Cirkuliacija festival brings together the local people with circus professionals in Kaunas – An interview with Gildas Aleksa

  • Cirque Aïtal: Pour le meilleur et pour le pire. Photo: Mario Del Curto
  • Eliška Brtnická: Staircase
  • Cirkuliacija festival in Kaunas

The International festival of contemporary circus Cirkuliacija is a platform that breaks stereotypes about the circus and becomes a meeting point to discuss, share experiences and learn from each other. The festival takes place during June 4–19, 2022 in non-traditional urban spaces in the city of Kaunas in Lithuania. It presents a variety of contemporary circus disciplines, performances and artistic views from Lithuania and abroad. 

This year’s festival includes professional days during June 8–11, 2022. The Circostrada network will have its general meeting in the context of the festival and the Baltic-Nordic Samovar Circles project will gather for a meeting there. As Kaunas soon becomes a true hotspot of circus professionals, CircusInfo Finland invited the driving force behind it, the artistic director, Gildas Aleksa, for an interview. 

How did the Cirkuliacija festival get started? 

The Cirkuliacija festival started in 2015. My day job is a theatre director. I saw contemporary circus on the internet and I wanted to create a show. Then I realised I cannot do it without circus performers. But we didn’t have any circus performers in Lithuania, so we started a small educational festival in which we organised workshops for other types of disciplines including circus. 

In 2017, one Lithuanian artist graduated from Lido (circus school Ésacto’Lido) and they wanted to tour Lithuania with their diploma show. I said yes to organising it. This is how the festival got started. Together with them came a Swiss company with a tent. The municipality gave us a place in the suburbs and not in the city centre. I saw the communication that happened [between the audience and the artists] and that it worked out well and I said I want to do this every year! – Now the festival has grown so big, there is no way back! 

Kaunas was chosen for the location because I lived there at that time and because Vilnius already had a circus festival. Kaunas only has the national theatre and one chamber theatre, but no other spaces for performing arts. Even the municipal dance company does not have a venue for presenting their shows. So, Cirkuliacija is a kind of activism. 

We present each year new places that could be potential venues. We create temporary cultural spaces in the city and encourage the officials to create more opportunities for performing arts. Also because there is a lack of cultural programming, the people of Kaunas have stereotypical assumptions about circus, people of colour and all kinds of otherness. We bring artists to the festival and make them communicate with the local people because artists are very good at communicating. And then we just see the magic happen!     

The festival is organised in a new district in Kaunas each year. What does this mean in practical terms?

When I am curating the festival programme, I put a show into a neighbourhood or a suburb designed in a way that correlates to the place. Initially, when I was asked to create site-specific shows, I understood that without enough resources it cannot be done. But what can be done is, to create a dramaturgy with shows that are ready and bring them to the suburb. So, we take a ready-made art piece, i.e. a show, and combine it with a sequence of other shows and curate it into the neighbourhood. Each edition of the festival is authentically created for the neighbourhood so that it has a story to tell. – Until now this has worked quite well. 

This year we decided to go to Šančiai, which is a neighbourhood divided into lower and upper parts. Practically going to a new neighbourhood each year means a lot of problems to solve. Currently, all the venues are too low and we don’t yet have confirmation of all spaces and the festival is soon starting. This means a lot of stress. The local organisations, like schools, work too slow from the festival point of view. 

How are the festival venues then – do you use tents? 

In the last few years, we did not use tents, but now we do. A tent captures attention in the surroundings. This year we use both spaces adapted as a temporary theatre and a tent. It is a financial catastrophe but it should work well. A tent is also important in tackling the stereotypes of circus. Usually, the narrative that happens is: in the beginning, everybody is angry asking where the elephants are and in the end, they don’t want us to leave. This is what we want to happen.    

This year is special, as Kaunas also has the cultural capital project and the Cirkuliacija festival will also have an international audience. – How will the professional days be? 

Because Kaunas is the European Capital of Culture this year, we decided in Circostrada that it would be nice to gather there for the general meeting. We, as a festival, don’t work with the Capital of Culture project and we don’t get money from them. The festival receives support from the Lithuanian council for culture, a little bit from the ministry and a little bit from the municipality. 

We talked together with our colleagues from Latvia and Estonia, that because Circostrada is coming to Kaunas and it is such a huge opportunity, we need to present everything we have in the Baltics. We wanted to create a platform for presenting the artists who work in their home base to the European presenters. Within the Baltics, we already have done projects together: a network, a catalogue and shows created with production support, so we want to present that and we also push our artists to pitch and present their cultural and artistic ideas. 

This year we became a member of the Circus Next and we decided to do a national selection of Circus Next projects on stage. We will invite the professionals to watch all the work-in-progresses so that they get to know what is happening and what is in development in the Baltic circus scene. We are squeezing everything out of the Circostrada meeting and we hope it will bring some new processes to the region. 

Baltic circus and also dance have become a strong label. How has this been achieved? Has it been natural to join forces between organisers? 

