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‘I have no idea what a lagom artist could possibly be’

MY SWEDISH CAREER: John-Paul Zaccarini is the first-ever circus professor to lecture at Stockholm University of the Arts. He sat down with The Local to talk about his career, his relationship with Sweden, and everything else from elves to dinner parties.

'I have no idea what a lagom artist could possibly be'
John-Paul Zaccarini on stage. Photo: Mark Morreau
Circus artist Zaccarini was already in love with Sweden when he moved here in December 2012.

Born and raised in London, he had come to the Swedish capital for work intermittently since 1998, and the relocation became permanent when he and a friend decided to have a child together. “It wasn’t a plan, it was just a happy coincidence that we both wanted to have kids at this one moment,” he says, so he moved on the December 31st and woke up in 2013 with a whole new life.

 
“I finished one phase of life in London. I had a theatre company for 13 years, and we were folding Then I arrived here, finished my PhD, had a kid, became a professor. It was the best year of my life,” Zaccarini tells The Local.
 
He describes his first impression of Stockholm as magical.
 
“The first time I was here was during midsummer, and I fell in love. And over the years, coming back and forth, it was very much, to use a Tolkien metaphor, like coming to the city to live with elves. And then I’d go back to London with the orcs and the dwarves.
 
“It feels funny to say now but I also felt an incredible warmth, emotional warmth, and a willingness to be quite direct about emotion. It was beautiful. But I think I have to qualify that by saying that I was working with artists all the time and I didn’t have much contact with other environments.”
 
It was only after he moved to Stockholm that he began to see what he calls the city’s “bad habits”.
 
“I use the metaphor of having a holiday romance and then deciding to move in with each other and realizing he leaves his pants on the floor, doesn’t wash up the teaspoon, never pays the bills and snores,” he says of the adjustment to living in Sweden full-time.
 


Photo: Mark Morreau

Zaccarini is South African-Italian and fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and English. He says his Latin way of expressing himself can sometimes make situations awkward in Sweden.
 
“I have this very generous way of expressing myself – I could have said loud, or colourful, but I say generous. And in London that was absolutely fine, because the Babel of languages and cultures clutter in with each other, and it’s all just part of the mix. No one is surprised. But here, it’s different. And that’s the thing I find hardest, I think,” he explains.
 
After being in Sweden for so many years he says he has adapted “just a little”. He appreciates the measured way things are discussed in work meetings, but believes that as an artist, it's crucial to have an opinion: “I think it’s a good compromise. I have no idea what a lagom artist could possibly be.”
 
Although Zaccarini understands Swedish quite well, he doesn’t speak it. 
 
“I find it weirdly difficult,” he says. “I’ve got these three rolling, lilting, Latin languages, which are complex in ways that Swedish is not. I’m not saying Swedish is not complex, but it’s got a small vocabulary because I think it’s designed to be direct – which to me is not a lot of fun.”
 
All his work is in English, but he has found no issues communicating with students and peers, and even if he says Stockholm isn’t the best place to be as a spoken word artist, he is not complaining. 
 
“There are enough people who can sit through my evenings of poetry and appreciate it, even if it’s is hard work for them.”
 
And his career has sky-rocketed in Sweden. He is the first person to hold the title Professor of Circus, and he runs the first ever Master’s programme in Circus (which he designed himself). This, he says, is all due to an appreciation of the arts that is “embedded in the culture here”. He is responsible for the course’s content and administration, as well as supervising and mentoring students at both the MA and PhD levels.
 
When asked if he envisioned any of this for himself on that New Year’s Day back in 2013, the expat confesses he “was on a secret mission.” And it so happened, he says, that his boss was on the same mission as him. When Zaccarini finished his PhD and became a professor, he was asked to start working on the Master’s programme right away.
 
“I knew that this was the place that could do this; that was open enough to do this,” he says.
 
Swedes’ attitudes towards equality also inspired Zaccarini, who says: “This is a gentle culture that wants to encourage relationships, communications, and networks along very democratic lines.
 
“The thing that’s been most incredible about my experience in Stockholm and Sweden is this notion of horizontal power. It’s not bullshit, it’s not rhetoric, it’s not a myth. In my experience, it’s a very real thing.”
 
