Collapsing Time

Gandini Juggling: Smashed

Thomas Wilson – educator, writer, archivist – takes to the Tardis and time-travels through the Total Theatre Print Magazine Archive, landing on key events for UK contemporary circus

Any archive is an invitation to collapse time. With one that covers a period more or less synonymous with your teenage and adult existence, it is a doubly redolent experience. Working through the early periods lend you an understanding of your own context – as those formative or significant events that you skirted or missed come into view. Events that you were unaware of, people you didn’t know, concertina into those you remember – forming a growing picture of where things came from and how they developed. It is possible to mark out trends – gifting them a kind of narrative security that belies your lived chaos. It might even shed some light on your own pathway and part in this. 

Total Theatre Magazine was first published in 1989, the year after I started secondary school. I’d grown up best friends with a member of an old-school circus family – aware of the traditions of animals, trapeze, of knife throwing, and the wheel of death. I’d even dallied with the knives and learnt how to leap on and around cantering horses (that latter for sport rather than entertainment purposes – although the distinction is quite slim in the grand scheme of things), but it wouldn’t be until several years later (1997) that I would begin to engage with contemporary circus.

My experience of orbiting, but never being a ‘real’ part of, the circus means that the fact I’ve ended up writing about circus has always felt a bit of a happy accident rather than a deliberate plan to carve out a territory; it has therefore been intriguing and rewarding to look back on the ways in which circus has been talked and written about in Total Theatre Magazine, and also by whom. 

Looking through 141 articles on circus arts in the archive provides an interesting window on some of the discussions around the development of circus as an artform. There are less reviews and far more features in the first half of the archive, covering the shifts in views of training, funding, and the place of the artform in the landscape of British arts. It also captures glimpses of work that, as with all performance, are lost to the ephemerality of the medium. Being a fan of systematic explorations, I’ve enjoyed the ability to filter search results by year, allowing a chronological look at the features and reviews. In this spirit these are the ones that stood out. 

The last 30 years have seen many changes in circus, and although the archive doesn’t cover (probably) the most important part of UK Circus’ change in the 20th century (that of local councils refusing licences to animal circuses, heralding the decline of animals in circuses as much as changing audience tastes), it does cover the most significant responses to this: the growth and diversification of the types of human performance owing their root to circus. By the time the archive begins, New Circus has already emerged as a discipline in its own right (though the Arts Council of Great Britain, as it was known then, have only just recognised this); Covent Garden has been transformed from a working market to a ‘destination location’ complete with regular street performers; and Fool Time circus school (the precursor to Circomedia) had opened in Bristol.

The first article on circus that TT commissioned is a profile on the ‘Lecoq-born circus-theatre group’, Simon Pipe’s ‘Mummer & Dada Circus Theatre’ (Issue 1-2, Summer 1989). Note the need to call this circus theatre and not just circus! In this article we find a first mention of Bim Mason – a man who will crop up at various points in this edited chronology and one of the most significant people in contemporary UK circus – and it gives a good snapshot of some of the influences on New Circus. Mason (co-founder of Mummer & Dada) outlines his company’s process of expanding their Dada-esque mash-up of clown, mask and circus (adding 20-minutes of new material each year) providing a sense of a group of artists making work out of their varied interests, colliding material together until it fits. The anarchic quality of the company and their work is nicely captured by Simon Pipe, who lets Mason do much of the description – providing a lovely sense of hearing an artist outline their approach without too much editorialising. One thing that caught my eye is how Pipe notes the ‘distinctive’ broad international base with artists from the UK, Brazil and America. This breadth of nationalities is something we’ve become very used to in contemporary circus practice, and (though of course it has been a long-standing feature of classic circus) it’s interesting to think that 30 years ago this was not as common as it is now.

