John Ellingsworth talks to Olle Strandberg, director of the runaway success Undermän, about autobiography, circus texts, the affinities of circus and street dance, working for Cirkus Cirkör, and having to start over after you've lost everything.
I saw Poetry in Motion’s Undermän in February 2011 at Subcase, a two-day programme of new Scandinavian work shown at Stockholm’s Hangaren venue and attended by an extremely tough in-crowd of producers and programmers. It was only the second public showing for the piece — a raw, new work thrown together by a young company — but it was still by a long way the best performance there, an autobiographical heart-to-heart performed by three hand-to-hand bases (Peter Åberg, Mattias Andersson and Matias Salmenaho) who had lost their romantic and professional partners. In the following months, Undermän came under the wing of Swedish giants Cirkus Cirkör and embarked on an international tour that took the show to Belgium, the Netherlands, and, in October, to France for Festival Circa, where I caught up with the show’s director, Olle Strandberg.
The style of the show is very stripped down in terms of its set and aesthetic, and it’s based on autobiographical or real life stories. Is that something that’s sort of a Swedish or Scandinavian aesthetic, influenced by other companies, or is it your own style?
It comes a lot from our aesthetics and my aesthetics, and it’s a mission of the whole piece to show some reality or to reveal the true people, the individuals, on stage — to not do too much theatrical acting and to just let it be what it is. You get to know Mattias, Peter and Matias as the people they are, and Andreas as the musician; they’re not hiding anything, and we didn’t need to bring more props in because the ones we have — the kettlebells, the instruments — say so much in themselves. I’m a bit fed up with performers who, if they have ten seconds of nothing, always have to fill it with a lot of impressions or with a trick; it’s so nice with this performance that you can actually look at ten seconds where nothing really happens and the ambience is just building up. A lot of people actually get uncomfortable because at the beginning it’s quite slow, and at the beginning people are saying to themselves, ‘Wasn’t this supposed to be a good show?’ and ‘Aren’t they going to do any circus stuff?’. It’s a really nice moment where people come in with a lot of expectations and they have to just sit there for a while and listen to a corny song. I think it’s interesting to just let the time pass and I think it’s a bit like when you wait for someone, or when you’re away from someone, and you actually have a lot of time where you just reflect on the past somehow.
The performers in the show speak — and speak directly to the audience. How did you arrive at the decision to use text and do you feel that it creates or carries an effect that you couldn’t have gotten any other way?
Of course it was a hard decision to make. Personally I don’t need to have text in a performance when I watch it. I think you can take in a lot without text. With Undermän I think it would be possible without text, but then there’s something about having these quite manly men — manly somehow even though they’re kind of young — and hearing them really speak from the heart.
Then in Matias’ last speech we’re also playing a bit with that sort of pretentious dance scene where there’s this microphone at the front of the stage and people walking up to it to talk about themselves. It’s like sometimes when a company want to get deep really quick they use text. Matias’ speech is fun: it could have been really pretentious — we’re doing the same thing as all those contemporary dance performances — but the intention is something else, serious and not serious. It’s still from the heart, but he’s playing with this form of acting somehow.
I think the speaking is also a quick way to relate to the performers, and that it makes it easier to then communicate through music and circus — because there’s a lot of music all through the show that communicates as well. The guys wrote the texts themselves when they were missing their partners in real life, and we’ve just put that on stage; in a way it wasn’t meant for stage, so it’s a big statement for them.
The personal stories in the show connect with these overarching ideas of male identity and friendship and the nature of life on the road. Did those sorts of themes emerge organically or were they the original inspiration and impetus for the piece?
It was very important from the beginning that the show would take up the issue of male... not only friendship, but love and friendship and what it’s like to be a man somehow — and to just try to be honest about it. I was in a dance show myself a couple of years ago that was called Polare; it’s performed by three generations of men and it kind of plays around with the topic, and I do feel like it’s very important for circus to bring up those kinds of issue — especially because in circus, and in hand-to-hand acrobatics, your partner in your career is often your partner in your love life; this brings some extra importance to the show I think.
In Finland we did the very, very first show and we had these Finnish lumberjack guys crying afterwards because it connected to them as 50 year-old lumberjacks; one guy came to me after and he was crying and saying, ‘This is something that... that really wants to say something’. It’s amazing, to have a circus show that connects to men who are like 50+ lumberjacks. How do you get beneath the surface of that person, the shell of that person, and touch him?
Have you had any other gigs performing to audiences outside the circuit of circus and theatre festivals?
It would be really nice to do it, but I think it’s very hard to reach out to these communities to make them buy the show. Often when you do a tour in Sweden or Scandinavia it’s toured to 15, 16, 17 year-olds but never toured to like construction workers. It would be really cool to do that, and I think the guys would love to do it, but it’s hard to create a tour like that.
One thing that’s changed with Undermän since I saw it at Subcase is that the show is now produced by Cirkus Cirkör, and is being presented as a Cirkör show rather than one by your own company, Poetry in Motion — and the aesthetic of Undermän is of course very different to Cirkör shows like Wear it like a crown or Inside Out. Do you see that as a problem?
