Lithuanian Culture Institute

Contemporary Circus

Contemporary circus in Lithuania 

Aušra Kaminskaitė


Tradition and its revival

Circus art, like most other arts, today is highly interdisciplinary and difficult to define. Nonetheless, in terms of history and form, it can be divided into three categories: traditional, modern and contemporary.

In public discourse, it is more common to differentiate two circus poles, those of traditional and contemporary circus, associating the former with the circus widely familiar from the “Big Top”, while identifying the latter with performances that integrate circus disciplines seen in the theatre. However, such distinction is not quite accurate. The real tradition of circus lies in the circus disciplines, first of all, floor acrobatics, juggling and clowning art, which were started by street performers a few millennia ago. Circus tents called chapiteau were a sign of modern circus, which was determined by the integration of horse performances in circus shows, which required a round performance area. The sets of performances from different disciplines that took place in them connected by interactive insertions by a circus director or clowns were a typical manifestation of the modern circus.

In the 1970s, an art form called the New Circus spread in France, at the same time beginning to be popular in Canada, where it was called contemporary circus. In terms of form, those were works closer to theatrical or dance performances, and usually based on the linear narrative and/or theme. The foundations of the majority of such works became the basis for the disciplines that were being perfected in traditional and modern circus, but today the creators of circus do not shy away from searching for more conceptual circus expressions by levelling the aspects considered to be its core. For example, John-Paul Zaccarini, the first professor in the field of circus art, interviewed during the Circulation Festival (Cirkuliacija) in Lithuania, some time ago deliberately created a slow, non-dynamic, rather tedious performance that opposed circus standards.

The development of contemporary circus in Lithuania is undeniably slow, and that is somewhat unexpected, considering the extremely rich history of modern circus in Lithuania. In the 19th century, the only Bear Academy in Europe operated in Smurgainys (present-day Smorgon in Belarus), where bears were trained for European circuses. At the beginning of the 19th century, stationary circuses operated in Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania, reaching the capital Vilnius at the end of the century.

At the end of the 19th century – the beginning of the 20th century, Lithuania also had world-famous modern circus artists. Among the first were Vladislovas Januševskis-Janušauskas (stage name Kadyr Guliam), who worked in Poland, Germany and Uzbekistan, and Ivanas Radunskis, who founded the clown duo Bim-Bom, which performed in the largest circus arenas in Europe. However, the foundations for the Lithuanian circus were unequivocally laid by Jonas Ramanauskas, whose descendants remain some of the most outstanding artists and organisers of modern circus even today.

After Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century, the development of the circus was helped by the government’s approval of the genre. Nonetheless, next to several professional communities, the circus field was dominated by folk collectives and clubs, in other words, amateurs who influenced the image of the circus as a frivolous and unprofessional genre that formed in the country over time. According to the current creators of the modern Lithuanian circus, no less of an impact on the decline of the circus came in the first years after Lithuania regained its independence when state institutions stopped funding the circus leaving it to fate.

The modern circus found itself in a peculiar pit – artists lost the vital funding needed to cover the costs of large-scale performances (tents, costumes, animal care, etc.), while spectators who saw amateur circus did not consider the circus as professional art. A little later, the situation was exacerbated by movements for animal rights, which made it increasingly difficult for animal trainers to withstand public pressure (recently, the Ąžuolynas Little Bear Circus (Ąžuolyno meškučių cirkas), which had been operating in Lithuania for several decades, was forced to close). Such a decline in the 1990s inspired the need to reshape the Lithuanian circus from the core. Probably due to five decades of forced detachment from Western culture, the revival took place while maintaining the direction of the modern circus, not taking a single step towards the contemporary circus. In 1995, circus artist Petras Variakojis (nephew of Jonas Ramanauskas) founded the first Lithuanian travelling circus named Baltic Circus (Baltijos cirkas), which today has the largest – 900 seats – circus tent in the Baltic States.

Later, the modern circus was being revived in smaller Lithuanian towns. In Šakiai, Raimondas Januševičius and Itana Januševičienė founded the Šakiai Circus School, which also operates in the surrounding areas, struggling to accommodate all the children eager to have circus training. The school also runs the biennial festival Circus Lights (Cirko žiburiai).

First encounters

After the restoration of independence and the change of political regimes, the fracture that the circus experiences by losing state support did not become a pretext for creating new directions of the genre. This is not difficult to explain, as in Lithuania circus disciplines were mostly taught in families, as opposed to in schools based on educational programmes. Naturally, from a young age, artists who received training from their closest people also inherited a distinct concept of creativity, which was not so easy to question in a closed environment. Thus, the contemporary circus in Lithuania missed the opportunity to become a branch of the already existing circus and had to start developing as a separate field of performing arts.