The next article in the archive that encompasses circus is Dave Vick’s neat exploration of the tensions between New Mime and New Circus artists, titled Flying Mime (Issue 3-1, Spring 1991). This thoughtful and tightly written article also serves as a succinct definition of what these forms might be, and it captures something of the dynamic tensions of the growth of two artforms that in 2019 are closely entwined (see, for example, their shared prominence in programming of festivals such as London International Mime Festival). Vick’s contentions include that both artforms came of age in ‘the cultural wasteland of Thatcher’s Britain – independently minded products of a cynical enterprise culture that never favoured the minority arts’ and that ‘the kinds of hybrids that are emerging now are a reflection of a postmodern world where everything is up for grabs and all things there to be used in the perennial search to refine and review ways to say what can be said physically.’ Vick’s conclusion, calling for both camps’ to embrace ‘…all the possibilities rather than a throwing up of new divisions’ reminds me that print in general (and TT in particular) used to be one of the ways in which the sector could talk to each other. This was (let’s remember) before email, let alone the wider internet, had really taken root in public life. 

And so to 1994, in which Fooltime became Circomedia, and we welcome back Bim Mason, co-director of Circomedia, this time noting the parlous state of support and funding for professional contemporary circus companies in his provocatively headlined article ‘A Decade of New Circus – From Bright Hopes to National Scandal’. (Issue 6–3, Autumn 1994)

Mason notes that since 1988, support from the Arts Council and other funding bodies had been patchy; that companies that had been encouraged to expand had then subsequently been turned down for support; and that whilst ‘Britain now had the training establishments and the performance groups’ circus was now ‘regarded as either a leisure activity or a social tool in the plethora of community training programmes’. He finishes with a note that seems to have spurred the article, that the Arts Council of England (as it is now known) had appointed their first Circus Arts Officer, and Mason hopes that this will provide opportunities for ‘the new generation of performers [who] are much better trained than ten years ago but have nowhere to work except on the streets or abroad’.

By May 1997, circus is making a regular appearance in TT and we see the first review (by Simon Stapleton) of Gandini Juggling Project (as they were initially known). Whilst GJP had been name-checked at various points in TT (including as one of the contemporary circus companies supported by Charlie Holland at Circus Space), they had not yet featured in their own right. It’s no surprise that the first review is for the show that at this time was the closest to ‘pure’ juggling, Septet (Issue 9-2, Summer 1997).

I wonder if the austere deconstruction of their earlier works had perhaps turned circus reviewers a little cold – Stapleton had certainly found their earlier work ‘cerebral to the point of being difficult to watch’. 

This is also the first Gandini Juggling show that I saw (again at Circus Space). At the time I was completing my undergraduate thesis on their work, though I was more engaged by the choreographic complexity of their earlier work than Septet. What Stapleton and I agree on is that even at this early stage in the Gandini’s career they were ‘one of the most innovative groups in circus’. What is interesting (remembering the show through the haze of 22 years) is how Stapleton captures an overall impression of the work – but there is little capturing of specific moments, the brevity of the pre-internet 250-word limit on reviews forcing a very specific style of writing that has changed dramatically in recent years. 

Two different ways of approach the construction of short reviews (both of Australian companies) come in 1998, with Rebecca Brown’s review of Desoxy’s 98.4% DNA – Being Human (Issue 10-3, Autumn 1998), conjuring up a rich image of a work exploring the ‘possible explanation of evolution in a way that succeeds in questioning the divide between animals and humans, genetically, chemically, physically and emotionally’. Brown’s prose vividly describes the work: ‘One minute the performers are mutually supportive and intimate. The next, they are flung apart by their apparent differences, as issues of gender and sexual development rear their ugly heads.’ In contrast, Steve Hill’s coverage of  Under the Influence by Australian company Legs on the Wall (also Issue 10-3, Autumn 1998)  continues the call for UK companies to hone their skills and expand their imaginations. This becomes an ongoing theme for various articles and reviews in TT, as well as in the contemporary circus community with two camps emerging: one that prioritised virtuoso advances in technical skill and complexity of tricks, and the other advocating more consideration of the theatrical or dramaturgical application of skills. 

One of the UK companies that would answer this call was Company F/Z, with their first show Throat which would go on to win a Total Theatre Award at the Edinburgh Fringe 2002, but was first reviewed by John Daniel in 1999 (Issue 11-2 – the show just credited in that review to John-Paul Zaccarini rather than F/Z).

John Daniel thought it ‘one of the most exhilarating and quixotic shows I’ve seen in a long time’ marking out the fluency of Zaccarini’s performance as he ‘gives it all he’s got’ and Flick Ferdinando’s ‘keen eye for theatrical effect’. Total Theatre Magazine’s documentation and critical engagement with new work was an important part of the changing profile of circus at the turn of the century.