Because of this, he considers every one of his students to be his equals. 
 
“I’m just older, I’ve read more, and I have more experience, but they are my peers. But that also means that if they behave like children, I’m not having it.
 
“We’re not educating just artists, we’re also educating citizens, the kind of citizens we want to see in the world, to make it better. Not just by making better art, but by being better citizens,” he continues.
 

Photo: Mark Morreau
 
Zaccarini is happy with his busy life in Sweden, and says “there is no off-switch to being an artist.”
 
“This sounds a bit sad, but I don’t have much free time. I’m the dad of a five-year-old. So when I finish the day job, which is full of art, and I finish the daddy job, then it’s writing,” he explains.
 
“Recently what I’ve been doing is a dinner and then performing my new work for the guests in the living room afterwards. It's a really intimate environment, where I can really see them and we can have a conversation about the issues in the work. That has been the most fun. Poetry dinner parties have become my latest hobby.”
 
However, he has found Swedes weren’t overly receptive to his habit of complimenting strangers. 
 
“At first, they think you’re a little crazy, but then they realize how nice it is to be complimented, and then it’s completely fine. But no one really does it to me.”
 
And this is how Zaccarini has harmonized his personality with Stockholm’s.
 
“Now I’m having fun with Stockholm – this is my way to fit in. It’s to find my place within the social psychology of the place. Otherwise I was feeling frustrated, I was just going to dress in black and grey, and not stand out, and not make a fuss, and not be vocal.”
 
After being a performer for 20 years, Zaccarini left the stage while pursuing his PhD. But after eight years focusing on his academic work, he received an invitation from Castlemaine Festival in Australia to perform a comeback show in 2017. He accepted, and Head, his one-man, part-memoir, part-breakup show, was born.
 
During the show, he 'breaks up' with the audience, saying how much he loves them but also letting out some hard truths: “Look at the things I did for you, and you just sat there, and all you ever said to me was this [claps]. You’ve never stayed the night, you’ve never told me your name, and then you go and I’ve got to mop all this shit up.”
 
“Basically I am telling the audience that they are co-dependents in an unsustainable, toxic relationship about infatuation and seduction – in a very humorous way!”
 
He describes Head as transferring the circus act into a poetic address, a memoir of what brought him to the circus in the first place.
 
“I say, ‘You know, if you have a co-dependent relationship with someone for 20 years, you might want to know why you’re doing this, and why they’re doing this.’ So I tell them why.”
 
“I go through some poetic, traumatic, beautiful moments of my life, to say: ‘Is it starting to make sense now? What kind of person this is, up here, this stunning, seductive, manipulative narcissist, who’s in love with you but also has to dump you, because you won’t do it – you enjoy this too much. But I stopped enjoying this.’ So it’s very deep, and it’s also very funny.” 
 
What he thought would be a single performance in Castlemaine has grown. He is touring with Head and has also started working on other projects.
 
“I’ve got the bug again. The artist has been reborn, out of the confessional,” says Zaccarini.
 
He has just finished the draft of a spoken word and hip-hop album and accompanying music video. It’s called The MixRace MixTape, and he describes it as “exploring my queerness, my mixed-race heritage, my class and my gender.”
 
“The good thing is, I’m not under the pressure to be a professional artist; to have to make my living from touring, and selling, and sucking up to people, and writing funding applications. I do my work within the university, and that work produces a course, and a reading list, and new methods and new processes to inform my students, so I kind of have the best of both worlds,” he sums up.
 
“A professor in an artistic subject needs to be out there working, understanding what the world is doing with the art form and trying to push the boundaries themselves.”
 
John-Paul Zaccarini will perform Head in Stockholm during the CirkusMania Festival.
When: February 16th 2019, 8pm
Where: Teater Reflex, Kärrtorpsplan 14, Kärrtorp
Entrance fee: 120 kronor (Suitable for 16 years and over)
More details can be found here (page in Swedish). 
 
The MixRace MixTape is an ongoing project. Songs and videos will be released in February. See his Instagram (@professorcircus) for more details and updates.

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LEARN ABOUT SWEDEN

Swedophiles: The foreigners who move to Sweden for a musical obsession

A lot of foreigners who move to Sweden did it because they fell in love with a Swede or got a job here. But not everyone. In the first of our Swedophile series, we look at those who came because they got hooked on the music.

