Circus Goes National

National Centre For Circus Arts

Circus gets a National Centre for Circus Arts

In case you haven’t seen the news, British circus is going national today with Circus Space being elevated to “national” status and relaunched as the National Centre for Circus Arts 25 years after they first opened their doors.

Over the past 25 years, Circus Space has become one of the leading centres for teaching these nouveau cirque skills. Many have felt circus has been the poor cousin of theatre and dance and all but a few of the country’s traditional touring family circuses have disappeared. In their place a new breed of circus entertainment has emerged that balances artistry and acrobatics.

The Guardian

The announcement brings circus in line with theatre, dance and music, raising the credibility of circus as an art form and demonstrating that, after years (centuries?) of sweat, blood and tears (often literally), circus is finally being taken seriously.

We have a lot to thank National Centre for. Adam, as well as many of the other teachers here at Airborne Circus, have trained and taught at the National Centre and they have been a continued support to us since before we opened our doors, offering advice and counsel in all aspects of what it takes to run a circus school.

As the National Centre for Circus Arts we are taking a leading role in supporting the wider circus sector in the UK, creating opportunities for circus to be seen and for people to participate in training at all levels.

– The National Centre for Circus Arts

Looking forward, who knows what having a national centre will do for the circus industry? We hope that it will bring good things – increased opportunities, recognition and participation – and look forward to seeing the future unfold.

Congratulations for a job well done, Circus Space. And welcome to the world, National Centre for Circus Arts. We’ll definitely see you around.

What do you think having the National Centre for Circus Arts means for us? Will it change the industry? Let us know in the comments below.

The National Youth Circus Event 2011

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.

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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.

Adam has been teaching circus skills since 1998, runs Airborne Circus and tweets as CircusBoy1. His favourite circus skill is flying trapeze.

Here are a few more photos (good, bad and ugly) from the National Youth Circus Event 2011. Enjoy!

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Circus Schools, Circus Shows

Over the past four days I’ve been to two different circus schools, one circus training space, and seen three different circus shows in two different cities. It’s been a busy few days.

Over the past year my cousin, Stephen, has been attending Circomedia in Bristol. Circomedia is the second biggest circus school in the UK after Circus Space. (Interestingly, Bim Mason, who founded the school, describes it as a Physical Theatre school that teaches circus rather than a Circus School. No one else I know describes it that way. We all think of it as a Circus School.)

The two show’s I’ve seen were Circomedia’s end of year show, Touch & Go, by their first year students on the Foundation Degree, and Circus Space’s end of year ensemble show by their second year students. The two shows couldn’t have been more different, although I didn’t enjoy either of them particularly. Don’t get me wrong, each show had some great moments, and each show had some great skill, I just didn’t really like the shows overall.

On Thursday, Circomedia’s show, staged at the Bristol Old Vic, was mostly solo acts or duets, some distracted by a cast of performers surrounding them. The trouble was that there are around 25 students in the year, some performing in more than one act, leading to a show that was far too long – nearly three hours including an interval!

With one or two exceptions, the students’ skills were not of a high standard. Feet were lazy and unpointed or sickled, legs were bent, timing was out, double lunges were necessary, comedy wasn’t funny, dancing was scrappy, and more than a few drops were made. It strikes me as odd that after one year, with the school focusing on physical theatre rather than circus skills and technique, Circomedia would stage such a lengthy ‘solo’ show rather than an shorter, tighter ensemble.

It seemed to me that the best performances were either physical-theatre-based (Dare Devilina and many of the links) or were done by students who had come to the school with a high skill level to begin with (such as the jugglers and beat boxers – both highlights of the show for me) or were the performances that kept things ‘nice and neat’ such as the doubles trapeze.

The next day, Steve took me on a tour of Circomedia’s two sites, the school and the training space, and then also the Invisible Circus, an amazing venue based in an old fire station. That evening I returned to the Invisible Circus for ‘The Last Resort’ which was great fun. The event was part party, part event and part cabaret show and was in stark contrast to the previous night’s student show. It was a slickly produced affair with some sharp acts (including some Circomedia graduates) and a big dose of fun. I’d strongly recommend their next event, The Swing Thing, which will combine classic circus with lindy hop and swing dance.

Then last night came the Circus Space second year ensemble show, ‘I came to live out loud’. The show was short, tight, and had some nice skills (I enjoyed the Chinese Pole the most) but lacked something. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really care about any of the student shows apart from their solo acts in their third year, maybe it’s that I don’t really get to know any of the students and have no personal connection to them. But I don’t think so. I think it was really lacking in it’s direction. The comedy wasn’t funny, the drama undramatic, and the romance flat. I was left bereft of any personal connection to any of the characters. And even though it was far better (and shorter) than the Circomedia show, I just wanted it to be over.