For the first time, Lithuania got acquainted with the contemporary circus at the international theatre festival LIFE, a large part of the 1999 programme of which consisted of performances in this genre, performed in a massive circus tent. However, those performances did not find their audiences, as target audiences for festivals were typically theatre-goers, and they did not seem to be willing to pay large sums for tickets to the circus at that time, while circus-lovers did not feel tempted by the programme of the so-called high culture event. After this event, the contemporary circus left Lithuania for another seven years.

International festivals

The first firm step was taken at the Arts Printing House in Vilnius, the founder and then director of which Audronis Imbrasas organised the festival New Circus Weekend (Naujojo cirko savaitgalis) in 2006. From the very beginning of the festival, which has been annual since then, the French circus has played an important role in it. The first festival organised together with the French Cultural Institute in Vilnius, it invited audiences to get acquainted with the work of the famous juggler Jérôme Thomas through the performance Lili Circus and creative workshops. The festival has been growing steadily and, although still called a “weekend”, for the past decade has been taking place over almost a week. It has hosted such well-known names in the world of modern circus as Gandini Juggling (Great Britain), Patrick Léonard from the troupe 7 Fingers (Canada), WHS (Finland), El Nucleo (France), Svalbard (Sweden) ), Claudio Stellato (Belgium), Angela Wand (Sweden), Gravity & Other Myths (Australia), Galapiat Cirque (France) and Kapsel (Sweden).

New Circus Weekend became a springboard for the formation of the Lithuanian contemporary circus. Most Lithuanians who graduated from or studied at schools abroad got acquainted with the genre through the festival, and it was within its programme that many of them presented their somewhat unsteady first steps that over time led to their current work to the Lithuanian public for the first time. As a result of that, as part of the Lithuanian Circus Afternoon (Lietuvos cirko popietė) held within the festival in 2020, the Lithuanian artists, together with their foreign colleagues, presented as many as six performances, four of which can be considered full-length circus pieces. It was the most successful Lithuanian contemporary circus event to date that proved that the country already has strong professionals capable of creating high-level performances.

An important role in laying the foundations of the Lithuanian contemporary circus was played by the theatre director Gildas Aleksa and the team of the association Teatronas that he founded. In 2013, they initiated the Contemporary Circus Festival Kaunas 2013 (Šiuolaikinio cirko festivalis Kaunas 2013). The programme of this experimental festival featured the performance Maja directed by Aleksa and Contemporary Circus Afternoon, which attracted participants closer to the direction of the street circus. In 2015, the festival was renamed Circulation and dedicated to circus education. During it, creative workshops in the contemporary circus were organised, the results of which were presented at public events. In 2017, the festival changed its direction, concentrating on the artistic programme, which was presented in a residential Kaunas quarter located quite far from the centre. This has become a distinctive sign of Circulation, as since then, the organisers have been bringing the circus to the yards of different residential quarters of the city every year.

The programme of Circulation has in recent years included troupes such as Race Horse Company (Finland), Barely Methodical Troupe (UK), Be Flat (Belgium), Circus I Love You (Sweden, Finland, France) and GLiMT (Denmark). The team behind this young festival organised with limited resources believe that what attracts such troupes to come is the idea of the festival: its attention to local communities, moving away from central city squares, integration of social activities and giving meaning to urban spaces. In 2020, Canadian artist Claudel Doucet remotely led the creative workshops for circus artists gathered in Lithuania, and the results of her work were presented in the Vilijampolė quarter as a thematically coherent chain of performances, informed by the memory of the former Jewish ghetto that existed there.

Clowning art is the pioneer of the Lithuanian contemporary circus

The organisation that had and continues to have a significant impact on the development of contemporary clowning art in Lithuania is RED NOSES Clowndoctors (RAUDONOS NOSYS – Gydytojai klounai), established in Lithuania in 2010, which in 2013 became a member of the international network RED NOSES Clowndoctors International. As it began international activities, especially with the opportunity to learn social clowning art from experienced foreign teachers, several professional actors joined the organisation. One of them is Indrė Lencevičiūtė, who later studied clowning art at Jacques Lecoq’s school (Ecole internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq) and Théâtre-Ecole Le Samovar. Dancer Marija Baranauskaitė also started her career as a clown at Raudonos nosys, later deciding to choose the path of physical theatre and clowning art.

