A Vision for Circus

Feature in Issue 13-4 | Winter 2001

A motley crew of circus performers, proprietors, promoters and trainers gathered together for the first Circus Open Forum, held at Battersea Arts Centre in London on 23 October. Dorothy Max Prior reports.

Over a hundred delegates (mostly circus professionals but also artists from other disciplines, performing arts students, arts funders, and representatives from local authorities) gathered for a full day of presentations, discussions – and of course the ever-important networking. The 'networking' aspect was exploited to the max – with the BAC bar still full at 10pm, and a late-night decamp to Zippos for some...

The day was chaired by the Forum's very own Verena Cornwall. Keynote speaker was the choreographer Lea Anderson, who inspired those present to break the rules and follow their dreams.

Next, a highly distinguished and eloquent panel presented their Visions for Circus. Chris Barltrop was due to kick off the panel presentations, but was sadly unable to attend as he was stuck in a waterlogged field – such is circus life! But he was ably represented by Becky Truman of Skinning the Cat, who has worked with him on Circus of the Streets.

Chris feels that to look at the future, we have to look at the past – not to go back to the specifics of such veteran greats as Bertram Mills but to build on the vast history and tradition that has been established by the famous circuses of past years. His vision is of a circus truly empowered – given clear and concrete support, given the right to define itself, given back its old freedom to create.

Will Chamberlain from Belfast Community Circus spoke of circus as a uniting factor in a divided community, and of integration as a key notion in his vision – the integration of community circus and professional production, and creating an integrated network of youth circuses that would serve their own local communities and feed into the professional training networks. Matt Costain from the Generating Company said that he had reached a point in his career where he wanted to define himself as someone who made circus – and that he didn't want to make apologies for that when approaching funders or promoters, nor to qualify it with watered-down names such as 'new circus' or 'circus-theatre': his company's show Storm is contemporary – and it's circus!

Daniela Essart of Scarabeus focused on her company's work in her presentation, using video clips of three different productions to show how their vision of circus skills in collaboration with other arts and sports disciplines (such as dance and abseiling) had resulted in the creation of a number of extraordinary site-specific projects at venues such as the Natural History Museum. The producer of Cirque Surreal and the Moscow State Circus, Carol Gandey, laid the emphasis on ensuring that British circus performers had the necessary skill levels to compete with the best in the world, and David Hibling, artistic director of Zippos Circus, spoke of his vision of circus in this country as a place of artistic freedom where all forms of circus could be accepted and live side-by-side.

Stewart McGill from the Playbox Theatre took the role of devil's advocate – wondering if there was a vision for circus when it still seemed to receive no interest, understanding or critical appraisal from arts reviewers or funding bodies. Playbox have recently created Circ Chicane, directed by Deborah Pope of No Ordinary Angels.

The presentations gave us many different interpretations of vision, providing plenty of controversy and food for thought. In the discussion session that followed, there was – inevitably, I suppose – concern expressed about the lack of profile for circus and about the low level of funding support that circus receives in this country – although quite a few people expressed the view that circus needs to 'sort out its own house’ and not rely too much on outside support.

In the afternoon, we discussed ways to turn all of these visions into reality, working in five groups, each with a different focus: touring tented circus, circus elsewhere (streets, festivals and cross-art practice), training, professional development, and community/youth circus. As always with break-out groups, there was a feeling that the discussions could have gone on for much longer – but nevertheless a great deal of ground was covered.

At the end of the day, there was a strong feeling that something very positive had happened: people working in many different professions with many different attitudes and approaches had got together to establish their mutual territory: an interest in furthering the cause of circus. Most importantly, there was a realisation that despite differing viewpoints and approaches there was a common bond between everyone present – a love and respect for circus in all its many forms.


This article in the magazine

Issue 13-4
p. 4