The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cirque du Soleil, it’s not. Cirkus Cirkor is less about spectacle and more about mission.

Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkor performs “Limits.” (Mats Backer/Courtesy Cirkus Cirkor)
Placeholder while article actions load

Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkor has arrived in Washington with an agenda to soften hearts about strict border policies, and occasionally this mission leads to fascinating art. “Limits,” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Saturday, opens with a breathtaking image of an aerialist springing high over the stage and almost vanishing into billowing fabric that’s like the ocean’s surface. Only her churning legs can be seen.

We are viewing from underwater, and the image forces us to consider the thousands of displaced people who have drowned in recent years trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The British hit “Oil” strikes a vein at the Olney Theatre Center

The show, conceived and directed by Tilde Bjorfors, isn’t always that evocative, and you should know that the aesthetic of Cirkus Cirkor is deliberately handmade, with cast members moving the sets and operating the flying systems in plain view. This is not the high-tech, big-budget enterprise of Cirque du Soleil; the design is mainly the stage truss plus some occasionally flashy lights. The costumes are everyday tights and trousers. If you’re hoping for glossy style and stunts performed on a massive scale, this will disappoint.

For Bjorfors, though, the human proportion underlines the bald political point: Catch people who are falling. When lives get flipped, lend a hand.

“Limits” never loses sight of this context (which is mainly focused on Europe), though the informative voice-overs and projected statistics are brief. They set a tone that’s propelled by Samuel “LoopTok” Langbacka’s original score, played live by the musician, as the half-dozen performers execute routines vaguely dramatizing the issue: scampering over a fence about 12 feet high, for instance, with acrobats stacking themselves atop one another, or bouncing off walls repeatedly and exhaustingly from a trampoline.

At some point, the act inevitably becomes about how many clubs a juggler can keep aloft and how daring it looks when Oscar Karlsson and Nilas Kronlid fling each other into the air from a teeterboard. The small scale mitigates the daredevil quality, but on the other hand, Bjorfors sometimes makes a virtue of the unvarnished basics. Saara Ahola offers a tutorial in balance and trust as one of the men holds her overhead and catches her as she flips. Watching her shimmy up a slender rod to the truss and hang there without a safety line or spotter is pretty dramatic.

Sarah Lett spins inside a Cyr wheel (like a big hula hoop) with rock-star flair, and Peter Aberg supplies deadpan humor during a stretch of juggling that doesn’t look too technical but that includes a charming musical surprise. The rejection of spectacle keeps the evening personable, but “Limits” doesn’t leap up into must-see status unless you’re captivated by the prospect of an activist circus.

Cirkus Cirkor: Limits, conceived and directed by Tilde Bjorfors. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. $19-$85. 202-467-4600.

Becky Sharp returns in Kate Hamill’s stripped-down ‘Vanity Fair’

Two plays set at the intersection of race and violence in America