Around the World in Thirty Days

Feature in Issue 13-2 | Summer 2001

Verena Cornwall takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the world's circus hot spots.

Unlike a number of my contemporaries I have no memories of a circus trip at the tender age of eight where the elephants waved from stools and the chimps dressed in children's clothes. (Perhaps I just lived in the wrong part of the country.) My only visits to the circus have been in adulthood, as a conscious decision. However, there the differences end as I too have become hooked on the magical transient lifestyle of today's circuses. I have to confess that working for a circus has assisted this process – and even the chemical loos didn't take the shine off the uniqueness that is circus.

So, when I decided that it was time to study for a doctorate of course the focus had to be circus. This was in part also to do with the fact that having been involved in funding for over a decade it seemed somewhat pertinent to this discussion that the UK had still to formulate a policy for circus.

My research focus came from this beginning. I realised that other countries had long histories of offering funding or of state-controlled training and that some of the answers lay abroad. A number of research papers exist examining the climate in Europe so I chose to examine in depth countries further afield. Having penned the research brief, the only way forward seemed to be a vast fact-finding mission that would start the journey towards an understanding of the way forward for this country. Spurred on by an invitation to come and discuss funding with colleagues in Australia, I booked a 'Round the World' ticket and began to make contacts around the globe.

As one-time manager of ZACA, the UK's premiere touring circus school, starting with circus training seemed a good route through the maze. This was also something tangible that could be cross-referenced. With assistance from leading circus names in the UK circuit, I began a series of e-mails making tentative contacts. Then, with a cast-iron flight schedule booked some four weeks before departure, stepped on to the first of sixteen aeroplanes.

My mission: to visit training schools; discuss the funding situation with the directors; view as much product, circus and otherwise, as possible in each location; try to meet with funders, and move on from there. With three or four days in each location, time was tight, but travelling on my own meant maximum flexibility. To help the process I borrowed a new digital video camera, which stayed glued to my side throughout.

The hardest part of arranging the trip was deciding where not to go. However, as this is the first of three trips planned I felt that a 'toe in the water' approach to meet people and make contact was the best way in.

Russia was a really good place to start. The circus school was a wonderful Tardis-like building that housed training rings, dance studios, classrooms, a library, costumes and students making the most of the opportunity to get a first-class education in circus. The building-based Grand Moscow Circus show I visited was itself unique as few English circuses have quite the variety of animals – it included a performing porcupine! Visiting backstage was just like a step back into the classic film Trapeze, with practice rings and rows and rows of cages. The performance was of a high standard with the classic Russian clown act and some excellent aerial work.

Somehow, getting to Australia from Russia involved flying all the way back to Germany, so I had plenty of time to write up my conclusion of the first leg. The Circus and Physical Theatre conference in Brisbane was a model conference. The format was well thought through, guest speakers were excellent and a good mixture of new and traditional circus people were there. Artists and managers from the circus scene all over Australia contributed to the debates and some good indoor and outdoor performances showed the best of the country's new circus work. My last task before leaving was to sneak into the first audition for the new national circus school and watch Australia's talent going through their paces.

Next to Singapore – making the most of a short stopover to visit Cirque du Soleil's Asia Pacific headquarters. A vast office full of marketing staff and ‘strategic planners', this was a lead into the World of Soleil whom I had plans to visit in Canada.

Beijing, next, proved a tip of the Chinese circus iceberg but a useful starting point. Visiting the residential school on the outskirts of the city I watched young people mastering the techniques involved in fitting a multitude of people on a cycle and in an afternoon watched a woman crack the skill needed for giant paper umbrella foot-juggling. I recognised a few faces from the school in the city's China Acrobatic Circus show in the evening, with young children through to adults performing highly skilled acrobatics and balance. I'm planning a two-week visit later in the year to explore other strategic parts of China.

Canada was gearing up for winter when I arrived. Meeting with Cirque Éloize and spending time talking about new projects was really interesting. This company is definitely one to watch and I hope that plans to tour to the UK this year come off. Cirque du Soleil's headquarters are something else, and at this point a reality check is required. If you have the type of dreams that I do which involve purpose-built circus training quarters, row upon row of offices, a hippy cafe, hand-dyed fabric, costume makers and designers on site – then this is it. Having heard the hype, the trip to their site in Montreal had to be seen to be believed. Interestingly enough this was also the only place where videoing was restricted for ‘security reasons'. There are plans to move the Ecole Nationale de Cirque onto this site, and a visit to the current school's building showed that the building was being used to maximum effect. Both rooms were packed with students and the intake is limited by the physical space available.

A stopover in New York to see the opening performance of the Big Apple Circus preceded the last location on the itinerary: Rio de Janeiro. The school here offers courses of varying duration, which provide a journey out of the slum favellas for a vast number of children (and for their tutors too). With high quality tuition, the open-air training takes place in the red-light district of Rio. A newly purchased tent permanently erected on-site offers tented circus experience and the course includes prop building. Soleil and the Ringling Brothers vie to offer contracts at the end of term showcase. Rio is also home to the first Cirque du Monde – a project set up by Soleil as a social circus model. Here street kids learn confidence and new abilities through circus and in an associated programme through reggae music.

Following this trip, Edson da Silva from the Escola Nacional de Circo in Rio has been funded through the Arts Council to work with Polichinelo Circus in the UK. The finished piece will tour throughout the summer.

This whistle-stop tour has left me with several hours of taped interviews and digital video footage to be edited, the content of which will form the first section of the doctorate. Next I plan to focus on three countries in more depth and spend time in the UK discussing the current climate with those directly involved. The final section will include recommendations for arts policy in this country, based on the findings from abroad. This work should go some way to assisting the development of streams of funding that are appropriate for circus in the UK. The initial findings and edited video will be disseminated later this year through the Arts Council and regional arts boards and copies will be held by the Circus Arts Forum at the offices of Total Theatre Network.

Verena Cornwall is chair of the Circus Arts Forum and director of Fairfields Arts Centre. She also undertakes freelance consultancy for physically based companies and circuses. Her trip was in part funded by Southern Arts and the Arts Council of England.


This article in the magazine

Issue 13-2
p. 2 - 3