Monday, 23 January 2017

Chapter 170: Circus Futures 2017

Johnathan Lee Iverson

"Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don't take anything too seriously, it'll all work out in the end."
David Niven

A friend in North Carolina alerted me by text: "Ringling is closing. Come and see it before it does." Easier said than done now given the deadline is May and suddenly it's the hottest ticket in town. As Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, aka @BigTopVoice, wryly observed on Twitter: "All it took was one terrible announcement that we're done and suddenly we're "Hamilton"🙄." It was such sad news, both for what it represents - the end of an American dream 146 years in the making, a social space where people could gather together to witness the impossible made possible through hard graft and practice, and the loss of livelihood for 146 highly skilled performers. That the news was released in the last days of Obama's presidency was a double-whammy, and I imagined Barnum turning in his grave. It made me wonder what the future has in store for circus in the UK, and so it was interesting to spend yesterday (Friday, 20 January) at the national Circus Futures meeting at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's Southbank, discussing just that. 

On arrival, each delegate was invited to  pick up a marker pen from a rainbow assortment of colours and write their own name on a tag. I embellished - I mean "clown" is a stretch, but I was there to play. The morning revolved around 14 Pecha Kucha talks, a fast-paced, concise style of presentation where 20 slides are shown, each for 20 seconds, lasting precisely 6 min 40 in total. First though, facilitator Orit Azaz invited us to turn to a stranger, introduce ourselves, and own up to one thing we wanted to get out of the day. I found that very helpful. Saying out loud the fact that I was there to clarify the use and purpose of this blog gave the day focus. 

We were invited to stand up tall (or shrink small) three times over to grade our own knowledge about what is going on in the world of circus a) internationally, b) nationally c) in our own region. Being a circus community, at least one enterprising soul stood up on a chair to gain height, but missed a trick for a handstand. As you would expect, option c) had the most number of participants with their heads held high and reinforced the value of days like this for knowledge-sharing to expand horizons.

Circus makers and practitioners were there from the world of outdoor arts, contemporary circus and traditional circus big tops (Gerry Cottle). There were performers looking for help, whether in terms of mentoring, space or finance, programmers looking to commission, companies looking to share news of their projects and training spaces talking of expanding. There was huge excitement about Circus250 and talk of a number of projects planned for 2018, marking the milestone anniversary of the birth of circus in Philip Astley's sawdust ring in 1768. Circus250 is the six month long celebration of circus all its forms with a variety of partners and events planned across six designated "circus cities" to force the spotlight out of London, as Dea Birkett explained in her Pecha Kucha presentation. For more information visit

Degas' Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando
Rachael Clare, Artistic Director of Crying Out Loud made my day with three pieces of news in particular: the fact that Gandini Juggling will be creating a new show in the fountains of Somerset House, the fanfare of a Big Top tour by French musical brass acrobats Circa TsuĂŻca with their show "Now or Never" (click here for video), and that James ThierrĂ©e and Compagnie du Hanneton will be at Sadlers Wells in May with "The Toad Knew". ThierrĂ©e, Chaplin's grandson (he doesn't trade on that, but it's an interesting fact) stormed Edinburgh to great acclaim when the show went to the International Festival last August. I'm booking tickets for 4 May, when there is a Q&A session afterwards. I have yet to see ThierrĂ©e in Chocolat, the biopic of Cuban-born black clown Rafael, aka Chocolat, played by Omar Sy (click here for trailer), something else still on my bucket list. 

The clown Chocolat was name-checked by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield, leading authority on the history of circus, Victorian entertainment and travelling showpeople, and herself from a long-line of fairground family. She mentioned Chocolat in the same breath as Degas' Miss La La, Pablo Fanque, Britains' first non-white circus owner, and Johnathan Lee Iverson, Ringling's first black ringmaster, to illustrate the diversity and inclusivity of the circus arena historically, and I was interested to hear she is currently developing a play about Fanque. Professor Vanessa also talked about the role of circus in the past providing an arena for the emancipated women to flourish, strong in body and spirit, in a way that was light years ahead of the treatment of women in society at large. 

