb-Mar 2019 to work with the directors at the creation studio in Cirkör’s home in Stockholm. We knew that to make a show we are excited about we would need more time, so before the official creation period we spent an extra six weeks of our own time focused on technical training. We were in the training hall on the 1st of January to kick- start the process. 

Sofia joined us from Costa Rica after a few weeks and we had a focused period of training, trick creation, collating sequences of material, and dreaming. We had quite an ambitious plan that involved us all learning some pretty intense new skills. Philo learned to stand on top of the Perch Pole. Elisabeth learned hair hanging. Felix learned to do a handstand on the Perch and base banquine. Sofia learned to transfer her aerial skills to perch and hold the mat for high jumps with Elisabeth. I learned to jump teeterboard and hang by my teeth. All this occurred at the same time as building props by ourselves. I personally find periods like that really stimulating and exciting. Cirkör was welcoming and happy to have us in the house, getting to know us.By the time the directors arrived and the creation time officially commenced, we had a ton of material and high levels of enthusiasm. Together with the Skype meetings and email planning,we were in a pretty great position to start creation.

Creation Period (Just Keep Circusing)

This is a new type of production for Cirkör, or, rather, a return to their roots as a DIY collective of young circus artists. It is smaller scale and more autonomous than most of their work of the past 10 years such as Limits and Knitting Peace, both of which have technical teams and multi-day setups. That meant it was especially valuable to have directors who are so experienced at running every aspect of a circus, and surviving independently. Julien and Sade are a super directing, organising, performing team and shared directing responsibilities between them. Their experience and expertise came into play in everything from deciding how simple to make the stage setting to deciding which model of lights to buy. We spent whole days only putting the tripod up and down because they knew that being smooth and in control of the rigging moments would be essential to both the audience experience and our own experience of the show.

Acrobatic duo one arm handstand
Elisabeth Künkele performs a one-arm handstand on her acrobatic partner’s head (Ben Collis). Photo credit: Mats Bäcker.

One of the first things Sade and Julien asked from us was a wish list of tricks/scenes/things we wanted in the show. We came with a pretty extensive list and the response of the directors was… yes! So in the end, we have almost everything in the show that we planned, plus space to upgrade when we get stronger. That makes for a show that is very fulfilling to perform for me personally, and I for sure won’t get bored or complacent. Most people who see it comment on the physical difficulty of the show, but I keep a close eye on how the workload is affecting me and adapt the rest of my lifestyle to make it sustainable. For example, I deliberately and consciously eat and sleep more than I feel I need. We tested doing double show days during the rehearsal period and found it hard but totally possible. Now we do it every weekend. If it really became too much, we could switch out tricks for lighter ones, but actually we have more appetite for switching in harder ones! I think we hit the sweet spot where the show is tough enough to make us stronger, but with the right care and recovery, it won’t break us.

We had a bit of a slow start with some aspects. For example we didn’t get our tripod until week four, which meant at one point we had some scenes that were very far developed and others that were a complete mystery. A huge advantage we had was the amazing support and resources of Cirkör. We had access to a luxurious creation space, all the technical support we could wish for, and the unequivocal support of the whole Cirkör production machine. And there were other less obvious things that we benefited from, like access to the workshop at Cirkör. That meant that instead of waiting for someone to make things for us, we could just run to the next room and make a prototype. So the process of make, test, refine, remake, complete took hours instead of weeks. It helped also that Felix and I were so enthusiastic to do that. 

The plan for the show was to be as mobile and adaptable as possible–able to fit in small venues with no rigging, to perform on the street, and also occupy big stages and theatres. We would have to tour with a minimal crew and be able to get in, perform and get out on the same day. This was a new concept for Cirkör, so we have to extend our gratitude to the company for their trust in us and our thanks to Sade and Julien for helping us make it possible.

Schedule (Working 9 to… 6)

Our directing duo decided to go with a three thirds approach to the creation. Meaning we divided our time into two weeks of research, two weeks of creation proper, and two weeks of only rehearsal. In the end, we had such a headstart from our six weeks of training that our schedule was more like three weeks creation, two weeks rehearsal. And yes, I realise that adds up to five weeks. In the end, we had our dress rehearsal at the beginning of week six and spent the rest of the week filming the trailer, doing the promo photos, and, well, playing.

A typical day in the final two weeks went something like this: Arrive at 9.00 to warm up and do some technical training. Run through at 11-12.00. Lunch for an hour. Watch the video of the run through and receive feedback. Then spend the remaining time until 6.00 working on a specific scene. We kept a pretty steady 9-6 schedule during the creation, and in the evenings I would spend some time in the workshop making things for the set, or stretch, or sauna (gotta love Sweden for that). By the time we got to our general rehearsal (which for us was essentially the mental premiere) we had run the show in full 11 times, several of those with audience. I really feel that that put us in a great place to unleash our creation on the world.

Some Other Reflections (Where I Try to Sound Wise)
The cast of Circus Cirkör's Bloom
The cast of Cirkus Cirkör’s Bloom: Sofia Mendez, Elisabeth Künkele, Ben Collis, Philomène Perrenoud and Felix Greif. Photo credit: Mats Bäcker

One more thing I would like to mention is the sense of guilt at having such a great opportunity. Maybe it’s my Impostor Syndrome speaking, but when I personally know so many great creators and performers struggling to survive on circus, it stings a bit to have such an opportunity. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be like this, I really believe the situation we’re in should be more normal than it currently is for people making circus. Now we’re on tour sharing what we love with the audience and I feel privileged to be here, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can name 100 other people who deserve to be here at least as much as me.

Some things I’m proud of about the show: We did so much learning specifically for the show. We are a majority female show, and we’re all as strong, dominant, supportive and important as each other. We have a flat power structure in our group and you won’t find any hierarchy or conflict on stage. It’s all us, no gimmicks, no fakery, just hard earned circus. Our language is specifically that of circus, and we manage to convey our themes of joy, risk and cooperation without dressing our circus as something else.

We tour Sweden until the end of November and the calendar for next year is already looking ready to bloom. 

All photos courtesy of Cirkus Cirkör. Feature photo of Sofia Mendez, Ben Collis, Elisabeth Künkele. Photo credit: Mats Bäcker

Ben Collis
Circus Artist - Scotland
Ben is a versatile circus artist who is specialised in hand to hand acrobatics. As a base, he is included in most circus acts that include a stable foundation. Growing up in Scotland, Ben was originally on a different life path and received two master’s degrees before he started with circus. At 25 he left the normal world behind and joined the circus. He’s educated at Flic Scuola di Circo in Turin and at School of Circus and Dance (DOCH) in Stockholm.
Ben has been closely connected with Cirkus Cirkör during the last years, performing at events, teaching circus at our pedagogical department and training the students at the upper secondary school. He’s also performed with Kompani Giraff and has an own company, Analogue Acrobatics, together with Elisabeth Künkele.

Ben Collis

Ben is a versatile circus artist who is specialised in hand to hand acrobatics. As a base, he is included in most circus acts that include a stable foundation. Growing up in Scotland, Ben was originally on a different life path and received two master’s degrees before he started with circus. At 25 he left the normal world behind and joined the circus. He’s educated at Flic Scuola di Circo in Turin and at School of Circus and Dance (DOCH) in Stockholm. Ben has been closely connected with Cirkus Cirkör during the last years, performing at events, teaching circus at our pedagogical department and training the students at the upper secondary school. He’s also performed with Kompani Giraff and has an own company, Analogue Acrobatics, together with Elisabeth Künkele.

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