Glastonbury – The UK’s Hidden Circus Festival

Juliet Jenson performs in the gate between Glebelands and the Circus Field at Glastonbury 2014

This week I discovered that Glastonbury Festival is the place to see circus within the UK and, for those lucky enough to get tickets, will dispel forever the myth that circus ‘is just for kids’.

I embarked on my first ever Glastonbury this year, massively under-prepared for the scale of its performance offerings, and naively imagining that I could write about it all. A thoroughly daunting task once I realised the festival’s Theatre and Circus Fields (most often referred to as T&C) have over 8000 artists and staff working onsite, and more performances than the Edinburgh Fringe, according to the official press release.

Wookey Hole Circus are an exceptional company of young professionals
Wookey Hole Circus are an exceptional company of young professionals

Wandering through the three large fields of T&C on Wednesday morning, as pitches were prepared and rehearsals were taking place, I felt a massive sense of responsibility. All this wonderful work going on, while the scores of journalists buzzing around the press tent each day focus on the music and celebrity news. In the past I had known that the festival programmed a big top of performances, but the level to which the programming reached had always passed me by. The full title of the event is Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, but a lot of those arts go under the radar of most cultural reporting, or receive only a passing line or two. Michael Eavis owns the land where the festival is held and now runs the event with his daughter Emily. I asked him if this had always been the festival’s title and he assured me that it had. Initially, he joked, he was ‘trying to con the local council that it wasn’t a pop concert’ but, even so, it is still the music that holds the limelight in popular consciousness.

Haggis McLeod, head of Glastonbury T&C
Haggis McLeod, head of Glastonbury T&C

T&C was developed by Arabella Churchill who was instrumental in launching the first festival in 1971. The much-loved granddaughter of Winston Churchill programmed Theatre from 1981, and added Circus in 1987, running the area until her untimely death in 2007, when organisation passed to her husband, juggler Haggis McLeod. Churchill’s life and work is commemorated in the naming of Bella’s Field and the charming curved bridge that leads to it, Bella’s Bridge – as well as the slightly less flattering, but equally heartwarming, hand-painted side of the highest long-drop toilet onsite, looking down over the Pyramid stage. Churchill and McLeod’s daughter, Jessica Hirst, has also begun taking on more of the organisation, keeping T&C in the family just as Emily Eavis is inheriting the festival reins from her father. Eavis Senior is delighted to note that ‘the quality just keeps getting better all the time.’

Hula Hoop troupe patrolling the muddy fields
Hula Hoop troupe patrolling the muddy fields

Whilst within the T&C bounds you are never more than 20 foot away from a performance area, but even when you venture to other parts of the 900 acre festival site, you will still be confronted by circus and street acts. Deep in the Green Futures field I stumble upon Airetiko‘s Timepiece rig, where they offer aerial workshops during the day and a performance in the evening; the mechanical spider that is Arcadia incorporates aerial dance into the night-time flames and lasers of the Glastonbury Landing Show; the Kidz Field has its own miniature big top, and outdoors I catch Circus Fudge performing his very funny one-man clowning show Blunderfudge; stilt-walkers parade through the fields (and, later, the mud), including Lee Wells’ technological alien World Walker; site stewards practise juggling at their posts; music lovers climb their own flag-poles to catch the bands playing at the Other Stage; even the smell of caramelised nuts for sale as you cross the Yeoman’s Bridge is evocative of a circus atmosphere.

Organisiation behind the scenes in the Circus Big Top
Organisiation behind the scenes in the Circus Big Top

How do I begin to do justice to this circus universe? I have just attempted to list all the shows that I took notes for, and it comes to over 45, ranging from classic 7 minute acts, through installations and street shows, to full-scale circus productions. All seen within the space of three days (no wonder I feel tired). Every act is worthy of a mention, but is a mere mention enough? With the internet journalists’ maxim of ‘Too Long, Didn’t Read’ ringing in my brain, I worry that a full run down will make a readers’ head spin as much as mine.

Several of the larger scale productions will get individual reviews for this site, but it’s often the small stuff that can benefit most from a bit of recognition. The stages and performance tents publish their own schedules on the Glastonbury website but, with only the largest stages shown on the site maps, its often hard to know where you’re looking. Which means you get to encounter surprise after surprise on your way. (I also discovered that the sheer number of programmed artists can lead to many rearrangements in the planned schedules, that thunderstorms result in site generators being shut off for health and safety reasons, which messes with printed timings, and that, sometimes, things just run late.)

The Physical Physicians at work
The Physical Physicians at work

You don’t always know who or what you’re looking at, but there’s usually someone around with a T&C lanyard who can fill you in. When I spotted four artists in the Glebelands field performing group acro in hospital scrubs, and using a stretcher as a novel take on the Russian bar, I had to ask them who they were. The ‘Physical Physicians’ then proceeded to carry me down the hill to the Circus Field on their stretcher before resuming their shenanigans for a new crowd.

