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Why UK circus artists are lining up to train at Belgium’s Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque

Students at work in ESAC’s new building, a former coal-fired heating plant on the outskirts of Brussels
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As circus takes an increasingly international outlook, UK practitioners are looking to train in Europe and beyond. Katharine Kavanagh explains how a new campus is helping ESAC maintain its reputation for excellence

On April 19, circus artists from around the world will reunite at their old school in Belgium to mark the inauguration of its new campus. The Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque has a reputation as one of the top circus schools on the planet, and a visit to its purpose-fitted building in the Anderlecht district of Brussels reveals why.

A former coal-fired heating plant has been transformed into the new home for 50 students on the three-year degree programme that ESAC has offered for the past 15 years, supported by an equivalent number of teaching staff.

Funds from Belgium’s French-speaking community commission have been used to fit the industrial space with sprung floors, rigging points, aerial walkways and studios, capitalising on the existing functionality of the building and directing money into technical additions rather than architectural restructuring. There are also classroom and workshop spaces across the five floors and basement, where lessons in history of art and history of circus form part of each year’s syllabus.

“Every circus school has its own identity,” says principal Virginie Jortay. “ESAC’s goal is for graduates to become directors of their own act. Our purpose is to serve the project of the student.”

Creativity is one of the key qualities the school looks for in potential applicants during the five-day audition process. This intensive introduction includes group workshops, a three-minute solo presentation of a circus skill and, for those who progress past the third day, individual interviews. From about 140 annual applicants, a group of between 17 and 19 will be selected to join the course.

Despite being home to one of the world’s top higher education institutes for circus, Belgium does not have the infrastructure of preparatory programmes available in other countries. With a high standard of technique required for the competitive entrance exam, most of ESAC’s student body is international.

British Cyr wheel artist Jo Moss decided to train at ESAC after completing a BTec at Circomedia in Bristol and then spending a year at Piste d’Azur preparatory school in France.

Good technical training and a strong emphasis on artistic development drew me to ESAC

“The mixture of good technical training with a strong emphasis on artistic development and research is what drew me to ESAC,” he explains. “The environment seemed both challenging and nurturing so I auditioned and got in. Living in another country and training in another language for more than three years was so valuable. It opened me up to different cultures, ways of thinking and ways of seeing, while allowing me opportunities to investigate myself in ways my familiar environment wouldn’t have given me.”

ESAC graduate Jo Moss with Maddie McGowan in The Second Breath, by iMove Arts and Stumble Dance Circus. Photo: Lizzie Coombes

Moss adds: “One of the most important things that ESAC imparted to me was the ability to see circus within the context of other art forms and their historical evolution. This in turn has encouraged me to push my own practice to meet other art forms on a level playing field, to try to take circus beyond its own bubble and see it in a wider context.”

The programme balances technical work on circus disciplines in the mornings with other creative classes such as dance and theatre in the afternoons but, as Jortay says, the artistic and the technical are integrated throughout each session. “Separating the two is a difficult question. Here the technique is also artistic.”

In addition to its undergraduate course, ESAC has further plans for master’s degrees in teaching research, both grounded in artistic practice. It has also recently launched the Certificat en Dramaturgie Circassienne – a modulated short course in circensic dramaturgy in partnership with Centre National des Arts du Cirque in France. The French word ‘circassienne’ is commonly used to describe both the work of those in circus and those who perform it. Its English counterparts are still waiting to enter mainstream vocabulary, a ‘circassian’ being a circus artist and ‘circensic’ referring to the artistic field.

The dramaturgy programme is for artists with at least three years’ professional experience. The deadline for applications is June 15. For the undergraduate degree, candidates must have A levels or an equivalent academic qualification, as well as a strong base in their chosen circus discipline. Preference is given to candidates under 23, due to the physical rigours of circus training, and completion of a preparatory circus programme is recommended. This year’s application deadline is May 31.

Jortay explains the main criteria for selecting students are, aside from their evident creativity, strong technique, humility, the ability to accept, understand and react to criticism quickly, and the capacity to evolve.

For those considering applying to the school, Moss offers this advice: “Go for it. Train hard and try to see circus in relation to other contemporary art forms. Be curious about the world around you. And train hard again.”

Top circus schools around the world

There is no official rating system for circus training establishments, but these five have each developed an excellent reputation through word of mouth and the successful careers of their graduates.

ENC – Ecole National du Cirque Montreal, Canada

Offers high-level technical development, the school produces multi-skilled artists with strong links to Cirque du Soleil and the Quebecois circus industry. ecolenationaledecirque.ca

CNAC – Centre National des Arts du Cirque

Chalons-en-Champagne, France

Alongside strong technical and artistic training, CNAC has a research and documentation centre that includes a workshop for developing new equipment. cnac.fr

ESAC – Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque

Brussels, Belgium

Offers highly integrated creative experimentation and excellent technical training. esac.be

NICA – National Institute of Circus Arts

Melbourne, Australia

Tripartite organisation with social circus and agency branches, which produces impressive multi-skilled artists and performers. nica.com.au

DOCH – Dans och Cirkushogskolan

Stockholm, Sweden

Part of Stockholm University of the Arts, DOCH offers a strong practice-as-research focus with biennial intake allowing for closer student-teacher relationships. DOCH is currently the only institution where a PhD can be studied in a dedicated circus department. uniarts.se

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