Originally published in the Circus Friends Association King Pole magazine (Sept 2017) as ‘Contemporary’ v. Current: the difficulty of categorising circus in the 21st Century’.
To draw a circus map of Britain today, we can no longer just look to the fields and hard-standings where tenting companies pitch, but must also peek behind the walls of theatre buildings and training spaces, and into other open spaces of festivals and street performance.
In 2018 the UK will be celebrating 250 years since the birth of the modern circus form, commemorating Philip Astley’s first displays at Ha’penny Hatch in London. Over the quarter of a millennium since, the circus has seen many evolutions and branches spring from Astley’s starting point, and some are more easy to categorise than others. The classical circus as we now know it – in a ring, under canvas, with multiple unconnected acts – still draws crowds, of course, but other crowds find themselves attracted to different forms of circus skill and spectacle.
The difficulty comes in trying to label these alternative brands of circus fare. What is cirque nouveau? What is contemporary? What is social circus?
Most historians agree that the beginnings of the ‘new circus’ movement were in France – hence the frequent use of French term Cirque Nouveau – stemming from the political unrest of 1968 and artistic responses to the period. The company that most famously epitomises the style of New Circus, though, is Canada’s Cirque Du Soleil, whose shows still present a sequence of separate acts, but tie these together with a theatrical thread of a story or a theme. Often they perform in tents but, in Europe, are more regularly seen in round concert buildings like the Royal Albert Hall.
In the UK, we have our own New Circus, which keeps a compilation of unconnected acts, but links them through an overarching plot or setting. The nostalgic village fair feel and themed shows of Giffords Circus have even been directed by comedy theatre expert Cal McCrystal for the last six years. The productions use lavish costume and set designs, a live band who also perform ‘in character’ throughout, and the superb clown Tweedy, who provides a further glue that connects the individual performances of traditional routines into one cohesive show.
Sometimes, established classical shows adapt their formats towards the Nouveau genre – and, sometimes, take a while to get it right. Anyone who has seen Moscow State Circus’ Gostinitsa must surely agree that it is a spectacular triumph tied up in a Hollywood hotel package, but did previous offering Zhelaniy manage to deliver theatrical narrative on par with the artistes’ technical abilities? With stilted dialogue and a story that came and went intermittently when I saw it in July 2015, I would argue not.
The Welsh-based NoFit State Circus can also fit into the ‘New Circus’ mould, although mainstream media most often refers to their shows as ‘Contemporary Circus’. The exciting tented productions of NoFit State, directed to date by Firenza Guidi, have no seats and audiences are able to choose their own vantage points to view the acts whilst a team of costumed ushers steward the crowds out of danger zones. Inspired by the punk sensibilities of Archaos and the founding members’ own left-wing political inclinations, themes of freedom, fearlessness and questioning the norm have threaded through their work which, at it’s core though, still presents a sequence of separate numbers united under a theatrical umbrella of design, song, and spoken text.
Despite the argument that, literally, the word ‘contemporary’ refers to anything that is current, it has come to mean – like in dance or theatre – something avant garde or experimental. In NoFit State’s work, this can be seen more clearly in the recent collaboration with dance company Motionhouse. Their outdoor show Block combines the movement languages of dance with those of circus acrobats, creating a hybrid form that uses apparatus modelled on a giant Jenga kit.
As well as being the UK’s most prominent internationally touring circus company, NoFit State have solid roots in the community circus field. The company began in 1986 with a group of University jugglers, and the desire to share skills and help others develop has been a core part of their ideology. In addition to running a training centre in their home town of Cardiff, NoFit State have worked on several large scale outdoor shows across the country, tapping into the networks of local performers in each region and providing performance and apprenticeship opportunities.
If Community Circus is for everyday folk like you and me to join in with, akin to amateur dramatics – but with more bruises – then Social Circus takes this to the next level by focusing the benefits that circus training and practise can provide on groups of people in need, such as in areas of war or poverty, amongst the disabled and disadvantaged, or as an educational tool. Much of this work is done overseas, such as in Circus Kathmandu, formed to support child victims of human trafficking in Nepal, or Circus Fekat in Ethiopia, which provides rehabilitation for street children and clown doctor services to the local hospital. There are also professional production companies that offer opportunities for disabled performers who are often excluded from arts roles. The most prominent of these in the UK is Extraordinary Bodies, which was founded in partnership between outdoor spectacle producers Cirque Bijou and disability arts organisation Diverse City. In line with current arts-industry speak, groups with this particular mission are usually referred to as ‘Integrated Circus’, distinguishing them from the more general openness of circus to performers of varied backgrounds.
One of the artistic directions that Contemporary Circus has taken is in the development of single discipline shows. Gandini Juggling, born in 1992, have seen huge international success with their group juggling choreographies, inspired and influenced by dance and mathematics as much as by the techniques of juggling itself. The recent premiere of Hyena from all-female Cyr wheel trio Alula Cyr, at the Underbelly Festival on London’s Southbank, shows that the appeal of productions focused on a single skill-type hasn’t dissipated; artists are able to show more of the possibilities for creativity and movement with their equipment in sixty minutes than seven, if they are skilled enough with creative direction to maintain a coherent and engaging presentation throughout.
In reality, the demand for these productions is higher than awareness of circus skill from many theatre festival programmers, and young companies are often able to get prestigious bookings despite not always matching up to the quality of equivalent offerings from theatre and dance genres yet. This visibility raises the profile of Contemporary Circus, but can be a double edged sword if expectations are not managed carefully.
