A unique piece of theatre: Circus Days and Nights by Cirkus Cirkör and Malmö Opera

Livestream; Malmö Opera House
May 29, 2021

When composer Philip Glass read Circus Days and Nights, a small book of poems by Robert Lax, he knew he’d found a gem. Ten years later he saw Tilde Björfors’ Cirkus Cirkör stage Satyagraha and realised that he had found the setting for his gem. This unique commingling of opera and circus has created something quite magical.

The circus, not unlike ballet, has addictive properties. Lax felt the pull and worked as a clown with the Cristiani family circus for several years in the 1940s. It was a traditional sweat and sawdust circus constantly on tour across the USA. The poems capture the rhythm of heavy manual labour and the adherence to ritual. In this manner it transcends common reality to find religious significance and the task of setting up the big top becomes a metaphor for the creation: “When we rolled out the sky/ when we set up the firmament.”

Elin Rombo and Nikolas Pulka in Circus Days and Nights
Photo Mats Bäcker

There is no small talk, only the fundamental question of the meaning of life and it is answered in practical form in the range of skills the artists of Cirkus Cirkör display. Strength, flexibility and dexterity are tested to extreme, but the defining quality is trust and honesty between partners.

Björfors bonds the human skills to Flax’s artless poetry and Glass’ sophisticated minimalism. The music cascades in repetitive waves opening the mind to new vistas and constantly driving forward while David Henry Hwang’s sensitive libretto hones in, like a heat-seeking missile, to the heart of the poems, both in thrall to Lax.

Gender is fluid, Lax is portrayed in his youth by soprano Elin Rombo who perfectly captures the sense of wonderment while the profundity of the mature poet is expressed by baritone Jakob Högström. There are no vocal fireworks, just poetry. The tumbling and flying assume an almost lyric quality as the vibrant, brash world of the circus reveals a reflective underbelly.

In the second act where the circus artists rehearse their skills, philosophic musing abounds. The closeness of danger seems to free the spirit to see future and past. In the crossover identities and skills blend. Mogador, played by aerial acrobat Nikolas Pulka, also takes a speaking role while Rombo hits a high note as she whirls around in the arms of an acrobat. The musicians too are part of the act, playing on the periphery and sometimes in the ring. This other world has breath-taking visuals, the tent is dismantled in a cloud of swirling silk, Beatriz Pantojo, in white tutu spins gracefully at the vortex of ropes and lights and Pulka dances in a hooped skirt of live fire.

The circus is a special place. Charles Dickens knew this, and these same skills are now being used in refugee camps to help restore hope and well-being to traumatised children. This is a perfect moment to bring Robert Lax’s poems back into the circus he so loved in a unique piece of theatre.