In June, Iceland’s Sirkus Íslands kicked off a new summer of festivities. The company has been performing shows together since 2008, but this year marks an exciting new chapter. In April, with assistance from crowdfunding website Karolina Fund, they were able to acquire Iceland’s one and only circus tent. Twelve metres high and with capacity for 400 people, it is truly state-of-the-art. With this white and red striped tent at their disposal, Sirkus Íslands is ready to undertake Iceland’s first ever circus tour.
The Man Behind The Magic
In charge of this production is a man called “Wally the Clown” whose performance career has spanned roughly 100 countries. In his nearly decade long career in Iceland, he says securing a tent has been the most important step. “It was a very big process,” Wally tells me from the makeshift dressing room backstage. “Me and a friend of mine had to go to Italy to meet some old family of circus tent makers and pretend that we knew what we were talking about and order a tent for 100,000 Euros. We just tried to make the smartest decision with what we knew about tents, which wasn’t much, but it looks like we got it right.”
While the new tent gives Sirkus Íslands a home, establishing a circus in Iceland has been an ongoing, arduous process. When Wally, a.k.a Lee Nelson, came to Iceland from Australia nine years ago, he had to blaze his own trail. “The biggest challenge was actually building a circus in Iceland. You had to start from scratch—there was no circus culture here.”
Wally put up signs around Reykjavík advertising “free handstand classes.” Of the 25 people involved in the production, Wally guesses that about six of them are from that first handstand class. While performers come and go, Wally assures me that alumni are always welcome. “The circus is a family—you never leave the circus, you’re always welcome here and it’s always a home. You leave the country, you do whatever, but you can always come to me and ask for a job.”
Aside from Wally, he says every performer is Icelandic. In fact, Sirkus Íslands is now the largest independent arts industry employer in the Iceland. While many large performing arts companies receive government grants or funding, Wally remains adamant about staying independent. “If you can stand on your own two feet, you should,” he says with a grin.
Getting ready to embark on Iceland’s first circus tour with Iceland’s first circus tent, there is a tangible sense of excitement around the production. Each location they travel to, whether it’s Ísafjörður, Akureyri, Selfoss, or Keflavík, has been carefully selected for their splendour. “We have to make sure that all of our locations are beautiful,” he says. “We want it to be magical; we want it to be like a dream.
Wally’s goals for the summer are grand, but if the opening premiere is any indication, they might be well within reach. “I want my guys’ dreams to come true. They’ve followed me a long way to come to this point,” he maintains, “and I want to show the Icelandic nation that Iceland’s circus is just as good as it is outside of this country. We genuinely are good—we have great tricks, great timing and we’re professional.”
When Sirkus Íslands tours around the country, they will do so with their own tent in tow. Wally looks forward to establishing a temporary home for the company at each stop along the way, while at the same time forming a permanent home for circus culture in Iceland.
Sirkus Íslands Premieres At Klambratún
As I make my way into the tent, Sigur Rós’s joyous “Inni mér syngur vitleysingur” blasts through the speakers. I notice the unmistakable scent of Lucky Charms in the air—the ubiquitous aroma of childhood Saturday mornings in the States. The crowd gathered in the semicircle facing the stage consists mostly of parents with young kids, some grandparents, and a few groups of teenagers with edgy haircuts. I am certain that I’m the only person who ventured to the Sirkus Íslands premiere alone.
Nearly every child has a balloon animal in hand, and the old circus standbys—popcorn and cotton candy—are abundant. With a blue underbelly and dark red bleachers, the tent is at once cosy and furtive-feeling, as if it’s hiding something. The whimsy of a peppermint-patterned tent nestled in the corner of Klambratún park is somewhat offset by Coca-Cola and TVG Zimsen banners, but there’s still the sense that hidden inside, there’s tremendous energy.
As the lights dim, I begin to feel nervous. It hits me—I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I’d been to the circus once as a child and I barely remember it. The idea of a “circus” simply has not existed in any noticeable capacity in the popular culture I’ve been immersed in for the past decade. Is there going to be a seal balancing a ball on its nose? Mimes doing whatever mimes do? I have no clue.
The first act, involving two clowns, has the crowd laughing uproariously. The children are loving it, and after a couple jokes in particular, I distinctly hear adults laughing louder than their children. From that point on, it is an enjoyable onslaught of hilarity, complete with a diverse panoply of dancing, balancing acts, trapeze, and everything in between. From pole-dancing’s G-rated cousin (a performer impersonating a hunched old man who happens to have scary-good pole tricks) to a glow-in-the-dark hula-hoop and glowstick performance that would’ve been at home in neon-festooned downtown Tokyo, there is rarely a dull moment.
The finale, a workout ball routine that seems straight out of some bouncy Mario Party mini-game, but with more flips and throwing people, is a delightful way to end the show. If it’s not clear by this point, I had a great time. I had forgotten how much fun it is to simply sit back and watch people do really cool things. Sometimes they faltered, but that often accentuated the comedy, or the drama, or even some crazy combination of both.
Sirkus Íslands lives at Klambratún park in Reykjavík between June 25–July 13, and August 18–August 24.
Tour stops include Ísafjörður (á Eyrinni) between July 16–July 20; Akureyri (Drottningarbraut) between July 23–August 3; Selfoss (Sigtúnsgarði) between August 6–August 10; and Keflavík (Ægisgötu) between August 13–August 17.