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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Circus with a Purpose

Saara Ahola, Peter Aberg in "Limits"
-- By Tom Phillips

Midway through Cirkus Cirkor's "Limits," aerialist Saara Ahola asks the audience to join her in a little trick: stand up with your feet together, close your eyes, and remain standing. Be careful in the balcony, she says, and with good reason. We immediately feel ourselves swaying, shifting our weight to stay in balance. The lesson is this: the world cannot keep its balance by holding still, it constantly needs to shift its weight, to allow movement. She asks: what happens when the world is in a great upheaval, and suddenly borders are closed, people arrested, stranded, abandoned, drowned? Will the whole world lose its balance and fall?

This lesson is the fulcrum between two acts of spectacular circus tricks and theater craft put on by this Swedish circus troupe, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Act One is an exercise in instability.

Manda Rydman in "Limits" 
It begins with a drowning -- seen from below as a woman struggles to stay afloat in a billowing fabric, then twists slowly to the floor. The whole stage is in constant motion.  A fence turns into a wall, then a ladder. A floor turns into a sliding board, with performers scrambling up and sliding down, almost reaching the border, again and again. Behind it is moaning, keening live music,  interspersed with film clips of war and an oral history -- the voice of a middle-class refugee from Mosul in Iraq, who fled the destruction of his city, only to find himself stopped at border after border as he sought a haven in Fortress Europe. His response -- keep trying, keep scrambling, never give up. In this endless, bizarre war, the refugee is the hero.

Sweden alone in the West has opened its borders to the legions fleeing the Middle East, taking in upwards of 150,000.  Swedes are in a position to teach, and that is the purpose of this circus. They do it it gently, modestly, as befits a neutral people, but the lesson is powerful, and it stings.

Act Two is a demonstration of how to right our balance. This is shown through hand-to-hand acrobatics, a woman "flyer" with a strong man as a base. Saara tells us that as the flyer she is not supposed to balance, she relies on the base, who shifts his weight constantly. The question hangs in the air: what happens when the base shuts down, goes rigid?  The show climaxes with a heart-stopping teeter-totter act, a big man and a smaller man on a long seesaw, launching each other nearly into the lights above the stage at the Howard Gilman Opera House, flipping and twisting as they soar. We see all the ways they compensate for the difference in size -- adjusting their force, their position on the board, reaching out a steadying arm as they change places. The audience gasps and cheers as they do the impossible, again and again, topping themselves even as they fatigue.  How long can this go on? Another question that hangs in the air.

Cirkus Cirkor will be at BAM through Saturday, June 10.  Run, leap, scramble to see them.

-- Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips
Photography by Mats Backer