New Zealand International Arts Festival 2010
Inside Out
Cirkus Cirkör | Sweden
Live music by Irya’s Playground
At Opera House,Wellington
From 1 Mar 2010 to 8 Mar 2010
Reviewed by John Smythe, 2 Mar 2010


‘Gloriously abandoned’ and ‘organised chaos’ are the phrases that spring to mind when seeking to describe Cirkus Cirkör’s ebullient Inside Out. Only when you stop and think do you realise it has to be ultra organised or someone would get hurt.

Aurally powered by indie rock band Irya’s Playground – Irya Gmeyner (vocals) and Pange Öberg (bass), who compose and write the songs and music, with Erik Nilsson (drums) and David Calgaro (guitar) – its packed two hours (plus interval) is dynamically paced and structured to give as much value to stillness, silence and tension as to action, noise and cathartic release.

In white face, suit, shoes and top-hat, the clownish ringmaster Bellefield (acrobat Fefe Deijfen) races about the auditorium as the audience arrives, burning up his apparently boundless energy, which may be why the lights fail just at he tries to announce the start of the show proper. Fortunately a bicycle-powered dynamo is at hand and a lucky audience member gets to pedal us all into the brilliance that follows.

Beware of popping out to the loo mid-show or you might find yourself of stage too, as one woman does … It takes a re-read of the programme note at interval – “Two people trapped in their own definition of safety and success find their lives turned upside down when they encounter a circus company of charming and bizarre characters” – to will get how Cirkus Cirkör (concept and direction: Tilde Bjorförs) have made the extraordinary connect with the ordinary. And you realise once more that nothing is as random as it seems.

Early on Bellefield does a chair-balancing routine that I’ve seen other troupes reserved as their climactic act, and he almost comes a cropper when it turns out our entranced man has stopped peddling. If just one component fails … We’re all together in this enterprise.

Angela Wand’s caged clown, Julia P, was once the best tightrope walker in the world. Now she has grown a beard and very hairy legs and is frocked in ballerina’s tulle and shod in toe-shoes. When they let her out she generally makes a nuisance of herself, en-pointe with her red-rope lasso, training her little rocking horse … Happily she gets to fly on her rocker rather than off it.

Her sudden inconvenient death is a challenge to Bellefield but levity soon follows … It’s refreshing to see a woman clown; her stroppy idiosyncrasies make her very endearing. Her walk down a line of champagne bottles is particularly memorable.

Meanwhile Bellefield has asked the be-suited, middle class and proper Amy* (Anna Lagerkvist), “Can it be you have stopped living even though you are not dead?” This causes her to look not so much into her heart as at it. Held in her hand it is big, which is probably a good sign. It’s even larger later when she hauls it onstage, or a cross-sectioned half of it, anyway …

Billed as a clown as well as an acrobat, she is very introspective and given to fainting. She seems to be having a good cogitate about something when she shins up a pole, entwines herself around it and drops head-first, stopping centimetres from the floor. Variations on that theme render my thoughts more practical than existential: how does she brake before she breaks?

Huge projections of endless journeys through human innards emphasise the ‘inside’ part of the title (projections: Magnus Fyrhake). Stretch fabric tubing is used to spectacular effect to manifest red and white corpuscles and other vital parts (set and costume design: Sigyn Stenqvist; abstract costume and sculptural construction: Lina B Frank; lighting design: Jenny Larsson).

Trapeze and aerial artists Mirja Jauhiainen and Sanna Copra are introduced as strong-women mother-and-daughter Ivana and Carolina. Their trapeze routine is a stunning display of strength, trust and impeccable timing, accompanied by Irya’s rousing song: “We just want to stay alive …” Exactly. And they want to know it, too.

Andreas Falk, as Charlie Claude, does wondrous things with – and within – a large hoop. He too has great strength and puts Amy through his hoop at one point. It’s a conspiracy: complacency is not an option.

Even if you’ve seen one busker too many and feel jaded about juggling, I promise you’ll be delighted at Jay Gilligan’s routine – as Pom-Pom – with clubs, balls and hoops. This, like many acts centred around a particular skill, becomes a spectacular display of ensemble work, not least including Erik Nilsson drumming manically and vocalising hysterically, in both senses of the word.

In the role of Tom – the other person ‘trapped in safety’, who truly does look like a fish out of water most of the night – Jens Engman turns out to have exceptional skills as a handstand equilibrist.

There is a huge white balloon that spawns small balloons, a forbidding looking closet for a disappearing/appearing illusion, magic with little bits of red fabric, and an extraordinary sequence involving white balls and a double helix against a projection of furiously changing columns of coded genetic ‘text’ as the singer reminds us “We can be whatever we want to be …” (if only we could control all that).

The finale involves a see-saw, and what the ensemble achieves with that has to be seen to be believed. The audience roars their collective delight at the curtain calls, as Irya tells us “You don’t have to stay all day” – and we spill into a brimming foyer, animated and abuzz.

It’s always a challenge for circus troupes to create new concepts in which to slip the tricks they take years to perfect. Cirkus Cirkör turns our notions of life and fear of death Inside Out, using their skills, music, rigorous technology and spectacular projections to play with us, each other and our lives.

Lest we think all these crazy characters are just having escapist fun, consider this from Tilde Bjorförs’ programme note: “Watching someone performing a feat that requires absolute presence of mind is like seeing someone truly being themselves. In these situations, you cannot pretend.”

In a word: exhilarating.