What is circus?
Henrik: For me, I think it's the artists who decide if it's circus or not. I think it could be circus in the way of building up the thing that is performed. Or it could be circus in that it also looks like circus.
In one way, it could be whatever. The question is what differs between circus and other art forms? What makes something circus and not something else? I think it becomes circus because I identify myself as a circus artist. And then when I do something. I will probably call it circus. I'm not a dancer or actor. That makes it circus for me.
Louise: Yeah, I think so, too. It can look very different, but I think as long as the background that we have is circus, we don't know any other way of making our art than to use the tools that we have from circus. So sometimes it's hard to say how you make a circus show. Because I guess it's hundreds of different methods. But there are still things that you can identify - a typical way of working with circus. And when you make projects together with other art forms, then you can understand things that you notice because you just took it for granted, and then you want to say - maybe that's a very circus way to think or circus way of doing it. I know what happens quite a lot when you work with a group of circus people, is things happen just by themselves.
If it is only circus artists, there is a certain way we solve these problems, and then when it comes to other art forms, it's other ways of solving problems. So I think it becomes clear when you meet other art forms. It's probably a mental state, or I want to say, our way of thinking. I mean, even in the circus, there are so many disciplines that are fundamentally different. And you need a different mindset to be able to perform the different disciplines. So even within the circus there are many ways of working. But still there is something that connects us.
What's your way of working as a team?
Louise: Good question. Since we've been working for so long, we've been working for 20 years, the methods and how we work have changed during this time for many reasons. And so I think how we work today is maybe not the same as we worked from the beginning, but still, the partner work is the core of our practice. So even though the hours spent in the training space are maybe less today than in the beginning, because then you had to train a lot to get somewhere with your technique. That includes not only the shape of the bodies and the feeling, it was also the mental state - to get there together, to find the way to work together. To find a common language somehow. We had to create that language.
And this language we kept. Even though the focus has shifted a bit from working a lot and thinking a lot and talking a lot about technique and how to achieve the next level or next step in the technique. Now it's more creative ideas of how to make a performance because we have also shifted away from being a duo that works in other productions or with a director that decides how the show is going to be. Now more often we are the creators.
Henrik: And when we talk about a project, one of us is proposing something, and then it becomes a discussion that the other one will fill in and we build on each other.
There has always been a creative atmosphere when we talk about the work. I think that's kind of why we still work together, that we somehow complement each other in that creativity and that we have the same visions of what we want to achieve.
What's the biggest thing that you've learned from working with each other? What was the biggest surprise that you got?
Louise: This is something that I feel like a lot of people should know and you can only learn from trying and failing and trying again. I think many people think "how the heck can you spend time working with each other, living with each other." You do the same kind of training every day and people were often curious. It's interesting still. Before you get asked the question, you don't even reflect on it.
But for us, or for me at least, it's been interesting to understand that it's actually super challenging and exciting to try to repeat the same things and do them over and over again to get there. it's kind of an impossible task because the circumstances will always change.
There's a new day, you are maybe in a different mood than the other person, and then actually, you have something to rely on - the fact that you know how it felt yesterday. It's a bit like going on the same path. If you take a walk and it's become spring and then it becomes summer and it's kind of nice to go past the same place because it will change every day. And if you don't pass the same thing, you will not notice that it's actually changed because you have nothing to relate it to. But if you do the same thing, you have something to relate to and then you can see the change. And with circus nowadays it's a bit tragic because you cannot achieve the same level as before. It's more like "I have pain here now, so I can't really do this anymore." But it's still something that's fun to try to keep doing.
Henrik: Yeah. I mean and you still have the feeling of the small contact between us.
Louise: And it's still best that you strive for something that you want to reach for today.
So I think, even though there are not the big high-level tricks, you still work on the same things. It's still fun, and I still enjoy doing it, and it's still inspiring. I can totally understand that it sounds boring, but it's fascinating.
Would you say that what's interesting is less repeating the same thing and more having a constant structure that you can rely on? So the difference between the two being that if everything else changes, you know that this is something stable.
Louise: Yeah, maybe it’s like that. You have something stable that you can keep holding on to somehow. And that's nice. So the practice, however that practice looks, it's something that you have.
Henrik: For us, it has become a good daily routine.
Louise: During the pandemic, it was in a way quite easy to keep going because even though the world changed, we always have work to do. So it was something to hold on to.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned how your bodies have changed over the years and how that's affected the approach to your work. So what I wanted to know from you on a broader perspective is - what role do you think the aging body has in circus?
Louise: I would find it very boring if you could only go see circus with people around their 20s. I think in all art forms it's important to have a variety of bodies., and that includes older people. It's the same with skin types and nationalities.
Henrik: I think it's maybe what makes it art and not sport, that there are different ages and different types of people, different expressions for it. Different people do it in different ways and that makes it become art.
Louise: It's an expression, so it shouldn't be about age at all.
It's not that you stop expressing yourself just because you turn 30 or 40. So since this is our language, I think we need to be able to express ourselves in our language, even though we have to adapt it because the body (that is our language) changes.
But it's still our main expression. So, I think it would be very sad if you just had to stop because you've aged. It's more about how long you can feel inspired or have the need to express yourself. If I ever feel that I want to stop circus then it should be because I don't feel inspired anymore or I don't know what to express. And that might come, but as long as I feel inspired I definitely don't want to stop just because I have an old body. And we're not that old.