The year 2000 was a key year for UK circus, with a variety of events acting as a catalyst for the development of the artform. One of the central drivers was the commissioning of Circus Space to train close to 100 circus artists (mostly aerialists and stiltwalkers) in preparation for the centrepiece show at the Millennium Dome. This was a real game changer for contemporary circus in the UK, as the investment and profile of the show laid down a clear marker for contemporary circus – as well as driving up the number of circus companies after this period. Both Annie-Louise Rentell and Dorothy Max Prior provide a perspective on the Dome in relation to the wider circus landscape.

In ‘What’s New About New Circus?’ (Issue 11-2, Summer 1999) Rentell, writing from the perspective of her experience of the Refract Circus Conference, picks up on the fairly entrenched antipathy between ‘new’ and ‘traditional’ circuses and the possible reasons for this. She also reports on some antipathy towards the New Millennium Experience Company’s Dome project from those who felt that handing the whole thing over to Circus Space, to the exclusion of other circus organisations around the UK, was unfair. It’s a fascinating article that brings in not only the economic state of circus, but also the perception of new circus as a ‘marketing ploy’. 

A year later, in ‘Dome Birds Fly the Nest’ (Issue 12-4, Winter 2000),  Dorothy Max Prior checked in on some of the performers trained as part of the Dome project and their plans for post-Dome life. Prior notes how the dominance of aerial work is one of the natural outcomes for a show that prioritised aerial work so much. The view of Matt Costain is telling of one future direction of circus, when he says  ‘I think in common with many performers in the Dome Show, I feel that after some time working on such a huge project, I am ready for something more intimate… I have been drawn to projects where the emphasis is on the personal rather than the epic. By the same token, I have no desire to return to a life of knocking on doors, small-scale profit, and turning up at nightclubs with my trapeze on my shoulder, looking for fifty quid and all the beer I can drink.’ 

Another outcome of the Dome show is the way that circus started to bleed into large venues’ work, most notably Mamaloucous’ production of Aristophones’ The Birds ,directed by Kathryn Hunter for the National Theatre, which was reviewed by Amy Howard (Issue 14-3, Autumn 2002). 

But it wasn’t only performances that started to increase the presence and reach of circus at the turn of the millennium. In January 2000, the London International Mime Festival hosted a Total Theatre Critical Practice debate on circus. John Daniel, in an article simply titled ‘Circus Theatre’ (Issue 12-1, Spring 2000) gives an excellent sense of the range and depth of topics explored as well as capturing the landscape of circus theatre. Daniel pulls in observations of the growth of training schools (not just London and Bristol based either), as well as flagging up the beginning of the Circ.Elation project, which would hold its first residential event in November 2000.

It might be a bit churlish to flag it up, but his note that the reason Gandini Juggling fuse juggling with contemporary dance and not with theatre is “their expert manipulative techniques marry effectively with abstract and schematic choreographic forms. But they would not work so well in a dramatic context, because it is hard to imagine juggling representing anything other than itself’. I don’t know if this might have been a spur to the Gandini’s, but by 2002 they would be taking their first forays into theatrical territory. 

Circ.Elation was a collaboration between production company Bathena-Jancovich, the Circus Space and Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – and funded by Arts Council England. This professional development programme bought theatre, dance and circus directors, choreographers and performers together to explore new ways of working. Dorothy Max Prior’s reports on the residency in her article ‘The Joy of Circus’ (Issue 13-1, Spring 2001), and her reflection on the workshops is a fascinating glimpse into circus and theatre/dance trying to work out just what they might do together – with Philip Mackenzie’s advice to artists whose whole raison d’etre is based in movement seeming particularly poignant: ‘Allow the stillness to tell you what to do’ he says – and this for me sums up that crossover for all performance forms; that every action has to come from some need to move. Something that is echoed by participant Pete Turner when he notes that authenticity is at the heart of circus. 