After spending several months at the LASSAAD school in Brussels and several more at the famous Philippe Gaulier school in Paris (Ecole Philippe Gaulier), Baranauskaitė returned to the Lithuanian stage with a unique piece, Sofa project, integrating clowning art and physical performance art practices, the target audience of which are sofas. It has also become one of the few performances in Lithuania the creative process of which is divided into several stages, presenting to Lithuanian and foreign audiences quite different versions of it at each stage. The artist continues to perform the Sofa Project, as well as further developing the idea and practice of art objects.

It would not be incorrect to say that the contemporary professional Lithuanian clowning art is primarily formed by the French school, especially by the traditions and philosophy of Philippe Gauller. Lithuanian theatre performers, as well as the members of the Red Noses who did not study performing arts, all learnt from him. One of such students is Žilvinas Beniušis, who founded the Contemporary Intellectual Clowning Art Theatre (Šiuolaikinės intelektualios klounados teatras) in 2020. It should be stated though that so far it features performances that are closer to drama theatre comedy than purer clowning art. The same is true about the creative output of the clowning theatre studio Dulidu, which has been operating in the port city of Klaipėda for many years, the founders of which also recently visited Gaullier’s school.

It is interesting that clowning can be called the pioneer of a professional contemporary circus in Lithuania, although, in comparison with the modern circus, the significance of a clown in the contemporary circus is considerably smaller. In the contemporary circus, which creates  conceptual performances and values the idea above the impression, there is no need to reduce the tension of dangerous tricks or entertain the audience while the artists prepare for the next performance, which were the tasks of modern circus clowns. However, the reasons for that are not difficult to discern: the skills of a clown, in contrast to those of an acrobat or a juggler, seem to be closest to those of an ordinary person, i.e. they do not require many years of physical preparation. This makes it a favourable direction of specialisation for actors whose education and experience provide the basis for developing clowning art.

Panorama of circus artists

Today, the contemporary Lithuanian circus goes far beyond clowning. The first Lithuanian to acquire a university degree in circus arts, Monika Neverauskaitė, who studied at the Codarts in Rotterdam and Le Lido in Toulouse schools in Rotterdam, chose the disciplines of Cyr wheel and handstand. The latter is considered as part of floor acrobatics and is one of the most popular directions of specialisation chosen by Lithuanians. For example, Džiugas Kunsman, a student of the FLIC school in Italy, chose the hand to hand discipline, the elements of which he used in the show Where do I connect? created together with Adrian Carlo Bibiano and presented at the Lithuanian Circus Afternoon in 2020. A similar direction is characteristic of Kęstas Matusevičius, a student of the Finnish SaSak circus school, who has been developing hand to hand and dance acrobatics and who returned to Lithuania with fellow aerial acrobats Aino Mäkipää (specialisation Chinese pole) and Lyla Goldman (specialisation aerial silks), with whom he founded Kanta Company, which presented its first performance Clothes and Us at the Lithuanian Circus Afternoon. In it, Matusevičius integrated the disciplines of juggling and object manipulation, which he first began to develop in adolescence as part of the team of fire-eaters Fire Circle (Ugnies ratas).

London resident Giedrė Degutytė, who in her performances integrates the disciplines of hula-hoop and clowning, could also be party considered a juggler and a “manipulator”. However, overall, juggling and object manipulation is not yet a popular discipline in Lithuania. Only Aleksandras Lempertas, who currently lives in Germany and sometimes performs at the New Circus Weekend, has been consistently developing it. On the other hand, these disciplines were the core features of the first contemporary circus performance created in the country, The Magic Tree (Stebuklingas medis), by the self-taught juggler Mantas Markevičius. Having later staged several more performances with the team of Antigravitacija, the artist has hardly appeared on the professional stage in recent years.

One of the most famous circus artists in Lithuania, known not only to lovers of performing arts but also to television viewers, is an aerial acrobat Konstantin Kosovec, who for many years independently and at foreign teachers’ seminars has been improving the technique of rope and sometimes also aerial silks. Currently, he is studying at DOCH School in Sweden and will soon become the second Lithuanian circus artist to hold a university degree in circus arts. Kosovec also heads the Association of Contemporary Circus (Šiuolaikinio cirko asociacija), founded in 2018 at his, Marija Baranauskaitė’s and Elena Kosovec’ initiative. The main activity of the association is educating circus artists and maintaining and improving their skills.

In 2016, together with another artist specialising in rope technique Elena Kosovec, Konstantin Kosovec founded the troupe Taigi cirkas, whose performances are filled with existential moods, lyricism and dance elements. Aerial acrobat Izabelė Kuzelytė, who for many years has been improving and experimenting with aerials silks technique and is currently studying at FLIC school, often performs with them.

