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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Exceeding Limits

By Susan Yung

Cirkus Cirkör performs Limits, a physical theater piece about confronting and soaring above boundaries, at the Howard Gilman Opera House from June 7—10. We spoke with Cirkus Cirkör artistic director Tilde Björfors and set designer Fanny Senocq about the piece.

Anton Graaf in Limits. Photo: Mats Båcker

Was there one moment or news event that inspired you to make Limits?

Tilde Björfors, artistic director, Cirkus Cirkör: When I read about the drownings near Lampedusa in 2013, it turned my life upside down and I needed to know more. We as members of EU guard our borders, and the consequence for thousands of migrants whose only chance to survive is a dangerous journey with life at stake. So I created Borders, the first of a trilogy on circus, risk, and migration. Limits is the second part.

In fall 2015, I tried to welcome displaced people in a spirit of common humanity. I was involved in establishing a transitional housing facility and opened my home to hundreds of boundary-crossers, every encounter a personal tragedy. I became aware of limitations within society and myself. Several times, I felt I couldn’t take in any more; there was no room. But every time, a vulnerable soul showed me there was still hope. Suddenly there was room for more! Both our hearts and our brains have an innate capacity for growth.

It’s shocking to watch Europe close borders when our circus has dedicated 20 years to pushing boundaries. The word “circus” is often used disparagingly, but I think the opposite is true—the world should practice more circus!

Cirkus Cirkör: Limits. Photo: Mats Bäcker

How were the prop designs—which evoke water, walls, rafts, lifelines, etc—conceived and made?

Fanny Senocq, set design: One important thing about the prop and set design of Limits (and any production by Tilde) is you must be able to perform circus with everything on stage. That’s why we have a long creation process with many “labs” (artistic research laboratories) long before rehearsals begin. In these labs we create circus props in close collaboration with the artists. In some cases, the artist will bring in a prop which we modify to fit the production. An artist might have spent years training with a specific prop.

The bigger set design elements take several labs to create. Like the opening scene from Limits: The water, the sea—made of a big silk fabric that was hand colored in blues and greens of the sea. Thin ropes in the corners of the silk, and holes in it big enough for an artist fly through. On top of that, we had projections of water, waves, and a dark stormy sea that could be projected onto the silk and other surfaces.

The big platform—a versatile object, depending on which position you place it in—becomes a wall, a roof, a room, a raft. A heavy object to manipulate. The circus rigger is essential for circus and in some scenes the artists become riggers. The fences—built in our workshop—are adjusted to maximize the way in which the artists could use it.

In some circus disciplines many big objects are needed. Like the teeterboard: 12 big mattresses which have to work in the set design! How can we move them in and out? Painted grey and hanging or held up they look like walls. We made it work. When Tilde made the choice that two of the five performers would be teeterboard artists, this was factored into the design. This is prop and set design for circus—highly technical, co-creative, and a lot of magic.

Cirkus Cirkör: Limits. Photo: Mats Bäcker
How much creative collaboration is there between you and Samuel Andersson, the musician/composer?

TB: Samuels’ music is one of the chambers in Limits’ heart and the driving force in circulating blood. He’s as close to a musical genius as you can get. We have worked a lot over the years and developed a partnership in which he captures my abstract visions and ideas and turns them into something bigger than I could imagine. He also has a great ability to interact with the circus artists, so the boundary between art forms becomes blurred.

Catastrophic failure is always looming in the circus arts… why do we rarely see dropped people or props?

TB: Circus is an art form based on making the impossible possible. The risk of failing is constantly present. This is why circus artists have become so good at managing risks.

When your vision is to make the seemingly impossible possible, doing something no one has done before, the journey starts by breaking down that vision into smaller, achievable sub-goals. This allows you to focus on mastering one small thing at a time, and before long the vision is within reach. During the hours spent training, failures will be experienced, weak points revealed, and possible dangers uncovered. This process helps identify ways to handle these challenges safely. So even though the life of a circus artist is full of risks, it’s seldom dangerous and accidents are rare.

Susan Yung is senior editorial manager at BAM.

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