Companies such as the all-female aerialists Skinning the Cat and Mimbre acrobats are part of that trajectory. Actually, I'd never heard of the former as they toured 1988-2002, long before I came into contact with the circus world. Through the Pecha Kucha presentation by founder Becky Truman I learned that the company is known for their pioneering use of narrative and props. I was pleased to hear that Becky has written a book about her experience and what makes an artist, launching at the Bradford Literary Festival in 2018. In honour of 2018 she and fellow speaker Dr Julia Calver, and producer Jenny Wilson have set up the Cupola 2018 Project in Yorkshire, a programme celebrating circus in the North. 

Exploded Circus -
Hearing Lina Johannsson describe Mimbre's "If I Could I Would" (Chapter 143 - click here) as "a woman turning around a shitty day through small victories" made me smile, and I enjoyed hearing more about the new show in development "Exploded Circus". Imagine a snapshot of the moment a circus explodes, frozen in time. Six performers, with clown Alison Halstead in a pivotal role, emerge and try to rebuild a new life out of the chaos, each for their own. The story looks at how we deal with change, ultimately demonstrating that the human instinct to connect is stronger that the human instinct to survive. A striking metaphor the week that it feels like the world has exploded and we wonder where to go from here. #StrongerTogether. 

As Daniela Essart of Scarabeus Aerial Theatre, later observed: "Making art is a political act in an unequal society." I was delighted to hear more about the company, having heard from circus artist Michaela O'Connor that they make beautiful work. Take their show "Depths of My Mind", an immersive piece, inspired by a U-Change study by scientists at Cambridge University mapping the development of the teenage brain that looked at  in a positive affirmation of life as a teenager, and the project in the making exploring the concept of home in the context of immigration and refugees as place makers. Scarabeus celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2018, and I'm looking forward to hearing more.  

Speaking of teenagers, Circus Works is the UK voice for youth circus and I was interested to hear Lynn Carroll speak on the importance of "physical literacy" in children's education, a fact recognised in Wales where it is government policy to ensure it is represented on the curriculum. Funnily enough I went to a talk on mindfulness at my son's school the other day where I learned that the first school to bring mindfulness into the classroom was in Bangor, the hotspot for a mindful eduction. Wales is leading the way. Lynn also talked about how important circus was to improving physical literacy, especially among girls, a fact that I have seen first hand in my 8 year old daughter who is a regular at Flying Fantastic classes. I watch her sailing across monkey bars with ease now, and climbing up any poles or ropes she can find. They are activities that challenge and stretch her, and her confidence and trust in her own strength has soared. As an adult learning aerial, I get that same kick from discovering an increase in upper body strength, though I still struggle to follow in my daughter's footsteps on the monkey bars! 

Circus Raj at Førde Festival
In terms of training spaces, it was great to see Flying Fantastic in attendance and to hear from Yam Doyev, owner/Artistic Director, and Kevin Aaron from Gravity Circus Centre about the plans for expansion, both in terms of physical space and attracting teachers, and plans for a flagship show in 2018. In Bristol, Circomedia also has a new building and an imminent move, and as well as fostering the burgeoning movement through their BA Hons, new MA in Directing Circus and recreational classes. I was glad to hear from Nic Young that they have a collaboration planned with Extraordinary Bodies (see post on "Weighting" - click here) in 2018. Also from Bristol, Kate Hartock was there to talk about the role that Circus City, launched in 2015, has sustaining the circus community there, providing a platform for circus arts, and on plans for the biennial festival this October, which will be over half-term and have a strong family strand.

Further to the South West, it was interesting to hear from Laurie Miller at Seachange Arts, the circus and street arts organisation based in Great Yarmouth about the Coasters initiative, thanks to nearly £1million grant from the Arts Council that enables them to take a touring programme to coastal towns. I loved hearing about Seachange Arts creation space "The Drill House", with accommodation on the side for up to 8 performers in vintage caravans, and can now visualise JosĂ© Triguero & Gemma Palomar in situ there this week, developing their work Cul De Sac (post to follow). I would like to check out the "Out There" festival in the Autumn, an annual event which has around 50,000 people visiting the town over the space of a couple of days to see a whole host of national and international talent, and the large scale touring show for Circus250 will be full steam ahead. 

