Circus research

Interdisciplinary research at the forefront

Art and science have a lot in common. We both explore what it is to be human, cause and effect, the paradoxes, the light and the dark.

At Cirkus Cirkör we often hear that we enact “the existential” and that audiences leave our performances invigorated but with more questions than before. Much like the champions of science, we seek answers to life's big questions without knowing if or when we will find them. It is no coincidence that our former creative director, Tilde Björfors, is one of the world’s few circus professors. Co-creating with researchers continues to drive us forward.

The interdisciplinary search

The American composer Philip Glass, who, during the pandemic year 2020, composed the world's first circus opera, Circus Days and Nights, especially for Cirkör, firmly believes that "opera came from the circus, not from the church" and that "opera music is perfect for the circus". Here, on the borders between different art forms, is where the circus has always operated. Fittingly, Circus as a transgressor in art and society is the title of Tilde Björfors' dissertation.

Partner acrobats are driven by an ethos of cooperation, in addition to exploring what is possible to achieve mentally and physically through the body. The ensemble often shares a life-and-death bond, dependent on its collaboration with the technicians and riggers backstage.

Cirkör is fueled by what we call the interdisciplinary search. Tilde Björfors conducted her research closely with the Stockholm School of Economics and Karolinska Institutet. At the same time, Cirkör is engaged in ongoing research that spans various art forms such as circus, video art, dance and theatre studies.

The circus is interdisciplinary

With artistic research at its core, Tilde Björfors and affiliated researchers from other fields of science have expanded our knowledge of education, business administration, theatre studies, psychology and philosophy. The world is too complex to be understood other than through the contributions of a range of disciplines, in the same way that the various circus disciplines form a whole that emphasizes collective efforts before individual ones and where the odd, the difficult to understand, the unusual and almost always contradictory are seen as vital components of the whole. Much like groundbreaking research, Circus is not and will never be mainstream. Contemporary circus lives slightly on the sidelines of society yet aims to change it through its art.

A vital aspect of Cirkör’s artistic vision is to use the art of circus to push internal and external boundaries in art and society. Cirkör seeks what is singular, magical and risky. We hope to awaken people's sense of amazement through both majestic and minimal expressions on stage – and beyond the world’s major stages, into the streets and squares of cities, even up in the skies above, in two hot air balloons, like in our show Puff, a joint venture with Stockholm's Kulturfestival.

Fear and Brain Research

In my attempts to understand how risk and opportunity work, both physically, emotionally and mentally, I have come to devote a lot of time to the brain. I’ve always had this curiosity about what happens physically when we create, collaborate and learn. Why do some people dare to fly 30 feet (10 meters) above the ground while others don’t? Where are our courage and fear located? And not least, can we I affect them?

In other words, initially, her desire to grasp her own fears caused Tilde fall in love with the art of contemporary circus, which later led her to study the brain as an integral part of her research. Since the mid-2000s, the insights of neuroscience have increasingly influenced our workplaces in terms of how we view leadership and “employeeship”. In short, it means to be a human being at work – otherwise known as neuro-leadership. Basically, two social systems control the human brain: the first responds to threats and the second to rewards. The threat response is five times stronger than the reward response. Thus, in life, we are often driven by fear unless we make a conscious effort to process and work with it.

Circus reshapes the brain

Circus is a life and death affair; fear is ever-present. Research shows that you can restructure your brain, alter how it functions, and influence the onset of fear. Jacob Westin, a circus artist at Cirkör, talks about how he is sometimes asked if he is "out of his mind" when he bungee jumps from a hot air balloon. His answer:

No, on the contrary, I am in my mind. I have asked myself thousands of times if I can grab fear by the hand and jump, until my whole self – body and mind – says yes and knows exactly what do and does just that all on its own.

Research within the circus field confirms that aerial acrobats seek mastery and control rather than sensation.

By consciously practising circus features such as balance and being present, we can restructure our brains at the cellular level for the better and even create new brain cells – to keep our fears in check. Or more accurately, to make friends with our fear. Thus, the circus and brain research meeting describes what happens when the brain’s right and left hemispheres work together and how, for example, flow occurs within a circus artist effortlessly. It appears the instant before the flying trapeze artist lets go of the trapeze. Those watching also often experience a sense of total presence, a deep concentration that, despite its tension, is relaxed, open and expansive.

One flying trapeze artist described it as “a click in the brain” when he successfully executes a new movement or flight for the first time. By the same token, artists explain that it is much harder to unlearn a trick and relearn it the right way if one has initially learned how to execute it the wrong way. The connections in the brain must be redrawn. Juggling daily for six weeks has also been shown to stimulate the growth of the brain’s white matter, the part of the brain and spinal cord that carries information between nerve cells. Within the circus, we observe what happens in the body when we perform various physical exercises. Brain research, on the other hand, receives its information via scans, measurements and lab tests. In the space where circus and brain research meet, a language is created that helps us put life into words. A body philosophy meets physical thinking.

