Are You a Circus “Artist” When You Finish Circus School?

Jana Korb reflects upon whether graduates from circus schools should automatically be called ‘circus artists’ in an  essay assignment from the second module of the inaugural DOCH online research course into contemporary circus.

I want to start by saying that I absolutely agree with Bauke Lieven’s proposition that circus school alone is not currently enough to create an artist.

I know that she has a very strong opinion on artistic creation – she always had, and I have seen her crush some very successful circus artists by telling them that their work didn’t matter artistically… I also have been on the receiving end of her feedback, which has been harsh, but I was also a little proud back then that she was not questioning my work being art! I think this very strict approach is important for contemporary circus, especially where I live.

Here in Germany we only have two professional circus schools (not counting the three or so clown schools), although there are uncountable youth circus schools and a few foundation schools. One of the two, the State School for Ballet and Circus (Staatliche Schule für Ballett und Artistik), has a very unique model: as well as offering a three year professional circus education, it also has a programme from 5th until 12th grade / high school graduation (Abitur). In this programme, one graduates in “normal” subjects of secondary school as well as in circus (or ballet). After that one can either go on to university, or go out and work as a circus artist. The circus curriculum is amazing, training young children in a very innovative, highly skilled but also safe way – leaving its cruel competitive past as a communist state school far behind.

But the kids who graduate are just high school graduates with a very high level of technical circus skills and a 7 minute number. They are 18 or 19, and only as creative as any other kid who might consider being an artist at that age. The graduates of the three year program also receive a very strong technical circus skill training, but no artistic education.

The other German school, Die Etage, is a private circus school and is just as good as its current teachers, who mostly just teach skills as well.

When coming from these schools – but also when coming from most other circus schools as Bauke says – people have strong circus technique. They are like actors, having learnt their performative tools. But being an artist is more than just having the tools to be a performer in a certain field. And this is the same for dance, for acting, and also for circus. To become an artist there needs to follow an artistic education.

Yet, most of these graduates are annoyed by the question of whether they consider themselves artists. I stand outside of this, as I did not attend a circus school. I was at an art school (Universität der Künste Berlin) and came to circus by the way of competitive sports (gymnastics), combining both afterwards – so I usually am the one who annoys them 😉 When talking about art, my impression is that most of the graduates have no idea what art is, what artistic creation is – especially here, where they have been trained to have a strong number for the variety circuit. Most of them still think that their act becomes art by adding a theme and putting on a different costume.

I do not blame them. How could they know about art, when there has been no focus on that in their education? Unless they had a personal artistic interest all along – and, of course, such people exist and do eventually emerge as artists.

There is a small but strong movement in Germany at the moment, trying to establish contemporary circus as high art. Until now circus has not been considered art by the authorities, and is hardly ever funded publicly as art. But in a few German cities this has slowly started to change. And people are starting to apply for public art funds for circus, for dance with circus skills or for circus theatre.

But we are sending a very poor message when these applications are poor. And they are most of the time. For example, there are hardly ever any strong appliactions to Circus Next from Germany. Fonds Darstellende Künste. one of the few public funds for performative arts in Germany that accepts circus applications, hardly ever actually provides money to circus projects, as the applications cannot be taken seriously – as one of their board members has been complaining.

So there is our vicious circle: circus is not being funded because it is not considered art, and also because it’s rarely artistically strong enough to be funded as art in areas where it could be recognised… This makes it hard for the people lobbying for contemporary circus, as there aren’t any positive examples to promote…

So yes, after a thorough circus skills training there also has to come a good artistic circus education for those who want to create contemporary artistic work, like in the M.A. at DOCH, or the program at LIDO. No wonder the circus scene is still working with artistic concepts that other fields have dealt with decades ago, when there is so little real artistic education. Currently most serious creators of circus art come with other artistic backgrounds on top of their circus training.