We also heard from Jade Dunbar, who runs the circus Big Top at the Glastonbury Festival, looking to use the festival's year "off" in 2018 to nurture projects that are a little bit different, and with a strong interest in works of a participatory nature that involve the audience. One company giving a Pecha Kucha talk that has been welcomed at Glastonbury in the past was Circus Raj, short for Rajistan, their agent Graham Breakwall quickly clarified, to dispel any resonances of colonial appropriation. The company has been coming over to the UK now for a couple of years now, appearing in parades, shows, and highly in demand at Indian wedding parties. The are looking now for partners and constructive criticism to take their work to the next level. I wonder if they have ever swapped notes with Circus Kathmandu (

Lina, Vicki and Tina. Photo credit @Circus250
Last, but not least, I found Jon Hicks presentation one of the most entertaining, not least because he is a comedian by trade with a very deadpan humour. He took "Kickmouse Mysterium" to the first London Clown Festival last year, described as "Kung Fu Panda meets Buster Keaton" and has plans for a silent clowning show in 2018. 

"What a wonderful smorgasboard of stories from the world of circus" observed facilitator Orit Azaz afterwards. I rather loved that. They each told a story, but, like this blog, that is only part of the whole story and post-it notes were laid out with pens and the open invitation to those there to add any items of news that is happening that we haven't heard about. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for the afternoon session, which comprised a more informal series of two minute presentations, but had to leg it back for the kids' school pick up. I missed, for instance, hearing what Mimbre's Lina, Upswing's Vicki Amedume and Ockham Razor's Tina Koch have planned together for Circus250, and share Celine McKillion's excitement seeing the post-it note about the return to Bristol of Invisible Circus' immersive Carny-Ville in 2018 (

Information gathering though was only part of what the day was about for me. It was also about catching up, even if all too briefly, with people who have shared interests over a cup of coffee. Hearing from Grania Pickard about the tour for Oddly Moving's "He Ain't Heavy" (which I fell for in development Chapter 108 - click here); Mary Swan about "Pinocchio", a co-production between Proteus Theatre, Nearly There Yet, The Arc Stockton and The Albany Deptford which I must see with the kids (they still talk about "Rapunzel" - Chapter 57 - click here); chatting to Lost In Translation's Massi Rossetti about Flight of the Escales "What The Circus", a work in progress I saw at The Roundhouse last weekend, this week going up to LIT's space in Norwich; swapping notes with Dizzy O'Dare's Alana Jones on why we were blown away by "Here Lies Shakespeare" last week at Jacksons Lane (post to follow); see Heidi Niemi, who I have been learning silks with at Freedom2Fly and hear about her and Hanna Moisala's next project "Lola" for Lumo Company, at Resolution in February ( This is where I get the energy for my writing: bouncing ideas off other creators, doers, artists and meeting inspirational role models full of integrity and bursting with creativity. On the way out I snapped a shot of some of the post-its already up. "Circus needs more high profile champions and ambassadors" stated one. Maybe that is what this blog is all about, I thought, building bridges. In this crazy, crazy world right now, all we can do is to reach out to others and connect.

"Never doubt a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead, US Anthropologist

in order of appearance

1.  Laurie Miller, Creative Producer at Circus and Street Arts organisation Seachange Arts.

2. Circomedia's Artistic and Managing Director Nicholas Young

3. Lynn Carroll, from NoFit State, chair of Circus Works

4. Rachel Clare from  Crying Out Loud

5. Graham Breakwall from Circus Raj

6. Dea Birkett from Circus250

7. Yam Doyev, Manager, and Kevin Aaron from Gravity Circus Centre

8. Jon Hicks

9. Lina Johansson from Mimbre

11. Daniela Essart from Scarabeus Aerial Theatre

12. Becky Truman and Dr Julia Calver from UK Centre for Events Management at Leeds Beckett University organising the Cupola 2018 Project

13. Jade Dunbar from Glastonbury Festival

14.  Kate Hartock co-Artistic Director at Circus City, Bristol's biennial circus festival

If you are interested in hearing more or participating in future events, contact organiser Verena Cornwall:

"in Flanders, life is circus. Flemish 

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