It’s a problem, but I also see it as an interesting problem. For us it was very important that it happened. Undermän is 100% not funded — except by my bank account, which wasn’t really fit for purpose until I took the loans. Also we were aiming quite high with the show — we wanted to do a fun tour, we wanted to do a show we could stand up for, and the touring is actually also a concept in itself: it’s Undermän and the continuation of their travelling and, hopefully, their success. We could have managed to do a tour ourselves — a lot of schools in Sweden were really interested in the show and I pushed it to them a lot, but I knew that if we were financing it ourselves we’d have to do 200 gigs at schools to get the money to do the show the way we wanted, to put in the musician with the salary that we wanted. We had so little time to sell the show for the fall; without Cirkör we would only have made like six or seven shows this fall, and we couldn’t really wait for things to start happening.
Also, I’ve known Tilde [Björfors] since I was a kid basically. As a concept selling the show was really far, but on a personal level it wasn’t so far, because I knew everyone in the company, and because Mattias, Peter and Matias have all worked in Cirkör on and off.
I’ll also be working in Cirkör as a director for awhile, and as an artistic director and artistic project manager, so Tilde will be doing some shows and I’ll be doing others. My aesthetic is very different to Tilde’s, with different thoughts behind it, but when Tilde and I talk we agree on a lot — our idea of what a show should be is very different, yet the reason why a show should be is quite similar somehow.
If you talk to the more political, concerned producers around Europe then our selling the show is a big problem. ‘I will not let you play in my festival now because this is not a Cirkör show, it’s a Poetry in Motion show. You’re fooling the audience.’ But like we’re the ones doing the show, it’s a great show, we had great fun when we created it and we can have even more fun doing it. We didn’t do it to get money and fame, but we do have monthly salaries now. Cirkör invested a lot of money into the show just to keep it rolling; they haven’t broken even. You get a lot of angry and frustrated French or European programmers that hate the fact that I’m with Cirkör and I have to just explain that it’s like this. We love the producers and staff of Cirkör. They’re great people to travel with and work with and talk to. I learn a lot, working with them and seeing from the inside how Cirkör works.
You mentioned you’ve known Cirkör a long time. Perhaps you could say a little about your own background and how you came into directing...
I started out doing juggling when I was ten years old — not connected to circus, just juggling for itself. And about ten years later I realised juggling was part of this bigger thing; circus wasn’t established in Sweden then, around ’95 or ’96, but it was actually when Cirkör started out that I got connected with the scene and found people I could practice with. After training at a gymnasium outside Stockholm, I went to the École nationale de cirque in Montreal, but found when I got there that Jay Gilligan had started as a teacher in Stockholm and as a juggler I preferred to go there. I was really into acrobatics as well, doing a lot of teeterboard and floor, and after school I started touring with Cirkör: I was in their Mermaid production for three years and then I broke my neck doing teeterboard. That was 2005; I was paralysed from the throat down. I was in the hospital a couple of months and we didn’t think — because it was fourth and fifth vertebra — we didn’t think it would become any better. And then I got better, quite quick, and I started a new production like six months later with a teeterboard group. I didn’t do so many technical things; I was 20 kilos lighter, and I did my best to do everything but I kind of sucked in that show I think.
You weren’t scared to come back to it?
It was my first mission when I got injured: I have to go back full out. I did it, but it was a bit early I think because I had the technique — I was technically good — but physically I didn’t have the muscles anymore. I lost everything. But I get so restless when I’m not physical, so I started out doing street dance. At first it was as something that wasn’t related to anything else where I could do it for hours a day without thinking creatively. I just wanted to move for hours a day. I did it for years, at the same time as I was teaching acrobatics at a school in Stockholm, and then I realised that the street dance culture actually has a lot that’s interesting — like I really liked the freestyle culture — and I got into it for real instead of just doing it for fun, and started producing street dance festivals and different battles and stuff. Me and a guy called Erik Linghede started a company called Poetry in Motion, combining some juggling and circus elements in the productions as well. Erik’s a producer, but a street dancer and popper as well.
So kind of from there I started dancing more and then got into contemporary dance, and I toured with a company for three or four years. Circus is what feels most important to me, but I got some clues from some other artforms that led me to what I wanted to do, which was to develop contemporary circus and let it be the thing I was longing for.
I still feel like I could definitely do shows myself on stage, but I’m years away... I want to feel really good about it. I want to be able to do certain things physically; otherwise it would just be text and movement in my show and no circus, and it would be nice to actually perform circus and acrobatics in my show. I want to pay respect to the circus.
