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Hone your circus skills with the right training

Students at Circomedia in Bristol
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Make no mistake, circus is big business in the entertainment industry. From the major shows of Cirque du Soleil to the sheer variety of acts at Underbelly in Edinburgh and on London’s South Bank, the popularity of circus in the UK has been on the rise for the last decade. Yet statistically, formal training in circus skills in the UK is still in its infancy and the traditional route has been through apprenticeships with a performing circus.

Martin Burton, of Zippos Circus, founded the Academy of Circus Arts in 1993 prompted by an apparent lack of hands-on skills among new performers. The acts were sound but there was a circus life-skills gap in that training.

He explains: “I thought, ‘We’ll start a circus school based on a touring circus.’ You turn up and the first thing you do is bang stakes in and put the tent up – obviously, under the guidance of teachers and professionals. You then train in that tent and at weekends, give performances in that tent. You work on the circus and live in caravans and circus-type accommodation. That way, regularly putting up a circus and taking it down, teaches you rigging.”

The course at ACA runs for just under six months and there are places for 12 to 15 students. In the first few weeks of training, all students get to try a wide variety of skills from the basic circus disciplines. If a student already has an act in development, they will have one-to-one classes with an instructor. There are also group classes in dance, tumbling, trampoline, conditioning and flexibility.

As the performance season approaches, the vocational trouping skills necessary for touring life are also learned while travelling the UK, performing at festivals, fairs, galas and other events. The final month of the course is spent focusing on act refinement in preparation for a graduation showcase in front of agents and industry representatives.

“Students start training on a Monday and know that on the Saturday they’ll be doing whatever we’ve been teaching them, in front of a live, paying audience,” says Burton. “That is the cornerstone of what my circus school does. In that respect, it’s different from the many credible, building-based circus schools in Britain.”

If you are keen to achieve a degree while training, then this option is available at the National Centre for Circus Arts in London. Formerly the Circus Space, the NCCA has an international reputation and is a full member of the European Federation of Professional Circus Schools. Among the many practical courses available is a two-year foundation course, which may be followed up with a year-long BA (hons) degree in circus arts.

The NCCA may offer the only degree course for circus training in the capital, but various other establishments have gained national and international recognition for foundation courses and practical training. Among the workshops and private classes on offer, the Aircraft Circus in Woolwich provides a 16-week, full-time foundation course in circus arts, offering a solid foundation in the core disciplines of aerial and ground-based acrobatics.

Gravity Circus School near Walthamstow, east London, has recently expanded its professional course to six months, aimed at providing training to performance level. As the title of the school suggests, the course focuses on fine-tuning aerial skills, including aerial hoops and static trapeze. A maximum of nine places are available each year.

In Sheffield, Greentop Community Circus was founded in 1980 and currently runs a full-time circus in performance foundation course. Running for 12 weeks, once a year, the course teaches all aspects of circus skills and performance, gearing towards an end-of-term show.

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Circus Central (officially known as the North East Circus Development Trust) offers a wealth of courses to the public in everything from simple tumbling to aerial work. Its aim is to establish and sustain a thriving circus community in the area. Prospective students can book for an open day, to check out the facilities and get a taste of the teaching style and auditions for 2017 places in June.

The University of South Wales offers a BA (hons) in performing arts, which provides all-round, intensive study of performance skills. The course is run in collaboration with the internationally renowned NoFit State Circus to explore the dynamics of voice and body in live performance, including physical conditioning through preparation for circus and movement work.

Circomedia in Bristol is the only circus school outside London to offer a degree, accredited by Bath Spa University. It has also recently introduced an MA in directing circus.

Artistic and education director Bim Mason explains how this new course has come about: “We’ve got the BTec diploma course and then a two-year foundation degree with a BA top-up year. The MA is something we’ve been thinking about for a while. There’s been a bit of a deficit in the number of British circus directors and we want to respond to that need. The course runs for 12 months and there are places available for between six and 10 people.”

There are five modules in the MA. These explore in detail the process of creating circus through a selection of research methods. The symbiotic relationship between performer and director is examined closely, while working with industry professionals assisting companies as assistant director or assisting in a production.

“Life at Circomedia is fairly intense,” says Mason. “Students start courses at nine in the morning with a warm-up. Then they go into technique classes, broadly based on aerial manipulation, juggling, or acrobatics, plus theatre classes and conditioning.

“On the degree courses, they have to write two essays a year. Some are formal essays, while others are more reflective. Almost every week, students have to present a new piece of work and there’s a presentation every Friday, which students watch together and critique.”

Londoner Tilly Lee-Kronick moved to Bristol in 2015 to begin studies at Circomedia.

“I came from a background of youth dance and theatre. I was auditioning for dance schools but I knew I didn’t really want to just do straight dance – I wanted more, and somebody suggested Circomedia to me. At first, I wasn’t too sure as I’d never done circus, and then I went to the open day and it convinced me.”

Lee-Kronick studied on a foundation course in physical theatre and trapeze for the first two years and has stayed on for a third year to top up to degree level.

She says: “It doesn’t really feel like being a normal student. I don’t go out and party because we are training every day. I’ve got a job with a dance theatre company that I auditioned for a few weeks ago that I’ll be taking up after I graduate. I love it in Bristol, so I’ll probably try to stay here after graduation.”

Part of The Stage special edition focussing on circus. For more circus coverage click here

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