Finland’s first circus professor unites many art forms under a big tent

Live video, virtual reality, archery: Finnish circus is going in directions you probably never imagined as a kid. And now circus art has a professor, too.

Brazilian-born Luis Sartori do Vale has earned Finland’s first artist professor grant in circus art with his freewheeling, cross-genre mix of juggling, new magic, physical theatre and video art.

He continues to conjure up creative ideas and perform them with a wide-ranging cast of friends and collaborators.

A mix of art forms

A stage is divided into two halves by a wall, with a man watering flowers in a room on one side and two men developing photos in a darkroom on the other side.

The company Portmanteau, cofounded by Luis Sartori do Vale, makes use of photography in more ways than one in its performance Pimiö (“Darkroom” in Finnish).Photo: André Baumecker

A hand drops a needle on a scratchy phonograph. Others place a picture frame around an upside-down, projected image of a flower pot. Hands water the flowers with a watering can, while other hands pour water from a pitcher into a darkroom developing tray.

While one man sits in a room with the plant, two others work in a darkroom, with images being composed, photographed, developed and shown before a live audience. This surreal 2023 performance, entitled Pimiö (Darkroom) is one of the latest works by do Vale’s Portmanteau company, founded in 2018.

While people with childhood memories of an old-fashioned circus under a big top might not recognise this as such, “contemporary circus is a mix of different art forms,” says do Vale. He adds, “The fact that it’s such a fluid genre is what attracts me and gives me freedom to work.”

Playful style

The world is in motion in this trailer for Pendulum, a 2020 performance by Luis Sartori do Vale and Thom Monckton.Video: Kallo Collective

Do Vale, who also illustrates children’s books, says, “By abandoning certain rules of traditional circus – which usually works with animals, focuses on technical virtuosity and performs in circular rings and tents – contemporary circus aims to create performances that open a dialogue with other arts, borrowing elements from theatre, dance, music, video, visual arts and architecture.”

His playful, cross-genre style earned him Finland’s first-ever five-year artist professorship for circus art, conferred by the state-funded Arts Promotion Centre Finland, starting in 2024. An artist professorship is accompanied by a grant lasting five or ten years.

Growing Finnish circus arts

Several superimposed photos show people sitting or standing on a stage and throwing piles of paper into the air.

Papers fly in Perto (“Near” in Portuguese), a production that Luis Sartori do Vale cocreated and directed.Photo: Portmanteau/WHS

Okay – what, then, is a circus art professorship?

“Despite the name, this title isn’t exactly related to academics,” do Vale explains. “I do sometimes teach at schools and give workshops, but my main focus is on my artistic work. Alongside my own projects, mainly with Portmanteau, I’m excited about continuing collaborations with other artists, and trying to help grow and enrich Finnish circus arts.”

International buzz

Illusions abound in this teaser for Perto (Near), which premiered in 2021, directed and cocreated by Luis Sartori do Vale.Video: Portmanteau/WHS

Finnish contemporary circus is drawing an international buzz – most of its leading troupes work more abroad than on the limited domestic circuit.

“The scene here is respected abroad and growing fast,” says do Vale. “When I arrived in Finland in 2011, there were around 20 active companies. Today there are at least twice as many, with around 400 professionals. Recently, lots of Finnish artists who were working or studying abroad are returning home, which positively affects the growth and development of the field.”

More international talents are coming to Finland, too, as do Vale did. Born in 1982, he started out juggling in Brazil in 2000, studying fine arts there before figuratively running away to join the circus world at the École Supérieure des Arts du Cirque in Brussels. He performed with top French contemporary circus groups, including shows in Finland, before moving to Helsinki to work with Dance Theatre Hurjaruuth on its popular Talvisirkus (Winter Circus) show, which has had an annual run in various iterations since 1996.

Mighty youth network

Two men dance among a small forest of white balloons that float above a stage, each with a hanging string that is attached to the floor.

Lento (“Flight” in Finnish) portrays risk, control, obsession and nostalgia.Photo: Luis Sartori do Vale

“Circus is quite strong in Finland and Sweden, but it isn’t yet recognised as an artform in many European countries,” says Lotta Nevalainen of Circus & Dance Info Finland. “We have a very strong network of youth circus schools. For instance, Circus Helsinki has over 1,000 students, while the oldest companies, Circo Aereo and WHS, get state funding.”

What makes Finnish contemporary circus distinctive? “It has a strong sense of physical presence combined with high artistic skill,” says Nevalainen. “There’s also often high-quality light design, thanks to designers like Mikki Kunttu, who has done light design for Cirque de Soleil.” Finnish circus performers also often excel at aerial artistry, including aerial silks master Ilona Jäntti and groups such as Race Horse Company.

Feel the performance

Two serious-looking men, one of them holding an old-fashioned lantern, stare at something outside the picture frame.

Luis Sartori do Vale (left) and Thom Monckton look into the distance in Pendulum.Photo: Cosmin Cirstea/

Do Vale’s professorship recognises circus for the first time on the same level as other performing arts, such as theatre and dance. Why was he singled out for the honour?

“Luis has worked with two companies that are quite recognised internationally, including Company Nuua, which he started with juggler Olli Vuorinen,” says Nevalainen. “They were recognised at the European level when they were quite young. Then Luis started his own company, Portmanteau.

“He’s very curious about working with everything from new magic to object manipulation to visual arts, often combining elements of visual narration. His strengths are in dialogue between different art forms and in bringing juggling into other forms of narration.”

Besides physical theatre, acrobatics and magic, do Vale has also included archery, drawing, photography, live video, drumming, dancing and roller-skating in his performances.

“But I’m interested in exploring these technical skills as tools of expression, rather than virtuosity,” he says. “My goal is to invite the audience to interpret and feel the performance based on their own personal experiences.”

By Wif Stenger, March 2024