It’s hard for me to articulate how I feel about it. I haven’t seen any of the second year Circus Space student shows in a few years so, with the exception of the Touch & Go, I don’t have anything recent to compare it to, and I feel it unfair to compare a first year Circomedia show (where their focus is on physical theatre) with a second year Circus Space show (where the students’ focus is on skills).

What I do know is that with 40 – 50 students at Circus Space and Circomedia every year, and with the growing number of circus schools, circus clubs, circus workshops, circus shows, circus seasons, circus classes and circus courses, things can only get better.

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Adam tweets as CircusBoy1 on twitter here.

The New New York Academy of Circus Arts

Since Monday I’ve been in New York.

I love New York. I don’t love old York but I’ve only been there once and that was when I was about 11. (We went to the Jorvic Viking Centre for a school trip. I think everyone goes to the Jorvic Viking Centre for a school trip when they’re 11 years old.)

Yesterday afternoon I went into the city and met Susan Voyticky. Susan is an old friend who also went to Circus Space with me in 1999.

Susan took me to New York Circus Arts, which opened in September. As far as I can tell, it’s the only dedicated circus training centre in New York – which is slightly hard to believe! New York is one of the biggest cities in the world but has an incredibly small circus community. New York has a thriving arts scene but hardly any circus.

The first thing that struck me as we walked through Queens was NYCA’s sign that can be seen from the street. For a long time Circus Space has struggled with ways to promote itself but Circus Space’s location is prohibitive for such a prominent sign. NYCA has a location that can accommodate a large outdoor sign that can be seen from a long distance. And it works.

If you’ve been to the Hangar Arts Trust in London it’s fairly similar. NYCA is also in an industrial unit on an industrial estate. It’s one large training space. They have a trampoline with an inflatable pit, a custom-built free-standing arched “spider” rig, a small dance area, and mats covering a large sections of the floor.

As a brand new circus training centre it’s very impressive. Good equipment in a good facility, with some nice touches (a live-feed video setup, anyone?). Perhaps the NYCA is shooting a little high in some areas – they have a ‘gear store’ and their website states “After 10 years in the biz, we’ve learned a few things about gear” – but I think they should be shooting high. At this stage they need to be promoting themselves, swinging out, taking some risks, and making big promises. But then they also need to fulfil them. Nothing good ever came from playing small.

While I was there, the centre seemed under-populated. Perhaps that’s because it’s new, perhaps it’s because NY has a small circus community, perhaps it’s because NYCA’s international reputation is poor. Or rather, the founder’s, Cypher Zero, reputation is poor. I don’t think that being known by “Cypher Zero” really helps him create a credible reputation – regardless of whether it’s his (now) legal name; it seems ostentatious or pretentious. It’s a bump in the road that you have to get past when you first meet him and I don’t think it lends itself to the credibility that he’ll need as a businessman running an arts organisation on the world circus stage (ring?).

However, I’ve met Cypher on a few occasions over the years and he’s never been anything other than affable and enthusiastic.

But in one of the biggest cities in the world, a city with almost no circus, he’s the one man who has taken it upon himself to create a Circus School and raise the level of participation of circus. And perhaps he’s the only man that could.

 

Who Wants To Try Flying Trapeze?

Tonight New York Circus Arts will be installing their new flying trapeze rig. And, even though the NYCA is not big and has only one training space, they’re installing a Grand Volant (a Big Fly rig). This could be both a good idea and bad.

The bad thing is that it will take up a huge amount of real estate in an already limited training space. The safety net will span the width of the space, interfering with any other training; no other aerial skills (static trapeze, silks, corde lisse, etc) will be able to be rigged while the fly rig is up. And given that no one at NYCA currently flies this could severely interfere with the training of the already limited number of users (professional and recreational) that attend NYCA.

The good thing is that  having a flying trapeze is a huge attraction both for recreational users and corporate training. Without some kind of financial support, corporate events are one of main ways in which training centres such as NYCA can survive and support their other activities.

I’ve been a flyer, I’ve taught flying trapeze, and the only people I’ve ever met who don’t want to try flying are people who are severely scared of heights or are obese and afraid of being able to hold their own weight – and more often than not they really do want to try it and they just can’t conquer their fear. And jugglers.

If NYCA can get a good flying trapeze teacher, some regular and talented students, and sell themselves as a provider of unique and valuable corporate training in NY they could just be on to a winner.

Having this kind of draw could be just the thing that NYCA needs in order to become a mainstay of the NY circus scene, and a financially secure circus training centre with a great reputation.

And I hope it does.