Conceived and Directed By Tilde Björfors
Produced by Cirkus Cirkör
Off Broadway, Circus
Ran through 6.10.17
BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue
by Ran Xia on 6.11.17
Anton Graaf in Cirkus Cirkör: Limits. Photo by Mats Bäcker.
BOTTOM LINE: Cirkus Cirkör finds the connection between physical limits and the metaphorical concepts of limits in the world in this topical, visually stunning feat of extraordinary caliber.
There is something incredibly moving about circus shows, which stage the constant pursuit of defying the limit of what’s considered humanly possible. The performers' bodies float midair as if weightless, or ascend, supported by what looks like a single, fragile thread, with such ease. You marvel at their acts of mythological caliber, and at the same time, can’t help but imagine the endless hours they’ve spent collecting bruises before the music starts, the house lights dim, and magic happens.
The best circus shows always bring something culturally unique and showcase the personality of the company: there’s the whimsy of 7 Doigts (if you caught the French company’s delightful anthology at City Center a few years ago), the extravagant grandeur of Cirque de Soleil, a phenomenon that never ceases to surprise, the delicious hilarity of La Soiree, and the dynamite of a show called Fuerza Bruta. Hailing from Sweden, Cirkus Cirkör is also nothing short of legendary, with its inventive ways of storytelling and excellent use of metaphors in combining elements of acrobatics and the world’s current affairs.
Limits, conceived and directed by Tilde Björfors, seems to be a direct result of the arrival of about 150,000 refugees in Sweden. The country welcomed its tempest-tossed guests during the fall of 2015 and beyond. Bjorfors draws contrasts between the risks circus performers take of their own free will, and individuals who are forced to flee their homes, struggling to keep their balance amidst the unknown. Björfors points out the idea of Sweden, and maybe even the whole world, as a body that pushes itself against the limits. The performers are indeed physical manifestations of that. The result is a deeply compassionate piece that combines the poetic storytelling of circus, documentary, and social commentary.
The show, appropriately titled Limits, begins with the ensemble introducing the notion of the border. It’s a rather curious thought, crossing an invisible border amidst the shapeless, boundless ocean. The Mediterranean Sea is where three worlds converge: Africa, Asia, and Europe share a body of water, where poetry and romance are borne on waves of deep blue. Yet it is also the gap that thousands of refugees are forced to cross every day in order to survive.
Performers reenact motifs of overcoming obstacles in front of projections of info-graphics and statistics layered over soothing images of serenity. A trampoline act against a great, concrete-colored wall further amplifies the metaphor. The same mass of the genius structure designed by the set team (Fanny Senocq, Stefan “Drake” Karlström, Joel Jedström, and Tilde Björfors) then transforms into the dome of a jungle that’s an entanglement of clothing abandoned by people who are forced to leave their homes, among them a young girl (embodied by the astonishingly agile aerial acrobat Saara Ahola) who cannot pack up all the memories in her bedroom on the road. In a heartbreaking and climactic moment, the carefully arranged furniture collapses as the foundation of the room rises up, upsetting the balance of her world.
If the first act focuses on commentary of current affairs, the second half showcases more of the performers’ personal accounts and reflections on the theme. Juggler Peter Åberg demonstrates his mnemonic device to solve Rubik’s cube blindfolded, yet the stories he comes up with that serve as clues are much informed by the refugee crises in the Middle East, rather than something lighthearted. Åberg is also the comic relief of the otherwise heavy show. Some might roll their eyes at a juggling act—what can possibly be exciting about a trick as old as time? Well Åberg’s juggling act is a musical performance, with four pipes tuned to scale: the rapid motions and apparent chaos is in fact the ultimate act of precision.
The company introduces the concept of balance in acrobatics, which involves mutual trust between partners and constant motion. “You have to move to stay still,” Ahola tells the audience, and “You have to keep moving to stay alive.” The idea of mutual trust is also explored in what might be the most impressive act of the evening: Anton Graaf and Einar Kling-Odencrants’ teeterboard performance. The pair works perfectly in sync with each other in this tremendously risky feat, and Graaf is convincingly superhuman as he soars almost 20 feet above ground, spinning like a hummingbird before landing back down.
The show's music is also immensely satisfying. Samuel “LoopTok” Andersson’s composition ties the kaleidoscopic acts into a unified whole. He’s the wiz behind the dazzling score and performs everything on stage from an electric violin and guitar to a complex set of drums and various instruments, all the while participating in some of the acrobatic actions and providing leading vocals. The musical style reminds me of Alt J (modern yet mystic) and Nirvana (poetic angst), with elements of atonal Middle Eastern folk songs, as well as the ethereal and savage music of the Vikings. LoopTok’s uniquely evocative voice also makes me think of something ancient and ceremonious, like a bard from the times of the Odyssey. It’s worth mentioning that Jonna Bergelin’s costume design adds much to the world that Bjorfors creates for the show, and accentuates its vibrant style.
Cirkus Cirkor: Limits is about the co-existence of vulnerability and strength. It’s deeply satisfying to witness the disappearance of limits, whether it’s the limitation of human bodies, or in a more abstract sense when we speak of borders and walls. If there’s one thing we learn from Limits, it's that trust is key, and that one cannot soar without the help of others.
(Cirkus Cirkör: Limits played at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, through June 10, 2017. The running time is 2 hours with one intermission. For more information, visit bam.org.)
Cirkus Cirkör: Limits is conceived and directed by Tilde Björfors. Music Composition and Performance is by Samuel “LoopTok” Andersson. Set Design is by Fanny Senocq, Stefan ”Drake” Karlström, Joel Jedström, and Tilde Björfors. Costume Design is by Jonna Bergelin. Video Scenography and Projections are by Johannes Ferm Winkler, Tom Waldton, and Per Rydnert. Visual Relief Lighting Design is by Fredrik Ekström. Choreography is by Olle Strandberg, Makeup Design is by Madelene Söderblom.
The cast is Anton Graaf, Einar Kling-Odencrants, Manda Rydman, Peter Åberg and, Saara Ahola.