For the past three years many of the circus schools and circus clubs around the country have gotten together to share skills, participate in workshops and meet other young circus artists and circus practitioners. The event is the National Youth Circus Event. In 2009 the NYCE was hosted by Circus Space in London, who run the London Youth Circus, last year it was hosted by Blackpool Circus School, and this year’s event was hosted by Greentop Community Circus in Sheffield with the support of Swamp Circus Trust and Circus Space.
I haven’t been to the NYCE before. In fact, even when it was hosted at Circus Space where I teach, I actually avoided the event! I didn’t want to get caught up in lots of crazy young people throwing juggling balls around or spinning poi. I was quite happy to get on with teaching my classes and then go home. However, this year, having recently formed my own new youth circus company, Airborne Circus, I decided that I’d really like to attend the NYCE, meet more youth circus practitioners (company directors, teachers, etc), see what the other youth circuses are up to, discover how the different youth circuses structure their training and enquire into how best I could run Airborne Circus.
After much to-ing and fro-ing about whether I was going to be able to attend the event (and after a considerable amount of frustration), on Friday I got confirmation that I could attend the NYCE. I wasn’t really sure what to expect but I’d had a couple of conversations that suggested I shouldn’t expect too much. I figured it would be something like a cross between a juggling convention, a networking event, a skill share and summer camp. And I think I was about right.
I was very pleased that when I arrived the first person I saw was Lesley. Lesley Gardener is a very good friend of mine but we don’t get to see each other very often since she moved from London down to Somerset – Wookey Hole to be precise. We used to have a circus company, Liquidimage Productions, together until about 2005. Lesley knows me better than most people in the world and I love her dearly so it was really great to see her and spend some time with her over the weekend.
Nowadays Lesley runs Wookey Hole Circus and from seeing her young circus artists is doing an excellent job of it. The four girls she had with her – Fiona (12), Courtney
(14), Lucy (14) and Chelsea (15) – were some of the most talented and professional young artists at the event. [Special shout-out to Courtney and Fiona for being my Group 3 buddies and my adopted students over the weekend!]
The event played host to about 60 young circus artists – jugglers, aerialists, acrobats, fire performers – and circus teachers from about 20 different youth circus companies around the UK. What fascinated me was how different each of the youth circuses was, and how each of the youth circuses had particular strengths and weaknesses. Blackpool Circus School were very strong jugglers but not such good acrobats; Playbox were strong aerialists but were weak at the manipulation; Wookey Hole Circus also brought very strong aerialists and acrobats but, even though they could hula hoop as well as anyone else there (probably better!), they didn’t really care much for manipulation generally; and Organised Kaos were strong with manipulation but were weak with acrobatics and aerial. [NB: When I say weak, I mean they don’t train, or don’t train as much in those skills, and not that I think they don’t have potential or couldn’t learn those skills.]
Generally, I think there were more youth circus schools who provide great manipulation training – eg, juggling, diabolo, poi – and I think that mostly that is down to the facilities that the different schools have. There are only few circus schools in the UK who have a permanent facility that is customised for aerial and acrobatic training. The other circus schools make use of rented halls or possibly theatres and they can’t all rig trapezes, ropes, silks or aerial hoops. The schools that can are lucky. And of course not all the schools have teachers who are highly skilled aerial or acrobatics teachers. And the schools that have good aerial and acrobatic teachers are lucky too. The schools that have truly excellent teachers – teachers who are masters of not only a discipline (or better yet, several disciplines) but also have the skill to teach and mentor a young artist – are the luckiest of all.
I think that those of us at Circus Space often forget just how lucky we are to have a huge purpose built facility and a raft of excellent teachers in all the major skill families. Circomedia, Greentop and Wookey Hole are also incredibly lucky. Although I haven’t been to visit Wookey (something I will rectify soon!) they have a purpose built facility, two exceptional teachers (Lesley and Willie Ramsay), as well as regular opportunities to perform at the Wookey Hole visitors centre – something that, in my opinion, is missing for most of the other circus schools – and it shows in the abilities of Wookey’s young artists and in their polished performances and mature, professional attitudes.
But the thing that struck me most throughout the event was that it didn’t matter how old you are. 17 year olds were hanging out with12 year olds as easily as they were hanging out with 30 or 40-somethings. I’m 31 and I spent as much time chatting with the other teachers in their 30s, 40s or 50s as I did chatting with the young circus artists – the 12 year olds, the teenagers and the 20-somethings. In fact, one of my favourite conversations of the weekend was with a group of young artists from Circus Space (two 13 year olds), Wookey Hole (a 12 year old) and Playbox (a 17 year old and two others about the same age) about how circus schools are perceived differently around the country and around the world.
It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you’re circus you’re circus, and there’s as much that I can learn from you as I can teach you. Now let’s play.
The one thing that I didn’t feel worked about the event was that there wasn’t enough in the programme for the teachers. It would have been great to have an opportunity for the more experienced aerial, acrobatic or manipulation teachers to share their skills with the less experienced, or for the teachers to be able to discuss the different structures or approaches to training. This could even have even been an interesting and useful experience for the young artists to be involved in. How do they think their training sessions could be improved? What works or doesn’t work about their training for them? How could we use the NYCE to improve their training while so many circus teachers are together? I think that this was a missed opportunity.
Of course, after all the training and workshopping was done, we’d retire to our hotel to socialise. Mostly at this point the young people with the young people and the teachers with the teachers. Stories were told, gossip was passed along, and a lot of laughs were had. As for the young people, I know that at least one game of Truth Or Dare was played, and up and down the hotel corridors James Bond was impersonated and people were ‘shot’. And on the way home, while waiting for our train in Sheffield train station, we played a game of imaginary hopscotch through the station concourse. Like circus lunatics. Good times.
The 2011 National Youth Circus Event was a great weekend and I look forward to attending it again next year with some of my own students from Airborne Circus.
If you’re interested in youth circus in the UK check out the Circus Development Agency’s database of youth circus workshops.
If you’re interested in youth circus in the US check out the American Youth Circus Organisation.
Here are a few more photos (good, bad and ugly) from the National Youth Circus Event 2011. Enjoy!