Educational pathways

Lithuanians were introduced to the possibilities of the FLIC school by the Italian circus dramaturg and director Roberto Magro, who can be called one of the godfathers of the Lithuanian contemporary circus. He visited Vilnius for the first time at the 2015 New Circus Weekend, where he led workshops in circus dramaturgy, improvisation, aerial acrobatics, balancing and movement drama. His mentoring and personality attracted local artists, which resulted in Magro’s regular returns to Lithuania to this day, both as a leader of individual workshops and as a director and teacher of creative processes, the results of which are presented at circus and other festivals. Magro is one of the most important figures that inspired Lithuanian artists to consistently improve and persevere with the chosen path.

So far, the development of the professional contemporary circus in Lithuania is unimaginable without foreign schools and teachers. Although actors are now taught clowning art in the country’s higher education institutions (Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, Klaipėda University), and elements of acrobatics are sometimes integrated into classes on stage movement, circus schools dedicated exclusively for adults are still to open in Lithuania, let alone institutions that would offer academic degrees.

At the end of 2020, the team of Teatronas association established the Cirko Sapiens centre, where they started organising classes on circus disciplines and artistic expression for children, teenagers and adults. It remains the only place in Lithuania where people of any age can learn this genre. The founders state that the opening of the centre was prompted by the need that emerged during the Circulation when people who saw the performances wanted to try such activities themselves and kept asking where it could be done. The organisers realised that they could not answer that question, so over time, they decided to create such opportunities for townspeople of all ages interested in the contemporary circus.

Actually, the Circus Academy of Arts has been operating in Kaunas since 2013,  so why establishing another educational institution? The answer, of course, lies in the fundamental difference between the forms of the modern and contemporary circus which is the role of the idea of the performance. Modern circus schools usually teach exclusively classical disciplines in order to teach children the breathtaking tricks that inspire awe when performed on stage. Meanwhile, schools that choose the direction of contemporary circus, alongside classical disciplines (and their derivatives), teach subjects that are closer to theatrical preparation: directorial and dramaturgical harmony, development of ideas, as well as other arts (for example, dance). This is determined by the nature of the two circus strands: the modern circus is based on many short performances connected by the host (circus director) or clowns, while in the contemporary circus, connecting the scenes and the integrity of the work is the responsibility of the performers themselves.

For a long time, education in contemporary circus in Lithuania took place only in the form of creative workshops. For many years, seminars have been organised within the New Circus Weekend, and later during the Circulation. Today that is carried out by the Association of Contemporary Circus, as well as the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre, which in 2017 expanded its activities to the areas of statistics’ collection, education, representation and promotion of circus arts. For some time now, circus performances can also be seen as part of the programme of the festival New Baltic Dance that the Centre organises, prepared by its director Gintarė Masteikaitė, who led the New Circus Weekend in 2015-2018. The growing popularity of the genre sometimes reaches smaller towns as well, as performances regularly take part in the art festival Plartforma organised in Klaipėda, ConTempo taking place in Kaunas, and recently have started to be shown within the festival COM•MEDIA organised by Alytus City Theatre. Contemporary circus performances have also been included in the programme Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022.

Directions for new perspectives

One of the latest circus initiatives in Lithuania is the integration of contemporary circus forms in the Visaginas Sports Centre, the fact that deserves to be the closing act of the introduction to the country’s contemporary circus written at the beginning of 2021. Although the circus in Visaginas was especially popular during the Soviet era, and several students of the Centre went on to work in the performances of Cirque du Soleil during the years of independence, the institution never deliberately trained circus artists and most athletes attending the Centre did not encounter contemporary circus performances. In 2019, the then manager of the New Circus Weekend,  Audronis Imbrasas, initiated a new event, the New Circus Station in Visaginas, bringing the performance Forgotten Babel by the Swedish troupe Kaaos Kaama, who were visiting Vilnius, to the city’s sports centre.

At present, the contemporary circus in Lithuania seems to have gained great momentum and, after many years of hard work, to finally be raising its head towards full-fledged professional art. Performances created in Lithuania and/or by Lithuanians are already characterised by well-developed techniques and strongly delivered artistic ideas, and the number of applications for funding of circus projects is increasing. What is most gratifying and attesting to the maturity of the genre, however, is the dialogue that is being developed between the representatives of contemporary and modern circus. The branches of the same art, which have been growing separately, today are learning to communicate, to learn from each other’s best examples and (although this is not yet that obvious) to strengthen each other at the political level. This suggests that the accelerated development of the contemporary circus will soon lead to both a positive public attitude and an effective and meaningful expression of the circus.