The State of UK Circus

Circus in the UK

An article appeared in the New York Times recently discussing the social attitudes towards circus in the US. It spends a lot of time comparing circus in the US to circus in Europe, however, I’m not convinced the UK can be thought of as part of Europe in this context. The attitudes to circus in Britain seem to me like they are somewhere in the middle of the low status of circus in the US and the rather higher value it is given in Europe.

You can read the article in question here, but if you can’t be bothered I’ll outline it for you now.

The NYT article notes how cinema, professional sports and, later, television decimated the once popular circus industry from the late 19th century onwards. In the 1960s, circus had something of a comeback in both the US and Europe as the shoots of what would later be called “new circus” began to appear. Character and storylines started to play a more prominent role in circus shows while some of the animals and sequins became rarer.

The Invisible Circus's 'The Happiness Machine'

In Europe, government funding increased and lead to many circus schools, festivals and awards springing up from the mid-‘70s onwards. In the US, on the other hand, no such funding was available and circus dwindled once again.

The author blames this of the different public attitude towards circus in the US compared to Europe. Circus is often held to be a form of rough, low entertainment at worst and a crass, commercial enterprise. Some states even banned circus.

“Today this reputation lingers, with stifling effect. Hundreds of American universities offer degrees in theater and dance; not one allows a student to graduate in circus. Venues resist programming circus shows and granting bodies resist supporting them. The New York State Council on the Arts has banned “variety” funding outright, including for circuses.”

Circus is definitely held in higher esteem in the UK, but not by that much. We have two well-respected circus schools in Circomedia and Circus Space. We have some public funding which has helped home-grown circuses like NoFitState and the Invisible Circus to develop new full length company shows.

Scary clowns!

However, British circus is still a long way from receiving the support and respect found in many other European countries. France, according to the NYT, has over 600 circus schools. In its directory, FEDEC (the European Federation of Professional Circus Schools) has over double the number of listings of training facilities in France than the UK.

The number of British circuses and troupes is also lacking, according to Circus Space. This concern, that Circus Space graduates all end up working abroad, has led them to collaborate with promoters, Underbelly, in creating the country’s first circus competition. The idea of this venture is to promote circus and to supply the winner with the opportunity to develop and new and exciting piece of circus art.

The Circus Project's Brighton and Hove Youth Circus in RoLF

Public attitudes to circus aren’t always great and, as a circus enthusiast and performer myself, I have experienced this first hand. The word “circus” for most Britons conjures up images of poorly treated animals and scary clowns. Journalists deride the circus arts as “juggling a ball while wearing a red nose and seal flippers”. Like in the US, public attitudes towards the circus in the UK seem to be hampered by antiquated notions of what circus is.

We are certainly moving in the right direction in the UK with circuses like NoFitState and the Invisible Circus going from strength to strength. Youth circus is also growing with more facilities for children, like the Circus Project and the Five Ring Circus, and more circus skills being taught in schools. These things, combined with the continuing “craze” for diabolos in schools makes me very hopeful for a change in social attitude towards circus in this country as the youth of today become the journalists, promoters and performers of tomorrow.