Swedophiles: The foreigners who move to Sweden for a musical obsession

Whether it’s a childhood fixation with ABBA or a teenage fascination with Swedish melodic thrash metal, thousands of foreigners living in Sweden arrived after developing an obsession with the country through music. 

The ABBA obsessives  

Glen Bryan’s ABBA fixation started when the 60-year-old watched the group win Eurovision as a 12-year-old boy back in 1974. It was an experience, he says, that “sparked a life-long love affair with both Eurovision and ABBA”.

For Australian Grace McCallum, the ABBA craze started when she won a walkman, aged three. For the next six years she had just one cassette: ABBA Gold. She ended up learning the songs so well that when she was eight, she won first prize in a talent contest with a rendition of the ABBA favourite, Mamma Mia. “This was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Sweden,” she says. 

Glen Bryan works as a clinical psychologist, working a lot with other foreigners suffering the stress of relocation. Photo: Private
Glen Bryan when working for the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm back in 2016. Photo: Private

In his teens, Bryan’s ABBA obsession grew and grew. He taught himself Swedish so he could understand the early solo work of Agneta Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the group’s two female singers. When he had his first foreign holiday, it was to go to Sweden, where he stalked the members for autographs. At school, he did a project on Sweden’s “No-Smoking Generation” initiative. He called himself Glen Michael, because, he says, “I thought it sounded Swedish”. He even tried to change his appearance. “When I went to uni, I dyed my hair blond thinking with my blue eyes I could pass for Swedish.”

McCallum’s obsession perhaps didn’t extend to these extremes. But in 2013, she was scrolling through Facebook and saw that ABBA The Museum was running a contest to choose the international member for a new ABBA choir that would perform at the 40th anniversary of ABBA winning Eurovision. She auditioned, won, and was flown to Sweden. 

READ ALSO: Aussie choir member wows Abba in Sweden

She then started a new life in Stockholm working in the creative industries as a freelance journalist for ABC, BBC, The Local, and TimeOut, as well as as a presenter, event organiser, and entrepreneur. 

Grace McCallum at a meeting in Stockholm. Photo: Private
 
Since returning to Australia during the pandemic, however, she has been denied a work permit to return to Sweden. She’s now back on a 90-day tourist visa for the first time in two years, continuing her promotion of Sweden’s creative industries through her company STHLM Music City/Nordic Music Tech. 
 

For Bryan, things have worked out better.

He’s been a regular visitor to Gothenburg throughout his adult life, visiting every year for the city’s carnival, and to stay with his Swedish friends Anders and Tomas.

But it wasn’t until he turned 50 in 2012 that he decided to take the plunge. “It seemed the perfect time to make the big leap and move here. I had somehow missed the joke that ‘Everyone is called Glen in Gothenburg’, but I’ve certainly heard it since I’ve moved here!” 

Muayyad Mohammed (centre) with two friends in the university metal scene in Jordan. Photo: private

For the love of metal

Swedish metal bands such as Bathory, Opeth, Meshuggah, At The Gates, Entombed, and Watain might be obscure to most people, but they may have brought almost as many new citizens to the country as Sweden’s own fab four. 

Muayyad Muhammed, an IT consultant based in Västerås, estimates that 80 percent of the reason he decided to move to Sweden was his love for Bathory, a Swedish folk metal and black metal band. 

Muhammed is originally from Syria, but grew up in Yemen, and then studied IT at the private Al-Zaytoonah University in Jordan.

He got the metal bug in his final year of high school, when he was introduced to the US rock bands Linkin Park & Slipknot. That led him back to British 1980s metal, and at university, he progressed onto the Swedish metal scene. 

“We were the only metalhead group in uni, and from there I got into Death and Black Metal, where most of the Swedish bands I listened to are,” he remembers. 

He listened to Swedish bands such as Opeth, Amon Amarth, and Arch Enemy.

But the one that finally pushed him to move to Sweden was Bathory. “That got me down into the nature, history, and folklore of Sweden and made me fall in love with the country.” 

He says that the Bathory album, Hammerheart turned him on to Nordic Mythology, the album Blood on Ice and Fire sparked an interest in Nordic nature, and the albums Nordland 1 & 2 taught him about Swedish nature, history, and culture. 