Another surprise was Joseph Peace and his daring fire show, spinning within a flaming gyroscope in the centre of the Circus Field, and then narrowly avoiding incineration within a small case, set alight by a flame-thrower. There is a lot of fire at this festival, where even the partygoers are encouraged to build their own campfires onsite.

Vintage circus footage projected for all to see

Mud may be high on the list of concerns for many Glastonbury punters when the rain starts but, for circus performers with open-air pitches, there are much higher stakes. On Friday, the official opening day of the festival, the rain came down and the thunder started. Concerns over lightning strikes caused festival organisers to shut down power to many of the large stages until the threat had passed, including the Circus Big Top and Astrolabe Theatre Tent. The long-awaited debut of Circus Kathmandu wasn’t able to take place until the following evening but, aside from some scheduling changes, most performances were able to go ahead as the storm shower cleared up. Some of the stilt-performers expressed concern over the mud, but most were able to find sturdy ground to work from, and Above & Beyond‘s Living on Air performance was unaffected, as all ‘soft equipment’, such as trapeze bars, ropes and silks, were safely removed out of harms way before the rain began. Joe Rush‘s grand opening spectacle for T&C suffered technical issues that may or may not have been rain related in the giant mechanical sculptural tableaux of A Kiss on the Apocalypse, but up in Arcadia, son Pip Rush’s Landing Show apparently went off without a hitch.

When the rain held off, there were plenty of hands-on workshops and tasters to be had, from the funambulism of the Bullzini Family tightwire or neighbouring The Slackline School, to an entire jugging tent and, of course, Above and Beyond’s full-size flying trapeze rig. Nestling in the markets were stalls from Firetoys and Butterfingers to pick up your own props and playthings.

Maxlastic (aka Max Beecher) impressives his captive crowds at the Cockatoo cocktail wagon
Maxlastic (aka Max Beecher) impressives his captive crowds at the Cockatoo cocktail wagon

Among the smaller performances that stood out to me, was Maxlastic’s cheeky contortions in the birdcage above the Cockatoo cocktail wagon. Like a black and white peacock he plays with a wink and a grin at those, more captive than he, in the queue below, and is a fantastic sport when a visiting flashmob appear and disrupt the scene. I was also impressed by Josh B’s vulnerable corde lisse work, which is beautifully minimalistic, maintaining the barest connections to the rope without skimping on tricks or drops. Still a student at Circomedia, he is also a part of the Above and Beyond flying team, directed by Mike Wright.

Casey Wood appeared as the cutest little juggler, with an endearingly gawky awkwardness in her precise and efficient movements and contact catches (once she got off the ground, where the Big Top sight lines rendered her unseen to most of the audience seated on the hessian mats), and I loved Jon Udry‘s rock-star energy and the fast-talking stand-up routine that’s infused into his object manipulation. He’s developed some witty recoveries for dealing with the odd drop (I saw his act twice, and appreciate the element of improvisation) and knows how to work a crowd. His ‘ex-girlfriend’ was wrong – this juggling is sexy.

Arbor Circus presented a complete piece of aerial fantasy in just a ten-minute slot, with a unique fiddle-playing storyteller/clown who seemed to control the weather and the action of two strangers getting to know each other. From a ‘Singing in the Rain’ adagio between the two, up onto their cradle, the narrative was clear and, as the cradle was released from its tethers to swing free in a storm of passion, I was totally absorbed. The act is stunningly original, with a distinct clarity and pure simplicity of form that isn’t often achieved.

Mark Copeland and his Insect Circus Museum

I must also give a mention to the vintage, mahogany lined lorry that houses the Insect Circus museum of costumes, posters, programmes and ephemera from the fictitious history of the insect circus art-form, complete with light-up mechanical dioramas. The amount of research into genuine circus history, and the attention to detail, makes the pastiche a treat, with references to the Beatles, Enid Blyton’s children’s books, Busby Berkely’s showgirls… all given an insect twist. IMG_2489The project also has a live show where the famed insect circuses of the past are brought back to life but, sadly, Glastonbury is only hosting the museum this year. Proprietor Ronald McPeak (aka BAFTA winning model-maker Mark Copeland) explains that when the project started, ‘it was from an interest in scale rather than circuses, but once you find yourself in the circus world you can’t turn back. Even if you leave the circuit for a while you’re still a part of the community‘.

And Glastonbury is the place where the community can convene. Seeing such a variety of performance styles and forms together is a real education that can’t be found anywhere else within the UK, and the chance to network and share stories and technique with other circus professionals is invaluable. It’s just a shame that tickets are so hard to come by. And a shame that I left it this long to visit!

Arabella Churchill, T&C founder and charity worker 1949-2007



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