A powerhouse of contemporary circus in the Baltics – An interview with Riga Circus’ Mãra Pãvula

  • Mara Pavula at Rigas Cirks worksite. Photo: Kristine Madjare
  • The dome of Rigas Cirks under renovation.
  • Illustration of the Riga Circus facade
  • Illustration of the reconstructed Riga Circus building.

Riga Circus, locally known as Rīgas cirks, is a contemporary art centre where different disciplines of art – circus, theatre, dance, music, and cinema – come together. It is also the biggest circus institution in Latvia and the only one that has steady state support. 

As a state-owned enterprise, it launched a new strategy for circus development in 2017. Its strategic aim is to develop professional circus art in Latvia. As a circus centre of regional and international importance, Rīgas cirks has three main working directions: artistic programmes, supporting artistic creation through residency programs and co-productions, and running circus leisure education programs for children and adults.

With a new CEO as of January 2022 and an ongoing repertoire (which includes O’DD by the Race Horse Company!), CircusInfo Finland decided it was time for a chat with the director of Rīgas cirks, Mãra Pãvula.

You have a lot going on at Rīgas cirks. What’s the current situation there at the moment?

This year has started like a sprint and is going to be a marathon. I am saying it both for myself, as I was nominated for the position of CEO in the beginning of the year, as well as for the whole organisation. After a long time of pandemic and restrictions, we have finally started an intense calendar again.

Our main priorities this year include of course the successful reconstruction of our historical building. We expect it to be ready in September. Meanwhile we are presenting rich and diverse artistic programming in other theatres around Riga and Latvia and establishing a stable base for a circus school in our temporary location. 

We have also decided to undertake a strong position in developing the local community and invest in the capacity building of artists – this is why we were so engaged in Beta Circus, a project that boosts European trends and artists in circus arts. We are also engaged with projects like the Baltic Circus Grassroot Network, whose main goal is for artists to take an active part in the decision making process, as well as Baltic Circus On the Road, a project that aims to build capacity for professional circus artists active in all three Baltic countries to produce tourable performances and show their work to international audiences. We also organise artistic residencies both for Baltic and international artists.

On 10–11 May, we will also hold the Riga International Conference of Circus Education (Riga ICCE) in collaboration with Cirkus Syd and consortia of other BNCN partners.

The Riga ICCE was first organised in 2018. What kind of discussions and programs can we now look forward to?

Riga ICCE is one of the most exciting events for circus education in the region, especially because we look at circus education not only in higher education but through the whole circle. 

This year the main theme is how we teach art in circus education. But actually, this topic is relevant not only in circus but in all art forms. How do we find balance between creativity and technique? It will be looked at through three perspectives: artistic thinking, inclusion, and physical literacy as crucial tools for using circus as a form of expression. 

This year’s conference will be unique in ways where there will be very few keynotes and the main ground will be given to peer-to-peer discussions and hands-on workshops. I see this as a great opportunity to create dialogue around important issues in circus and other art forms. I hope to see many international colleagues there.

Rīgas cirks has been open for five years now. You’ve been along for the ride since the beginning, first as the head of strategic development and now as its CEO. Rīgas cirks is an ambitiously multidimensional project funded by the government. What have its most important waypoints and successes been so far? And what do you look forward to in the next five years?

To be more precise, Rīgas cirks has been working under different forms for almost 130 years. It has been an important circus centre during different historical periods. Actually, it was a private institution up until the Second World War. I think it is important not to forget we have this enormous heritage to honour.

I joined the company in 2017 when the Latvian Ministry of Culture accepted a new strategy for circus development in the country, shifting from a traditional circus model to a more multidisciplinary and multifunctional approach.

I believe that the most important achievements of these five years are the new renovation project to adapt our historical building to the contemporary needs of artists and audiences, the creation of Riga circus school (leisure program), as well as introducing regular circus programming for local audiences.

The main focus for the next five years is not only to continue introducing circus arts to local audiences, but to become the regional centre for circus arts and foster the development of the local circus community. There is a lot that needs to be done – infrastructure for education and creation possibilities, the promotion of Baltic circus, and a lot of work in the field of advocacy.

What’s your team like at Rīgas cirks?

The Rīgas cirks team is a bunch of beautiful people. We are united by our love for circus and our core values. We are quite a small team actually. In total we are 17 and not all of them work full time, which is very little for national theatre with so many functions. The good part is that it allows us to work in a very flat and democratic structure that is based on trust.

To be honest, the team at Rīgas cirks is my biggest motivator and support.

Rīgas cirks is currently undergoing major renovations. How is it going, and when can we expect a grand opening? 

