This year marks the 250th anniversary of the first modern circus, but the contribution of many female performers has been written out of history. Contemporary female artists tell Tom Wicker how they are challenging stereotypes
It has been 250 years since ‘modern’ circus was born with Philip Astley’s invention of the equestrian ring in London in 1768. This anniversary is being celebrated with a UK-wide promotion of circus involving several companies and institutions under the banner Circus250 .
What is often overlooked about that first event is that Patty Astley, a talented equestrian, was right there alongside her husband in the creation of modern circus. As part of her act, she rode around the ring with her hands and arms covered in bees. The history of circus is replete with powerful, talented female performers and artists. But they have often been overlooked in favour of their male counterparts.
For Lina Johansson, joint artistic director of female-led circus group Mimbre, this is disheartening, “because circus has always been innovative. It’s always been the rule breaker”. And a version of that history that keeps women in the footnotes creates “barriers for the mind”, she says, for aspiring female circus performers. Representation matters.
Earlier this year, the long-running, well-respected Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow) became embroiled in controversy about the lack of female performers in its line-up.
While its vice-president argued that this was simply reflective of those who applied, it begs the question: do women feel discouraged? In the UK, performance artist Ellie Dubois  says that British circus has come a long way.
“It feels like there are loads of people touring abroad and putting it more on the map”, she says. But, she adds, when it comes to gender and diversity, “circus has to reassess itself”.
The gender split during circus training is hardly male-dominated. Martha Harrison, who trained as a trapeze flyer, works with Mimbre and teaches at the National Centre for Circus Arts . Spurred on by a lack of data on the subject, she has written a paper titled Gender Representation in Circus Arts – A Case Study.
Harrison found that, between 1999 and 2017, the NCCA trained 208 women compared with 162 men via its degree course. From 1994 to 2016, Bristol-based Circomedia  – the only other UK-based higher education circus school – trained 283 female students and 184 male students.
But it is what happens afterwards that counts. Dubois trained at the NCCA. “There were 20 women and four men in my class,” she says. “Now everybody’s graduated, I’m like: ‘What are all those female circus performers doing?’ Because there still are not the roles for them.”
The limited nature of those roles is an issue. Harrison analysed jobs advertised between 2015 and 2016, in the NCCA’s Artist and Company Development Centre’s widely circulated newsletter. While there were more jobs for women, “there was something like 34 descriptive words for women and four for men,” she says.
‘Well-proportioned’, ‘lovely’ and ‘sweet’ were typical words targeting female circus performers. “Some were actually offensive,” says Harrison, “such as ‘long-haired preferred’ and ‘Caucasian’.” She also noted that in the shows advertised in the ‘things to see’ section, “women were predominantly mothers”.
Dubois is familiar with typecasting in circus. No Show – which she directed in Edinburgh last year and which is returning for London’s Roundhouse-hosted CircusFest 2018 programme – tackles it head-on. It’s inspired by the experiences of its all-female ensemble. In one darkly funny, dispiriting sequence, a hand-balancer is cajoled into being stereotypically ‘sexier’.
Early female circus pioneers
Patty Astley, an equestrian, performed alongside her husband, Philip, in the first circus in central London. Her set piece was riding around the ring covered in bees.
Maria Spelterini (1853-1912), Italian tightrope walker, was the only woman ever to cross the Niagara gorge on a tightrope.
French acrobat Miss LaLa was famous for being suspended from a ceiling by her teeth. She is the subject of Degas’ 1879 painting Miss LaLa at the Cirque Fernando.
Rossa Matilda Richter (1863-1937), stage name Zazel, became the first recorded ‘human cannonball’ in 1877, aged 14.
Kate Williams (1874-1946), stage name Vulcana, was a Welsh strongwoman born in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. She won more than 100 medals during her career.
Lillian Leitzel (1892-1931), an acrobat and strongwoman for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, was the inaugural, posthumous inductee to the International Circus Hall of Fame.