So you see the subject of Undermän was kind of natural: you have everything and then you lose everything, and you have to start over. It’s like a theme in my life and it could have been the Happy Ex-Acrobat Show or something where you have acrobats that are all paralysed, but they’re like awesome performers and how could we create something from that? But in this case I’m good friends with Matias and the guys, and I talked to them a lot about their situation and especially to one of the guys who was having a lot of trouble in Las Vegas and really wanted to get out of of there. His relationship sucked and he was stuck performing this love scene over and over with his ex-girlfriend when they were living together but not talking to each other. It was terrible actually. I tried to help him from Sweden; I was giving him advice like, ‘Yeah, try to do this and then wait a week and come back’. I didn’t know what to do and then it was clear all of a sudden: fuck it, come here and do a show. I contacted Mattias, Peter and Matias, and we actually met two weeks later and tried out a lot of stuff — contact improvisation and singing different harmonies. We did a lot of cheesy stuff actually, and then we also talked about how can you replace a partner and how is it possible to do it by yourself, and how do you support someone who actually weighs twice as much as your partner? Now you’re going to be the flier and not the base and you’re going to have to trust that this person under you can lift you even though you weigh like 90 kilos. It was a quite fun period and after that week we did the first trailer together with my friend Maceo Frost; we’d only done one week of rehearsals but you look at that trailer now and you look at the show and you can really see that they connect.
As a circus director what would you say that circus has got that you can’t get from other artforms?
Dangerous topic! Hmm. The technical foundation for circus is the same if you’re doing contemporary circus or traditional circus, and if you go back to that foundation then I think it’s a lot about... it’s this sense or sensibility when you do something that’s a risk. Even if you’re watching a juggler it’s not that the person has practiced a lot and is good, but the fact that they do something that is clearly a risk. As a performer you have to consider it every time you do it; when I was doing teeterboard I always had this second of like WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING, and then I was off and doing a triple somersault. As an audience you can sense this even if the artist is incredibly good — it’s a realness, basically, when there’s nothing else: just a moment of the circus performer themselves. You can see also with a juggler when he makes a little mistake and then works his way out of it. There are a lot of these moments in circus and it brings you in as an audience. That’s probably the basic thing that I really like about circus, and I don’t think it really happens in most dance, where it’s about being in harmony with the body all the time.
I’ve been looking at the contemporary circus scene my whole life somehow, but once in a while it can still show me something that surprises — a piece where all the concepts are flipped somehow or have taken another angle. To me it’s amazing to still be surprised looking at something that you’ve been doing for so long. Even though I don’t like 80% of the shows I see... or maybe 90%.
Street dance’s freestyle scene has a lot of the same feeling as circus for me. When I look at battles or freestyling the dancers are also taking these quite big risks: they have this huge crowd and they don’t know what they’re going to do; they always try to find a new way, a new path. I can get so excited that I stand up and scream at freestyle battles — even though its not really a show, that feeling is real.
So I connect circus and dance a little bit these days. Because I enjoy the different scenes I try to find similarities between them. I think it’s good for the street dance that I can look from that perspective because a lot of people try to use street dance without really enjoying the scene; they try to change it whereas I can find similarities that are there already.
Street dance so often feels like it’s context-specific — a cultural form — and when it’s lifted into other artforms or contexts you lose the life of it...
I think this is important really with this scene, because a lot of the people in the street dance scene aren’t reflecting on how stereotypical it is — the clothes they’re wearing and the context in which the dance is being shown. It’s not a bad thing, but in their culture it’s so important to honour the history of street dance and hip-hop. First you look at it and you laugh at it, then you look at it and you get worried about it, then finally you look at it and find you’re somehow right in the middle of it and it’s like, ‘Wait, why the fuck do I honour street dance?’ — and then you have to decide for yourself, ‘I don’t want to be there anymore, I want to go somewhere else’.
I think a lot of people who put street dance into another context didn’t really go into the context of the culture themselves; they just see what’s good for them and they want to put it on stage, and somewhere along the way the dancers lose the reason for why they’re there. You can see it so obviously, and for me when I saw Circolombia for instance — there’s a lot of street dance in that show, but it’s directed street dance to show how street dance was needed for these kids to survive. They’re not doing their own moves; it’s really random. If they had been doing it themselves — or had been given their own moves — then we could have seen that it came from them.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple of projects that are going to happen quite soon — some smaller, some a bit larger, but all very different from each other. One piece is called Ballroom House. It’s a street dance and juggling show for two people, but I’m rehearsing with three people because eventually it might be possible to have more performers involved, and I had this idea to create a show where we could bring in different local people for different performances. It’s a very conceptual show in some ways — so the juggler is maybe given a task to have a conversation with the street dancer about music, and to understand how he listens to music, and to try to create juggling based on that information; then, doing it the other way round, the juggler explains the rhythm of his piece to a street dance performer — as a kind of score — and lets him create out of that. It’s a small show: 4m x 3m, and it’s going to fit normal apartment height, 2.5m. We’re going to play it in street dance and juggling festivals a lot and some club scenes, and then the next thing will be to bring it to the theatre — make it a bit longer and change the parameters of the stage, but keep the same concept.
And of course Undermän is going to go on touring and developing. They actually started a band for real now, the guys. I tried to find some gigs for them for next year, but they’re creating new songs all the time and they’re getting tighter and tighter. Andreas the musician and Matthias are doing an accordion duo thing... They’re really working together a lot on tour and doing a lot of kind of party music; it’s a good way to be on tour.
Olle was interviewed by John Ellingsworth 22 October 2011 on the high buzzy mezzanine of Festival Circa’s Maison du Festival.