Creativity arises in collisions/friction

The circus creates a sense of wonder and an increased sensory intelligence in the long run. That is why experiencing circus, whether in a show, an exhibition or the workplace, helps us understand ourselves better or at least keeps us asking questions. The circus simultaneously immerses us in deep seriousness, lightness, play, and the non-verbal, touching us emotionally. The clown's gaze sees through all the facades we adults walk around with that prevent us from being open and authentic and from living in the faith that, within all our shortcomings, vulnerabilities and enormous abilities, we hold many fantastic ideas.

Through brain research – with the support of the attitudes, approaches and disciplines of the circus – we can find solutions to the significant challenges we face. Right and left hemispheres – different and complementary. At Cirkus Cirkör, we shaped our key concepts as three pairs of opposites, secure in the knowledge that it is in the collisions between the creative right hemisphere and the rational left that genuinely sustainable ideas arise. Thus, friction between two extremes is essential – both madness and quality – to realizing world-class circus and science. Qualitative madness is just one of our three guiding principles.

Business students meet Cirkör artists

Several times, Cirkör has collaborated with students from the Stockholm School of Economics, most recently on a research project where Emma Stenström, director of the university’s Center for Arts Business and Culture (ABC), was one of the affiliated researchers. Here, the students from the School of Economics helped provide the artists from Cirkör with left hemisphere tools, for example working with visions and concepts – which the artists were not accustomed to employing – to strengthen their brands as performers. This encounter with another way of thinking – or perhaps more accurately, another form of schooling – was extremely rewarding for the artists. Through their work with the performers, the students, in turn, came to realize that they, too, are creative beings and were struck by the insight that creativity and creating meaning are not always viewed as essential at the School of Economics. Many of the business students expressed a desire to see more emphasis on this in the future. Additionally, the students gained a deeper understanding of entrepreneurship from the artists, who are more internally driven, follow their passions and shape their own professional lives. The students were also inspired by how the artists had learned to harness risks, while the students, in turn, asked themselves if they had, in fact, become more adept at avoiding risk.

Cirkus strengthens trust

Some exciting observations have been made within the framework of Cirkör's concept Circus Transfer. Several primarily online workshops were recently carried out with 94 participants from the global insurance company Allianz, the Swedish Institute, students from the Stockholm School of Economics and artists from Cirkör. The purpose of all the workshops was to explore and enhance trust by using the circus's methods, approaches and attitudes. During the final three workshops, in connection with his Master’s thesis at Hyper Island, the former aerial acrobat Andreas Skjönberg asked the following question: Did the circus workshops increase your trust in the other participants? The results show that, on average, 72% of participants felt they had become more trusting.

Ethics, emotions and aesthetics build good leadership

The arts and circus have a bright future regarding group and leadership development, which is clearly illustrated in Julia Romanowska’s research at Karolinska Institutet on the effects of the “Shibboleth Concept”. Exposing managers and leaders to the existential issues that art raises has a significant positive impact on the managers’ colleagues and employees, far exceeding that of traditional leadership training. In short, Romanowska’s research concludes that increasing your aesthetic, emotional and ethical awareness as a human being is what allows you to be genuinely successful in a leadership role. Contemporary circus is a seminal influence in this area.  

At the Stockholm School of Economics, a workshop control group explored increasing trust between students through physical exercises but without the circus's methods, approaches and attitudes. Emma Stenström of the School of Economics found that the group that practised circus to a greater degree referred to insights gained through their workshop than the control group without circus experience.

Cirkör – a centre of knowledge

Cirkus Cirkör is a knowledge hub for contemporary art's artistic and technical development and is continuously working to evolve further in this direction. We vigorously strive to be a leader in performing arts technology and safety. We are inspired by looking for technological solutions in contexts outside the realm of performing arts and hope to work with technical universities and identify workshops, technical artists or artistic techniques on which we can base long-term collaborations. We are at the forefront of developing circus rigs and safety measures, and our goal is to train the riggers and technicians of the future. We hope to attract individuals who share our desire to foster technical developments within the performing arts with both an edge and scope. We look forward to hosting residencies for technical innovation within the arts. To this end, we always work together with our artists and base our development and innovations on their needs and ideas. For us, it is a given that everyone – from riggers to acrobats – should be involved from the very beginning, from the idea stage of a production concept.

The circus is circular

We have a deep interest in touring sustainably. Perhaps we will return to the roots of the circus in the USA and again begin touring by train? Increasingly, we use sustainable materials and, in keeping with the circus’s innate “circular thinking”, we strive to own as little as possible.

Join us!

We aim to create something new, go where others have not gone, play, evolve, grow and make the impossible possible. Would you like to play, conduct research, co-create, develop and innovate interdisciplinary arts with us? Get in touch.