A final push for circus in general in the year 2000 was the establishment of the Circus Arts Forum (initially as a Total Theatre Network project) under the guidance of Annabel Arndt (the organisation’s director at the time) and Verena Cornwall (CAF Chair), with Dorothy Max Prior as CAF co-ordinator, and a remit to represent circus in all its myriad forms. CAF held its first open forum at Battersea Arts Centre in October 2001, where the gamut of circus artists discussed their vision for circus. There was a broad range of circus voices and Prior, reporting in an article titled ‘A Vision for Circus’ (Issue 13-4, Winter 2001) finds a unifying spirit at the close of the forum. 

Backtracking a little to 2000, Stewart McGill’s article ‘Has Circus Lost its Heart?’ (Issue 12-3, Autumn 2000) provides a view of the state of the traditional circus, with interviews with two the UK’s most successful circus promoters/producers Gerry Cottle and Martin Burton (Zippos). McGill brings a much needed balance to the discussion of the state of circus, providing a sense of the ways in which traditional circus was responding to the changing times. Whether this is in terms of Burton’s own training provision in Zippo’s Academy of Circus Arts or Cottle’s popular and joyful big top shows. Underlying the discussion is the fact that these circus enterprises exist outside of the subsidised sector and whilst this gives the companies the imperative for innovation and survival, McGill also suggests that (unlike in other European countries) it also excludes them from the visibility that subsidised companies are able to achieve. 

This last challenge is something that has certainly been overcome by one of the emerging circus companies name-checked by Cottle in McGill’s feature – Nell Stroud’s Gifford’s Circus. By the autumn of 2001, Gifford’s has its own feature, ‘Days at the Circus’, with Richard Cuming investigating  – the most telling line the savvy observation from Nell Stroud: ‘I think we’ll always be small. It’s quality not quantity’. The following year (Issue 14-3, Autumn 2002) Amy Howard reviewed  Gifford’s Circus, picking up on the intimate nature of their shows, and in 2003, Howard (who would later go on to perform with Gifford’s Circus as a musician and clown) reports in ‘Flights of Fancy’ that Gifford’s were one of three artists to win a Jerwood Award for circus, bringing their tent to Hoxton Square for the Circus Space Festival (reviewed by this author in Issue 15-2, Summer 2003).

Gandini Juggling were another Jerwood Winner in 2004 (and another company who for a long period had little in the way of public subsidy, relying on their commercial activity to fund their more experimental work). No Exit, named after Sartre’s play Huis Clois, and made under the name K-DNK, was a co-collaboration with percussionist and juggler John Blanchard. I report on it in a piece titled ‘Zip Zap Boing’ (Issue 16-2, Summer 2004). No Exit was the first of Gandini Juggling’s darker pieces and their second foray into narrative (after Don’t Break my Balls), which culminated in the indoor version of their smash-hit Smashed and Cløwns & Queens, which the company describe as ‘dirty circus’.

From 2005 to 2010, the number of circus reviews in the pages of Total Theatre Magazine increases and it is important to note the number of UK-based companies/artists amongst them – whether it’s of  emerging artists like Matilda Leyser with Lifeline (Issue 17-4) in which Dorothy Max Prior notes that a rope can represent more than just a rope; or more established ones in the form of Lyndsey Butcher’s Gravity and Levity’s Taking Flight (reviewed in 17–3 by Miriam King), which is a good indication of how bespoke apparatus became more and more of a feature of UK circus-theatre. There’s also coverage for the long-established Cardiff-based NoFit State and apparatus-innovators Ockham’s Razor.

Talking of whom: there is also space for longer pieces, and John Ellingsworth’s ‘Attention to Objects’ is one that stands out, for its thoughtful and incisive reflection on the nature of circus. In this he manages to report on a (by the sounds of it) heated Circus Futures conference; capture a number of performances (including Every Action by Ockham’s Razor); and tie it all together with musings on the relationship of circus to the apparatus and objects. It’s this kind of writing that Total Theatre Magazine gives space to so well. 

Similarly thought provoking, Daniela Essart’s moving reflection, ‘Mother and Daughter Flying’ (Issue 22-3, Autumn 2010) invites on the journey she has taken with her ‘site-responsive multi-disciplinary aerial and visual theatre’ company Scarabeus. There are several notable entries for this important UK company, but this 2010 article stands out for the ways in which Essart charts her negotiation of motherhood and her career. Her shift to working with young people in a creative learning context is a salutary lesson in how your working life is never immune to your other lives. It also stands as an interesting marker of the way in which work with children and young people has gained greater respect and artistic currency over the last decade, as have more ecological and holistic ways of working which Essart also touches upon. The key takeaway in this reflection is, as Essart states so simply, ‘having a child has enhanced and enlightened our work’. 

