We recently reported on the new “national” status given to the UK’s premier circus school, Circus Space, now The National Centre for Circus Arts. The circus performance reviews on our blog have also focused primarily on the “new” form of circus that tends to find itself in theatres rather than big tops. However, an article in the Telegraph last week made us think about traditional circus and whether it is being forgotten, not just by the Firetoys blog, but by the government and the public.
So what do we mean by new circus and traditional circus. As already mentioned, one difference is the type of venue; traditional circus is generally held in brightly coloured big tops that tour the country and pitch on village green’s, town parks or car parks on the edge of cities. New circus tends to be found in theatres and venues like London’s Roundhouse.
The venue isn’t the only difference though, in fact it’s rather incidental. One of the main differences is the emphasis on physical theatre and narrative the new circus has. These elements are sometimes found in traditional circus but to a much lesser extent. Examples of this sort of circus narrative are the Invisible Circus’ “The Happiness Machine”, which explored the material, television and commercial obsessions we find in modern life. Circocolumbia’s productions have encapsulated the tough street life in the favelas of South America and BandBazi’s new project Hamlet Asylum Seeker which interprets the Shakespeare play in a modern context and integrates circus sequences. Even grass-roots circuses like The Brighton and Hove Youth Circus have delved into the impact of digital life on today’s children and teenagers in their show Rolling on the Floor Laughing, which was extremely well received at the Brighton Fringe not long ago.
Traditional circus will be the type of circus that most people will think of when the word “circus” is mentioned. It’s the type that is found in saw dust filled big tops and toffee-apples and candy floss are sold. Where clowns with sad faces and red-noses entertain (or scare), strong men exhibit impossible feats, lions are tamed, elephants dance and, at least in days gone by, you might find a bearded lady or Siamese twins in the sideshow. The animal element has also predominantly disappeared these days but traditional circuses still remain with some 40 circuses touring the UK. These include UK circuses such as Zippo’s, Jay Miller’s and Billy Smart's and foreign circuses like the Chinese State and Moscow State circuses.
The argument the contributor to the Telegraph puts forth claims that traditional circus is being forgotten and ignored by government funding and the media in favour of new circus which is a sanitised, middle-class affair. They argue that graduates of National Centre for Circus Arts (NCCA) know little to nothing about life in “real” traditional circus with its sawdust, tent erections, caravans and unwashed darned tights. There also seems to be the suggestion that new circus is somewhat elitist and inaccessible to less well-off and more rural families, hidden, as it is, in expensive urban venues like the Royal Albert Hall, the Roundhouse and Brighton Dome. Given that traditional circus across the UK brings in enough punters to fill the Royal Albert Hall every week, “Where are the funding, national status and newspaper reviews of traditional circus?” is the cry from the article.
I certainly agree with the Telegraph author that traditional circus is still a valid and valuable form of circus and deserves a better reputation and more support. It’s also great that these circuses tour all over the country and turn a boring bit of land into something magical for a few days. However, it’s not totally true that new circus doesn’t do the same sort of thing, albeit to a lesser extent. NoFitState, one of the UK’s leading new circuses have taken their smash hit show, Bianco, to plenty of places outside of affluent cities including Narbeth, Bangor and Stoke-on-Trent. A much smaller company, PanGottic have been touring The Logic of Nothing in many smaller towns as well.
It’s also not true that graduates of circus schools like NCCA know nothing of traditional circus. In fact, many graduates go on to work in traditional circuses. However, it is a shame if the claim that “not a single traditional tented-circus proprietor was invited” to at the launch party at NCCA is true. But if everyone in the traditional circus industry is as scathing about new circus as the Telegraph’s author (and I’m sure they’re not) then it’s hardly surprising no invitations were sent.
The article also implies new circus isn’t as diverse as it claims. While I don’t know of any “4ft-tall clowns” currently training at NCCA I’m sure they would be welcome. There are also plenty of foreign students that train at “new” circus schools like NCCA and Circomedia in Bristol. They also offer classes and support to adults and children who want to try out and learn circus.
The Telegraph article also complains that “if all the money and support continues to go into circus produced in the middle of cities, where the whiff of the performance ring is replaced by the smell of the sushi bar next door, then the competition is unfair and too tough.” However, as one of the articles commentators points out: “The reason Zippo’s doesn't receive the money and support that some newer companies do is that it is a private enterprise whose bottom line is profit. You don't get state funds for that.” NCCA is a registered charity and relies on grants and donations to cover much of its running costs. To be fair to the Telegraph's author, Zippo's Academy of Circus Arts is also a charity but I wonder if the links with the profit making business hamper its chances of receiving public funding. Either way, I think the new status of NCCA is a good thing but it would be nice to see some more public funding trickle down to training courses like the Academy of Circus Arts (their website does suggest they receive funding albeit mostly from private investors).
There are always rivalries and name calling between two closely-related but slightly different activities; jugglers and spinners, skiers and snowboarders, trickers and traceurs. This article seems to take it a bit far though and like most of these rivalries, they’re all based on a false dichotomy in reality.
Both traditional and new circus are valid and valuable forms of the art. The fact new circus is getting a lot of attention and experiencing a lot of growth at the moment is fantastic for the art form in general. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s helping to sell more tickets for tented circus shows too. It’d be nice if the two “sides” could be nicer to each other! NCCA should invite more tented circus proprietors to their events and in return people who share the article author’s point of view should try not to turn their noses up at clean costumes, regular showers and the smell of croissants quite so much.