The National Circus Scene

In a great month for British circus, March has not only seen the branding of our first National Centre for Circus Arts (formerly CircusSpace, who have been a London based training organisation for 25 years), but also the creation of a second option for artists who want to train at Degree level. Circomedia in Bristol, who have also been running for over 20 years, have added a BA(hons) option to their BTEC and Foundation level qualifications from September this year, offering graduates a BA(hons) in Contemporary Circus and Physical Performance, accredited by Bath Spa University.

Whilst the accreditation is great news for the profile of circus, and provides further recognition and employability for artists, it has also generated a concern in some quarters that circus is becoming too sanitised, and losing its edge. Writing for the Telegraph, Dea Birkett published an article this week that suggests graduates from these programmes are not prepared for the harsh realities of ‘real circus life’, touring in big tops. Birkett herself is one of the directors of Zippos Circus Academy of Circus Arts training programme, which offers an alternative model – a working, touring tented community, where artists learn on the job.

I have indeed heard stories of performers who emerge from their school to engage on a first touring experience to find the graft and the change in comfort startling, just as many actors who emerge from conservatoire drama schools realise that actually ‘doing the job’ is a different kettle of fish from the cosy training ground bubble. But these drama schools do also turn out some wonderful, talented, highly motivated and able performers. Just as actors are now able to follow many routes into a chosen career, this broadening of scope for circus artists is going to add to the diversity of performing talent that is needed for a strong creative sector.

Reading the article comments alone indicates how many different views there are on what circus ‘should’ be; what it ‘should’ offer, is something for everyone!

The end of March is also going to see the opening of the Roundhouse theatre’s annual CircusFest in London, where international and homegrown performers are able to show a sample of what contemporary circus can mean. I was asked by Laura Tennant from CultureWhisper to explain why I thought the UK was seeing a ‘circus renaissance’ and, as the answer didn’t make it into her article, I’ll share it here:

‘The regeneration of circus as an art-form began in the 1970’s, leading to a movement commonly known as New Circus, where skills traditionally associated with the Big Top were combined with theatrical practises to add
story or theme to the expressions of physical prowess. Many circuses are working successfully in this way today, most notably Cirque Du Soleil. Contemporary circus encompasses this type of work, classical circus forms, and a growing trend towards a post-dramatic performance style. Nowadays, many artists wish to explore the conceptual through the inherent
communicative nature of their chosen discipline, and often term this work Contemporary, even though all forms are thriving in today’s current performance climate.
Respect and funding for the development of circus arts in the UK have tended to lag behind our European counterparts. Only this month have we a finally recognised National circus school whereas France has had 3 Nationally recognised schools running for over 20 years! It seems we are at last beginning to sit up and take notice as we have seen what international visitors touring the UK can do. I think the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics spurred more people in the UK to take an interest in physical activity and, with thousands of Youtube videos available showing what human bodies can achieve, the choice of circus skills would have attracted those with a playful, adventurous temperament. But watching a video can never give the visceral thrill of live circus action, which is why people still visit live events – with an ever expanding selection available! From a performer’s point of view, once you find your discipline, you are hooked; it’s said that what separates a circus artist from any other is their obsession!’

(Yes, a little bit annoyed that she uses the lazy – and inaccurate – ‘Cirque Du Soleil started it’ argument in her version, but no room for feedback, hurumphh!)

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