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Under(dog) art: Olle Strandberg

INTERVIEW! In 2005 Olle Strandberg broke his neck during a somersault. With the exclellent "Underart: Ode to a Crash Landing" the Swedish circus director contemplates his own paralysis and recovery, on at Chamäleon through February.

Image for Under(dog) art: Olle Strandberg
Photo by Mats Bäcker

Swedish circus director Olle Strandberg contemplates his own paralysis and recovery in Underart: Ode to a Crash Landing.

No sequins, no drum rolls. Strandberg’s Swedish brand of new circus is contemplative and abstract. This unique perspective is hard-earned: he broke his neck at the T4-5 vertebrae while practicing a triple somersault in 2005 and was completely paralysed. Over the past 10 years, he has made a miraculous full recovery – and in the coming months, he plans to recreate the same triple flip falling from a hot air balloon into a cloud (yes, a cloud). Underart plays at Chamäleon through February.

Tell us about how you developed this piece.

We went back to interview everyone – from my mother to the surgeon at the hospital where I was staying, to the people who did rehab, to circus performers who were close to the accident. So I gathered a lot of information and was writing out different important episodes for myself. Like the first time, after I was able to walk again, I went to a club with my neck brace on. It was this experience of freedom, to be clubbing again, super- thin and super-weak but just going for it, but then people were standing like five metres away from where I was dancing, like, “we’re not allowed to touch him.” I felt so free but also looked at in a really weird way. So that’s where the club dancing scene and then Methinee Wongtrakoon’s solo performance comes from in Underart. I’ve been really open to going to very abstract interpretations of concrete texts rather than making it 100 percent understandable.

Circus is all about risk, right? Has this crash made you more risk-averse?

I went to a club with my neck brace on. I felt so free, but also looked at in a really weird way.

It’s complicated. Circus is about risk, but it’s also about minimising risk, which is why we practice many hours every day. It’s not just so we can do more and more crazy stupid things, it’s so we can take the risks further without it becoming more dangerous. But what you see, if you don’t know the background, is just the risk taking. Like, it’s an obvious risk when Alexander Dam stands on those planks. We had to rehearse that a lot, and it was super-dangerous at the beginning. I’m interested in how much we can work with risk and failure without making decisions that are irresponsible. Actually in a few months, I’m going to redo the jump that I did when I was paralysed – it’s been a bit more than 10 years. So that’ll be a really fucked-up trick.

It’s amazing that you have recovered well enough to return to performing. It was a really severe injury.

After this very complicated operation, they said it went well but that I wouldn’t be able to put my own pants on ever again. That I got feeling in my legs – that I could walk – that was just not expected, really. Just luck. And I had a lot of support from the circus community, who have a really non-sentimental approach to the accident. They could start practicing and joking with me, they weren’t just devastated and feeling bad for me. I was even performing like six months after the accident, just a shitty performance walking around on stage. This was also before the big crisis in 2008, and I was a young, white male, almost two metres tall, who just had an accident in Stockholm – I got the best care that I could. So it’s privilege and luck, of course. I’m happy that we have such high taxes in Sweden.

Underart: Ode to a Crash Landing, daily 20:00; Sat 18:00 and 21:30; Sun 18:00 (except Dec 19 and 24) | Chamäleon Theatre, Mitte