The move has largely worked out well, although he is not so sure about the weather. “The reality is that nature is very beautiful here. It’s even stunning in summer. But winters can get quite harsh sometimes, which came as an unpleasant surprise.” 

Strangely enough, he says, he hardly even listens to metal anymore. 

It’s a similar story for Jessa Blavatsky, from Brooklyn in New York.

Here she is at the grave of Thomas Börje Forsberg, or Quorthon, Bathory’s singer and songwriter, who died aged 38 from a congenital heart defect.

Photo: Private

Blavatsky got into the metal scene when she was eleven, growing up in Brooklyn, and by age 15, she was helping organise gigs for metal bands, which got her eventually into the Scandinavian scene. 

“We didn’t have things like YouTube and Spotify and all that stuff,” she remembers. “The European music scene was something you really had to look for. You really had to know people that liked good stuff.”

She soon discovered that Scandinavian bands were more interesting than any of those playing in the US, and developed a fascination with Swedish legends such as Katatonia, Edge of Sanity, Diabolical Masquerade, Therion, Tiamat, and Meshuggah.

She also names the bands At the Gates, Dismember, Soilwork, Dissection, General Surgery, The Project Hate MCMXCIX, Runemagick, Nasum, Opeth, Vintersorg, and Amaran. 

“It just seemed, from the American perspective, that the European culture overall had a much better music scene for heavy metal compared to ours. So I think for a lot of us, in the heavy metal culture, it’s always been like some kind of dream or fantasy to go to festivals here.”

Through the gigs she helped organise, she met members of some of the Scandinavian black metal bands as they came over on tour, and meeting these musicians, she says, “definitely” influenced her later decision to move to Sweden.

“I thought they were really nice and shy and very introverted, and that’s how I was back then and maybe still am a bit now. That was kind of appealing to me.” 

The dark, black music and her image of Sweden also started to come together in her mind. 

“A lot of the music is pretty dark and heavy, and it kind of reminds you of the dark and heavy kind of winters that they have here. And I love the cold. I love the darkness that comes with the cold, and the emotions. And I know, I might sound crazy for that. But that’s okay.” 

Jessa Blavatsky by the cross in Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm, which is known among metalheads as “the Entombed Cross” because it featured on an album by the band Entombed. Photo: Private

Her love of Sweden only turned into an intention to move, however, after she got divorced aged 23 and was left alone with her baby daughter Angelina. 

“When I was growing up in New York, there were all kinds of fights happening, people bringing guns and knives to school. My friends were involved in a murder. And I got death threats, so I stopped going to school,” she remembers. 

“When I had my daughter, my biggest fear was having her go through any of that, so I thought that if I could move her to a more peaceful place, she’d have a much better upbringing.” 

So she began planning her move to Sweden, trained as a pastry chef, and eventually got hired by the man who had been head chef at the Swedish Embassy in Washington DC to come to Sweden and make American-style pastry. He arranged the work permit and in 2016 she and her daughter arrived in Stockholm. 

The move came surprisingly easily, perhaps because of her contacts from the international metal scene. 

“I always had a large network here, so moving here didn’t feel strange. I already had friends here. I already had people to hang out with,” she says.  “So I didn’t have to wait to find out even more about Swedish culture because I mean, you can only find out so much before you actually move there.” 

“Sometimes,” she says. “I can’t even believe that I did it by myself, learned a new language and I brought my kids to learn a new language. It’s pretty insane.” 

For her, Stockholm is the perfect compromise between the “tree house in the woods” of her fantasy, and the convenience of city life. And, for her daughter’s sake, at least, it seems to have worked. “It was probably a good choice. Because women have rights and I’ve gotten great jobs.” 

Swedish rock and indie 

The story of how the post-punk rock of The Hives brought Alma Paz, a Mexican student, to Sweden has been made into a documentary. After getting into the band, she began to study Swedish at the Centro de Enseñanza de Lenguas Extranjeras in Mexico City.

She then travelled to Fagersta, the small town where the Hives come from, and ended up getting a scholarship to study in Sweden for a year, during which time she met a Swedish boyfriend and decided to stay. 

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