Circus is always balancing between sport and art because of its high physicality and technicality. It's easy to fall into this idea of competition. Do you think that the role of having an aging body on stage and having these variable ages and types of people and skill levels, is to tilt it more in the direction of self-expression?
Louise: I think you have a point there. Definitely, because you have to look beyond. And when it comes to not being able to do this physical trick anymore that impressed people, you have to start to think about why you're doing it. And you start to question a bit more because you have to think wider.
I mean, there's a danger of thinking that you only think about these things when you get older because circus is so wide. Some people try to reach a high level of technique in circus, but can also have other focuses. It totally depends on how you work as artists and what's your method of creating.
There's also an element of mental health when it comes to the understanding that you can be in circus for longer than just your youth. I've heard it being compared a lot to ballet or to professional athletes - you can only push yourself so far for a short amount of time. What has been your experience with how this affects your mental well-being?
Henrik: I have always been thinking that I will be in circus or that we will be in the circus for a long time. But then, of course, somewhere it hits you that the body's getting older and you have to find a way to be fine with that. Finding another way of training, because you can't do all of the things that you're used to doing.
And that shift, in the beginning, was a bit hard. I mean, it's still hard some days because you're in your head. You want to do more than you can do. But in some way, I always had the same problem, even when I didn't have pain in my knees, I still wanted to do more than I did. It’s just that now I can feel the problem more.
Louise: If you know that people continue, that it can be a life-long career, then it might change the whole way of thinking as a young circus artist. But for me personally, I didn't really think that far ahead. I have always been so into what I've been doing, I have never seen a stop.
It has always been a very unsure future. Always. In the beginning, you don't even know if you can survive in this profession. You never know what will happen next year. So in that sense, it has not been an issue that I have to stop when I get old. It's more like as long as we can afford to live, it's fine. The most common question is how long can you do this? Even when you're a young circus artist, you will start to get this question.
It's an interesting question to think about - will it change the way we think of the profession if you know that you can actually keep doing it? That's one of the reasons why we are continuing. We have to prove that it's possible. And so sometimes when you feel that this sucks, then it can be a trigger to keep going because then we will prove that it's possible.
What would you like the future of your circus to look like? Both in the way you work, but also in regards to getting older and this responsibility that you have of being aging circus artists.
Henrik: I don't know. Kind of like it is. I can't see something else that I would like to do. Yeah, but if we are allowed to dream, then of course I think for the body we need to work a bit slower.
Even now we realize that we cannot perform as much as we have been doing at least if we do the same performances as we are now. We do need more time to create then. The dream would, of course, be that you could somehow get some kind of the same financial support, to have longer periods for creations, so that you can actually work much more as an artist to develop your methods instead of just performing.
I think the system needs to support this kind of process to keep us going. In other art forms, most of the time it's not so dependent on the physical strength of your body. You can keep going. But within dance and within circus you do have the body to deal with. And maybe that’s something that's needed not just in the circus world, but in general.
I think that's a future we can all try to strive for.
Louise: We have a lot of issues that we want to address, but now when you have a family, it's hard to fit the family into someone else's schedule. So that's also a reason why we do our own work right now. I’ll take my chance now to say that It's also up to two circus directors to invite people of different ages to take part in their creations because I think they also have a responsibility to put them on stage.
You will be at the New Horizons Leadership Summit, in Sweden. Could you tell me a little bit about what you'll be doing there?
Louise: The performance is about what we've been talking about during this interview a bit. And so. I think all these things we've been mentioning are captured in the performance.
When I did my master's degree, we started to document each other in the process, and how we work and, to look at things that aren't just physicality, but it's also the things around the practice. So it's a bit of a documentary in a stage setting. We wanted to mix the documentary, performance, and dramaturgy.
Henrik: A trigger for us was to see what’s real and what’s fake. During the process, we had the camera on all the time. So anything that happened would end up filmed. Of course you get used to having the camera on, but at the same time, you know it's on.
During the pandemic, we had the kids and we just had to work with the circumstances and see what we could gain from the chaos instead of just trying to clean it up and push it away. We had to use the material because it was there. It was creative recycling. It's a recycled show.
I'm looking forward to seeing it
Henrik & Louise will be performing at the New Horizons Leadership Summit. Centered around the role of circus as a leader on the frontier of cultural change and innovation, the summit seeks to bring together a regional and international community of thinkers and doers shaping our collective future.
Louise Bjurholm von Euler and Henrik Agger – an acrobatic duo from Sweden, educated at Moscow State School of Circus, who have worked together since 2001. Louise graduated in 2013 from the program of new performative practices at the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm (DOCH) with a master's in choreography with a specialization in Circus. Henrik also went to the Mime Acting Program at Teaterhögskolan Stockholm ( Stockholm university of the arts) and has been involved in the establishment of “New Circus” in Sweden as one of the original artists in the creation of Cirkus Cirkörin 1995.
As freelance artists, Henrik and Louise have been working with companies such as the Russian State Circus and Cirkus Cirkör. They also produce their own performances which have been playing at festivals and theatres all over the world.
In their own creations, Henrik and Louise look beyond the physical actions alone and try to use other elements of their practice as inspirational work for finding new material. They also like to use other media such as film and texts as a complement to the physical work.
Photo: Donatas Alisauskas