At the moment, the historical building of Rīgas cirks is undergoing its first phase of reconstruction in the frame of ERAF project of improving energy efficiency. The work started last May and will finish this autumn. It means that in autumn we are returning to a renovated arena with a new innovative dome construction made out of CLT panels. As far as we know, it will be a unique solution for dome construction throughout the world. It will be a multifunctional open space with possibilities to organise standing events and to host circus performances in the arena and on the frontal stage. 

The next stages will be the construction of a black box theatre, the circus school, and residency apartments. The exact dates for the next phase are not yet clear.

Architects are working with great respect to the architectural heritage, and have kept the original rail structure. The interior will be decorated with original wooden planks from the 19th century.

We hope to organise the grand opening festival in the beginning of 2023.

The Re Riga! Festival has brought contemporary circus to Riga even before Rīgas cirks took up the mantle. You’ve worked as its organiser almost since its beginning. How is the festival doing these days? Is it organised in connection with Rīgas cirks, and when can we expect the next festival to take place?

You are right, Festival Re Riga! has put the grounds for development of contemporary circus in Latvia and I would think there wouldn’t be the new concept of Rīgas cirks without it.

During the last few years we have been collaborating closely, and starting from this year, we have agreed as Rīgas cirks to overtake the festival brand to work on more strategic programming, which includes the season, Re Riga! Festival in August and Circus Night in November.

The focus in the festival will be multidisciplinary performances and site-specific works to reach wider audiences, whilst Circus Night will focus on showcasing emerging artists from Europe and the Baltics.

How usual is it for Rīgas cirks to be able to invite international guest performances? What kind of performances do you look for when you curate your repertoire, and what kind of shows reach the audiences in Riga the best?

Most of our programming is international. We have set a goal to reach 30% of programming made from companies from the Baltic states, but due to lack of propositions it is hard to achieve. We still need to build infrastructure and wait for the new contemporary circus generation to arise. As for programming, I don’t think there is a specific style that works better in Latvia. In contrast to our programming, we are aiming to bring very diverse performances and reach diverse audiences. We have to show how different circus can be, I think at this stage it is our main priority.

Rīgas cirks has been the host organisation of the Baltic Nordic Circus Network for these past few years. BNCN has evolved and gained new, young voices to its midst. What kind of future do you see for this network?

First, I would like to emphasise that BNCN is very unique in my eyes – as a relatively small network – as members are there for the development and not for their own interest. It has been a crucial partner for Rīgas cirks. I have personally been involved in BNCN since its very beginning, and since Rīgas cirks joined, we have always been active partners and even co-hosts. 

Regional collaboration is the only way the industry can thrive in countries that have relatively small populations. We are privileged to have wonderful partners who are willing to put an effort into the development of the field. The future of the network depends on partners – we have all managed to overcome our own internal difficulties after the pandemic, and we continue to work for the common good. 

Even after or co-hosting period will end, BNCN will always be able to count on us as a stable partner advocating for the need of cooperation

When it comes to the rise of contemporary circus in the Baltics, there has been a tremendous leap forward in the past few years – with Rīgas cirks involved in a lot of it. What is the most crucial factor for the further development and strengthening of circus in Latvia and the Baltic states? What does circus need right now?

I see the Baltics as one playground, if you can say so. Rīgas cirks is a very strong platform with a beautiful team who is ready to work on strengthening the infrastructure, but we are very limited in our means. We are working on programming, supporting creation, and developing education. It is a lot, but as we are the only ones in Latvia, we have no choice. Luckily, we have our partners in Lithuania and Estonia, cooperation is really the key.

For real development we need to sort out the infrastructure for both education and creation and advocate for the funding of the sector. In Latvia we have institutions for circus, but there is very little community. Estonia is the opposite, but Lithuania has a good mix.

I feel like during the pandemic, the Baltic community has grown stronger, also in terms of performances. If before we talked about almost no circus performances from the region, now we have published a catalogue with 22! Now these performances need the possibility to tour and meet audiences. I hope to see some of them travelling to Finland as well.

 

Mãra Pãvula is the CEO of Rīgas cirks, an appointment which began in January this year. Mãra works towards the development of contemporary circus in Latvia by producing events and regularly writing articles about circus for different media in the Baltics and abroad. Passionate about the development of contemporary circus, she is also a board member of the Baltic Nordic Circus Network and a member of Circostrada Network’s steering committee.

Read more about Rigas Cirks: https://cirks.lv/en/

Interview conducted by Essi Brunberg / Pragma Helsinki.