Walking into the building, so unassuming from the outside, I find myself in a modern reception area. The design is clean and unfussy, flavoured with bare brick, industrial wire work, and wooden floors that remind me of so many old school halls. Originally a community power station from the Victorian era, the structure was taken over by the then Circus Space in 1994 and, after extensive renovation, returned to a community purpose, providing circus classes and training for professionals and amateurs alike.
The National Centre is part of the UK’s Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, which places it amongst prestigious training grounds such as RADA, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Even in such fine company though, the playful and familial circus heart still beats throughout its corridors and studio spaces. A girl hides beneath the sinks in the cloakroom area of the ladies’ loos, motioning me to ‘shhh’ as I come through the door. A group of students burst noisily into the foyer area carrying a fully decorated Christmas tree, joking together in a variety of languages (I hear ‘Make like a juggler and drop it’). As I sit, I’m joined by Tim Lenkiewicz of Square Peg, who just happens to have popped in to meet a friend. Before I know it, I’m reading out horoscopes to a group of circus folk.
Joint CEO Jane Rice-Bowen arrives to meet me with a smile and a pair of gold angel wings strapped to her back. This is the last day of term, she explains, and as she didn’t have a traditional Christmas jumper to wear, she made her own! Jane has been with the organisation for over 10 years, through much of the renovation and through the transition to national status earlier this year. She currently shares the CEO role with Kate White and, as she guides me around the circus studios, Jane explains that their role is about creating a safe space – structurally, physically, emotionally and legally – in order for people to do incredible things.
The largest two spaces are named for their original power station functions – the Generating Chamber and the Combustion Chamber. Both are rigged from floor to ceiling with all manner of kit, and are available to professionals as training space as well as to the school’s students. Lunch-breaks are staggered to allow daytime training availability, in addition to evening sessions where students can use the facilities alongside working professionals. The schedule also includes recreational classes and slots reserved solely for professional practice, as well as corporate team building events that bring to life business metaphors such as ‘keeping all the plates spinning’, and ‘balancing a fine line’.
The Acrobatics Studio is fully sprung and padded, and provides space for family classes with children from the age of two and a half. A purpose built creation space includes a semi-sprung floor, laid over concrete screed to allow for solid rigging, and boasts mirrored walls all the way up to the ceiling. ‘Space is worth a huge amount to artists and performers’, explains Jane. ‘Here it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s riggable, it’s warm – all that stuff that you need.’ There are also ‘circus solutions’ dotted around the warren-like building, such as the squares of specially hardened floor for bounce juggling.
Moving up the building are creative office hub units, (one of which is current home to Upswing), the Middle Studio (where contestants of recent BBC reality show Tumble trained their aerial routines), the Top Studio (fitted with a ballet barre for students’ movement classes, but also apparently a favourite with the jugglers because of the quality of light), and then, the reason why I’m here: the library.
Currently only open to full-time students of the school, the collection of books, journals, dvds and reports is a treasure trove of eclectic material that might benefit anyone looking to forge a career in the circus world. Whilst there are the anticipated biographies, volumes on circus history, guides to acrobatic techniques, clowning, and a big shelf on juggling, there is also a selection of writings on acting technique, dance, puppetry, martial arts, theatre history and arts theory, alongside study skills and business strategy, physiology, architecture, and circus fiction… The catalogue stretches from the Good Study Guide to The Hacky Sack Book, from Gray’s Anatomy to Paul Daniels’ Story of Magic.
Then there are the stacks of newspapers, piles of journals and folders full of magazines. UK publications The Stage, King Pole and World’s Fair are all stocked, as are international titles. There are boxes of show programmes, archived by company. There are VHS and DVD records of performances ranging from the Marx Brothers to students’ graduating shows.
There are also, unsurprisingly, several volumes in French, and I ask whether the school offers any French language classes. Although not an official part of the programme, Tim Roberts, who is HE Courses Director for the Centre, has begun to introduce his students to ‘France World’. After working as Boss Clown at Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1970s, Roberts spent 20 years as a teacher in France. ‘France World’ is an informal window onto cultural and conversational French, relevant to the circus industry. The National Centre also organises exchange programmes with schools in France, both for students and teachers, widening opportunities for professional careers.
In the past, borrowing from the library has been on a haphazard – and sometimes permanent – basis, but funding has recently been secured for a security system to make sure no more items will be accidentally lost. Jane’s eyes brighten as she talks about the Centre’s ambitions to grow their stock and open up the resource to the public in the future. ‘What’s important’, she stresses, ‘Is to grow the status of the art form, to spread awareness.’
So Christmas is definitely coming, and my wish list has expanded by several more items that caught my eye as I browsed the shelves. Let me know if there’s anything else I should be reading!