Antoinette Concello (1904-1984), part of the ‘Flying Concello’ aerial troupe, was the first female trapeze artist to achieve the triple somersault. Director Cecil B DeMille hired her to advise on his film about circus, The Greatest Show on Earth.
Particularly in large-scale, commercial circus, female performers too often end up as glittery supporting acts to an army of men. And contemporary circus isn’t immune to perpetuating stereotypes, says Johansson.
She is uneasy whenever she witnesses the “classical duet situation” where the “man throws the woman away, then grabs her back”. She believes creators need to think about an act’s wider storytelling implications.
In response, an increasing number of women are forming their own circus companies, to tell their own stories or put new spins on old tales. Metta Theatre is touring a feminist circus version of The Little Mermaid, while Mimbre’s latest show, The Exploded Circus, will showcase a variety of circus skills in its allegorical exploration of history and change.
Aerialist and choreographer Vicki Amedume set up the critically acclaimed Upswing in 2004, in reaction to her “identity being shaped by others”. It was “a space where I could just be an artist, and where others who didn’t quite fit into other people’s boxes could be the best they could be,” she says.
Hyena is the first full-length touring circus show from the all-female Alula Cyr trio, formed in 2014. It will play at the Albany in London as part of CircusFest. “It’s about sisterhood and about pushing your female wildness,” explains co-artistic director Fiona Thornhill. “It looks at the complexities and vulnerabilities of human nature.”
Thornhill and her Alula Cyr co-founders met at the NCCA. They were the first women there to train with the Cyr wheel. What they have in common with others who have formed their own companies is a determination not to be defined by gender preconceptions.
Festivals are invaluable platforms for female circus performers, as Molly Nicholson, circus producer at the Roundhouse, acknowledges. This year’s CircusFest has its strongest programme of female-led work, following some previous criticism of the gender balance. “We definitely went in with that mindset,” says Nicholson. “It was also incredibly easy, because there are all these brilliant female-led shows that are just brilliant circus shows.”
Nicholson is particularly happy to be featuring French company Groupe Bekkrell in the Roundhouse’s main space. Several female circus makers note a frustrating tendency in programmers to assume that all female-led work equals ‘intimate’, small-scale or just for women. Change depends on challenging perceptions of what and who circus is for, they say, and it needs to start early. The NCCA degree now includes feminist theory.
Last year, the Roundhouse held a salon on gender and circus. In common with the NCCA and venues such as Jacksons Lane in north London, it aids the development of new work and offers rehearsal space.
Progress is being made in recognising the legitimacy and diversity of the voices of female circus artists. But there’s still much to be done. As Amedume points out, the circus sector – which became eligible for public subsidy only relatively recently – is one of the most underfunded of the UK’s performing arts.
Amedume believes the unequal treatment of women in circus is rooted in economics and is endemic of wider society. As she moved through circuses with ever-increasing resources, the pressure to conform to expectations of appearance grew.
“And the women fell away,” she observes. “The bigger the company, the fewer women there were in leadership roles.”
Who commissions and creates circus is key. In the commercial sector, says Amedume, there are very few large, female-led circus organisations. She points to the Swedish Cirkus Cirkor  as a notable exception. “It works across the world, but it also has a really socially engaged practice.”
The Roundhouse engages in social outreach; companies such as Alula Cyr run workshops alongside touring. “Role models are empowering,” says Thornhill, who continues: “We recognise our privilege. We are able to put our work on stage and to have freedom of expression and autonomy over our bodies. To say which costumes we’re going to put ourselves in. To speak our truth as we see it.”
It’s a no-brainer: a greater variety of voices, including in leadership, equals more diverse stories. If circus is about collaboration and challenging people’s notions of what is possible, isn’t it time – after 250 years – for it to try harder to keep up with the world outside the ring? It’s about seeking out (and supporting) female circus artists. The talent is there.
Circus250 has launched a short film titled Women in Circus – see it here 
CircusFest 2018  runs from April 3 to May 6. It is hosted by the Roundhouse, London and also takes place at Jacksons Lane, the Albany and partner venues around the UK