I was surprised to find that in 2011 three of the four circus entries are written by myself. I confess the last one of the year, ‘The Works: Gandini Juggling’ (Issue 23-4) looking back at the long career of the company, was one of the most pleasing, nerve-wracking, and impactful pieces to write. This is one of the joys of writing for Total Theatre, that the different suggestions and requests from the editor are invitations to spend some time thinking a bit more deeply about subjects you are intrigued by. That it would lead to me writing Juggling Trajectories a full-blown book on the history of Gandini Juggling, was even more of a surprise – but part of the feasibility of such a task was the fact that I had had a chance to practice my writing in the pages of TT with robust and supportive editorial guidance – that and the fact Gandini Juggling kept such a good archive of primary material (note to artists: record and keep everything!). 

The other two articles I wrote in this year both covered circus elements at different festivals: ‘When the Circus Comes to Town’ reflects on circus work at The London International Mime Fest (Issue 23-1, Spring 2011); and ‘Ali in the Balance’ on Dance Umbrella (Issue 23-4, Winter 2011).

Whilst the former festival has regularly programmed circus work throughout its long and illustrious history, the latter is less frequently a home to circus. Looking back at this time, I’m struck by the thought that circus’s permeation into other artforms is testament to the changes put in place by the artists, producers, teachers and administrators (including the ones mentioned in this article). 

One such final figure is the Artistic Director of North London venue Jackson’s Lane, Adrian Berry. His was the fourth article in 2011, ‘I’m Going to Jackson’ (Issue 23-3). In it he very publicly reflects on a difficult four years in charge of the venue that now is the London home of emerging circus and circus artists – including recent support for the UK’s Silver Lining and the anarchic international company Svalbard , as well as their Hangwire and Transmission artistic development programmes – and sponsorship of the Jacksons Lane and Total Theatre Award for Circus. Like that of any small- to mid-scale venue, theirs is a tale of struggles with finance and wrestling with the very bricks and mortar of the building. It is doubly interesting to read this (in 2019) just weeks after Berry announced a huge capital build project at Jackson’s Lane to renovate the venue, and to realise that the story of this venue is a great way to capture the story of circus of the last decade. Perhaps it’s time for Ade Berry to provide an update…  

The changes in an artform’s presence and reach are not often discussed in print form, and it is good to be able to see these captured in the archive. Looking back over the archive is a good way to remember that circus has now re-established itself as an important part of the artistic life of the UK. It is also interesting to see your own journey through this period – the changes you have made and the stops along the way. Despite the current national political issues – whether that is Brexit’s potential to hamper and undo the fluid and dynamic international exchange and collaboration which has characterised the arts so far this century; the ongoing effects of the austerity agenda on funding for innovation and experimentation in the arts; or the impact of educational policy which has seen the downgrading of the arts and humanities potentially disenfranchising a swathe of children unable to afford private arts opportunities – I am relatively optimistic about circus as an artform and its current health. Financially it is always a challenge, but the tented, touring circus companies  (including Gifford’s whose latest show, Xanadu, is directed by Cal MacCrystal) can still be found on public grounds throughout the UK; numerous street companies using circus skills (Mimbre, Upswing, Periplum, Hikapee, et al) have benefitted from a well developed Outdoor Arts festival infrastructure; and there is an appetite for small- to mid-scale contemporary circus companies (such as Circumference, Barely Methodical Troupe, and Ockham’s Razor) to tour to built theatre venues. 

Who knows what the next 30 years will bring, but the commitment and passion of the whole host of circus artists and producers working today will surely be needed – as will some way to capture and retain these ephemeral events.

Thomas Wilson is a Module Year Co-ordinator on the European Theatre Arts BA degree at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. 

He is the author of Juggling Trajectories, Gandini Juggling 1991 – 2015 which explores the first 25 years of Gandini Juggling.