To begin with, I think it is a question of quantity. Each country has only a few circus artists and they already collaborate, so it has been easy for the presenters also to collaborate. Lithuania has an independent circus centre and a festival, Latvia has a state circus with a budget for salaries and Estonia has the most artists because they have 20 years of circus education there. It is logical to combine all that; to use our festival, their salaries and strategic thinking and their artists, to join forces and to be almost on the same level as the Western and Nordic European countries.  

Besides the Baltic circus showcase, you will also have other international shows in the festival programme? 

Yes we do. Even if Circostrada members would not come, this is what would happen at the festival; the international programme and all the stuff that happens in the evenings. 

Most of the international guest performances come from France or Belgium and the Circostrada members might have seen them already. Now that I see how many international presenters are coming, it is a sensitive question for us to leave enough space in the auditorium also for the local community to see the shows. Our main job is to motivate the local community to consume culture and to meet with circus. But what can happen this year is that the local community communicates not only with each other but with the whole of Europe. They can discuss the show with people from anywhere, and this can create new magic.  

In the beginning, the festival team was a group of enthusiastic young people. Now we are professionals who ask questions like “What are we doing? Can we optimise this somehow?” I think this might kill the magic, so I need to maintain the craziness in it. We need to risk it all because it works in the end. We don’t have safe salaries. We pay the professionals that are not crazy enough to do it without and we are dependent on box office income. The festival team consists of five people, a project manager, me as the artistic director, a technical manager, a communications manager and an education and volunteer coordinator. 

This year we bring “Pour le meilleur et pour le pire” by Cirque Aïtal to the festival, although it is eating all the budget. We want the local people to see it because it is classic and it is very good at tackling the stereotypes about circus. We also have a very beautiful show “2 metres” by Jesse Huygh & Rocio Garrote. It is an outdoor show with free admission. Jesse is a Chinese pole artist with cystic fibrosis and has to be with an oxygen tank. So his colleague holds the oxygen tank with a 2 metres oxygen tube so that he can perform the show. They want to perform the show in front of the hospital to bring empowerment. 

The festival starts with “Korobka”, which is an absolutely fantastic show by Henrik and Louise. It presents documentic circus and starts this year’s festival theme of circus families or the duos. Because Kaunas has its problems with diversity we bring “Cuir” by En Loup pour l’homme, which is a French show by two men very naked doing acrobatics. So we want to provoke. It is a beautiful show about a non-hierarchical relationship. We also bring experimental artist Eliška Brtnická from the Czech Republic with her site-specific show. She comes to a staircase in the neighbourhood and does aerials in it. It is a circus installation. These five shows are super fantastic and I hope that enough people will enjoy them. 

How do you pick up the shows for your festival? Do you choose shows you have not seen live? 

During the pandemic when we could not travel, I have chosen shows without seeing them live. I also trust some recommendations, If I cannot see a show and I think it might work. Sometimes I have a hunch that the show should be good, or if I know the artist and trust him/her, especially when booking a show before it premiered. But usually, I go and I see shows. – What is nice with the concept of Cirkuliacija is that it allows me to bring shows that are not new. I can bring old shows that fit into the neighbourhood. And if I bring some megastars, I tell them that nobody knows you here, you have to prove yourself!  

I usually go to Subcase. I have also been in BIAC, in Auch etc. Yesterday I got an invitation to a festival in Portugal which is great! I will apply for mobility funding to get back on the road again. Next, I would like to go to Canada. This is because, in 2023, Cirkuliacija will have no white bodies, only coloured and indigenous people and so on. So I need to create the connections for this. 

Gildas, you have many projects going on at the same time. You are a man of many talents. What keeps you busy besides the festival at the moment? 

I work as a theatre director. My company Teatronas is in charge of a theatre company, a festival and Cirko Sapiens, a circus centre in Kaunas. 

My life is not as easy as it seems: this week I am finishing directing a show for the students at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, where I am teaching. In two weeks, we are presenting a huge premiere in the Arts Printing House. It is the first time Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is translated and staged in Lithuania. It is a work of six years and it has been very difficult to combine the schedules of ten freelance actors. The play and my staging of it as a show and dinner talks a lot about violence but in a philosophical way. I think these are times when we have to speak about violence and where it comes from. We need to reflect on it and not neglect it. – So the war is also on my table and the question of how to help. 

One of the roundtables in the Circostrada meeting will be: How to help in times of crisis even if you are a circus organisation. We will bring Ukrainian artists and we will discuss how to help but not in an offensive way. We want the people who come to the meeting to take home capacities to help, because the situation will not get better soon. 

Gildas Aleksa is the artistic director of the theatre company of Teatronas, the international contemporary circus festival “Cirkuliacija” and the first and only contemporary circus centre in Lithuania “Cirko Sapiens”. He graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and has staged and directed theatre performances of classic and new drama for this company Teatronas. 

Read more about The Cirkuliacija festival:

Interview conducted on May 9, 2022 by Johanna Mäkelä / CircusInfo Finland.