The Alula Cyr artists are all graduates of the National Centre for Circus Arts in London, formally known as Circus Space. The school’s most successful graduate company since its rebrand, however, are Barely Methodical Troupe, formed in 2014 by hand-to-hand duo Beren D’Amico and Louis Gift, and Cyr wheel performer Charlie Wheeler. Their first show, Bromance, won the inaugural Jacksons Lane Total Theatre Award for Circus at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in its first year, and has gone on to tour internationally since. In 2016, the troupe expanded to include another hand-to-hand duo and another Cyr artist for their follow-up show Kin, which is also currently touring. Rather than tell a story, these shows explore different facets of human relationships, bringing drama, humour and pathos into their acrobatics and choreography.
The most important British contemporary circus company, it could be argued, is Ockham’s Razor, whose three founding members are graduates of England’s other Degree level circus school, Circomedia, in Bristol. Since 2004, they have been pioneering bespoke rigging and apparatus that is designed in tandem with their show creation, so that both evolve together into a unique spectacle that has narrative built into its bones. Ockham’s Razor are currently touring their most recent production, Tipping Point, which also won the Jacksons Lane Total Theatre Award at last year’s Fringe. A ring of suspended poles is deconstructed to allow adapted techniques of Chinese pole, tightwire, revolving ladder, doubles trapeze and hand-to-hand to appear through different uses of the seemingly identical props, while audiences get to see the character traits of each performer reveal themselves. There are impressive tricks, as well as more pedestrian games that help communicate a search for balance over the course of the show, and the overall feel is of a powerful meditative ritual.
Another company who have made a name for themselves by adapting standard equipment are Acrojou, who create whole worlds by designing around a German wheel, making poignant street theatre shows whose sets literally rock and roll. Street busking has been a training ground for crowd pleasing since time immemorial, but now there are many outdoor festivals and arts events that want to book more structured, theatrical shows to wow their passing audiences. Mimbre are an all-female acrobatic troupe that have been weaving stories out of their skills since 1999, while Upswing are an aerial theatre company who have passed through open-air, theatres, canvas and library spaces during their thirteen year history.
Just like in classical circus, shows from companies like these evolve as they tour, but this will often be over a period of several years. Reliance on festival and theatre venues’ programming schedules for bookings means that there are regularly long breaks in between tour dates, during which performers continue to train, teach, work on new material, perform corporate gigs or hold down a ‘day-job’. This unstructured lifestyle, compared with classical touring, provides its own challenges, as companies’ members must coordinate time to train and rehearse together amid their other commitments. It is more difficult to replace an artist who has created an integrated role in a devised capsule production than it is to replace an act to fill a slot in a mixed programme.
These differences, as well as difficulties finding and financing rehearsal space, mean that it takes longer to produce a new show in post-classical genres, and many companies dissipate after making one or two, so that individual members can follow their own independent performance careers. Other groups branch out and supplement their major touring shows with smaller walkabout performances or by producing one-off events.
A few longer-standing companies who paved the way for experimental British circus but are no longer on the scene also deserve a mention: Skinning The Cat were an all-female outdoor aerial theatre group from 1988-2012, whose founder Becky Truman will be curating a retrospective exhibition of the company’s history in Bradford Museums’ Cartwright Hall next year, as part of the #Circus250 celebrations; Ra-Ra Zoo formed in 1984 and toured internationally for ten years, blending alternative, surreal comedy with all-human circus skills, while members went on to spawn Gandini Juggling and aerial dance company Gravity & Levity, among other projects; London’s Mamaloucos, who began as a tent venue for alternative acts, later became the first circus company to create a show with the National Theatre, in a 2004 adaptation of Aristophanes’ classic The Birds.
The initial Mamaloucos format of a classical circus structure comprising experimental or boundary pushing acts was also the route taken by the award-winning Tumble Circus, established in 1998, who still tour internationally from a home-base in Belfast. In examples like these it’s easy to see how binary distinctions of ‘contemporary’ or ‘traditional’ circus can often be reductive and confusing when trying to describe companies that, more realistically, sit along a scale that can take pieces from one artistic world and bits from another. Cirque Berserk, produced by Zippos, is another show that can’t easily be categorised – classic circus ring acts are re-staged to play in traditional theatre venues.
Whilst marketing departments like to play up the ‘new’ – sometimes infuriatingly at the explicit expense of the ‘old’ – the people who make the shows don’t always hold the same distinctions. Charlotte Mooney, one of the co-founders of Ockham’s Razor, says: ‘When people talk, for example, about ‘traditional’ versus ‘contemporary’ circus, the titles can be unhelpful, as they can suggest that the former is outmoded when in reality it is just doing something different with the form.’
Martin Burton, the force behind Zippos Circus, speaking recently at a #Circus250 planning event agrees: ‘It’s about circus. It’s not about division. If you think that your [type of] circus is better circus than someone else’s, you’re going down the wrong path. We all need to work together. We all need to promote circus. That is what’s beautiful… We’re all circus, we just have different roots to our goals.’
While some people might look on the last few decades’ departures from the variety form as detrimental to the circus industry, others see extensions that will ensure its longevity. Despite recurring fears of obsolescence in the entertainments industry, cinema didn’t stop people going to the theatre, television never stopped cinema visits, and the internet hasn’t stopped people watching tv. These new branches of circus activity aren’t a death knell for the classic show: what we have now are increased options for varied circus-based experiences, and members of the public can pick and choose what suits them best. A quarter of a millennium on from its Astley origins, there really is a circus for everyone.