Circus in the UK has much to learn from other countries
While the circus world is a truly global affair, many countries also boast national advocacy organisations that promote the art form and provide a network for practitioners to develop skills and make industry contacts. Katharine Kavanagh looks at how they work and welcomes renewed attempts to create a British equivalent
Since 2010, the third Saturday in April has been dedicated to celebrations of circus around the globe. On April 21, showmen and women, historians and exhibitors across six continents have been invited to share their World Circus Day activities through the organising body, the Federation Mondiale du Cirque.
In a year when Britain is celebrating 250 years of circus along with the rest of the world, it might seem strange that, with less than a fortnight to go, only one UK entry had been added to these listings. The reality is that while informal community ties are as relevant in the circus sector at home as they are internationally, we lack the infrastructure of a central advocacy organisation, which other countries have stepped up to provide for the development, protection and promotion of their circus industries.
The Federation Mondiale du Cirque (World Circus Federation), based in Monte Carlo, boasts royal patronage. Princess Stephanie of Monaco has served as honorary president since the federation was set up in 2008, and also presides over the annual Monte Carlo International Festival.
This competitive showcase celebrates its 40th edition next year, and the glamour of attending, combined with the prestige of participation, is an indication of the high esteem in which circus is often held overseas. The federation is a non-profit association committed to lobbying for circus recognition and promoting “the art of happiness” worldwide, but other countries also have representative bodies that reflect the national needs of their artists and businesses.
Like Monaco, Belgium is a small nation that offers big support to its circus sector. The Flemish-speaking part of the country has recourse to Circuscentrum, an advocacy organisation that evolved in 2009 out of an earlier network of amateur and youth circus groups. It receives a recurring five-year subsidy from the Flemish authorities – an average of €685,000 annually – for promotional and developmental activities in circus artistry and pedagogy. The Francophone part of the country is supported by 23-year-old Espace Catastrophe, which provides creation space and assists in production and diffusion of post-classical circus. Each organisation also produces its own quarterly magazine.
The International Network of Circus Arts Magazines has active members across 11 countries. Among publicly funded and commercially run publications, it is notable that the British one is run on a voluntary basis, like that of Japan, a country with comparatively little circus culture and industry.
5 important roles for international advocacy organisations
1. Holding a database of performers, technicians, or creatives can be supplemented by a research resource focused on the sector. Dokucirco, a centre for circus documentation in Mexico, has its own travelling library inside a caravan. dokucirco.org
2. Lobbying local authorities and government to change policies for the benefit of the sector has more weight when backed by a strong, unified presence. The European Circus Association is currently working in Brussels on the standardisation of technical requirements for international touring throughout the EU. europeancircus.eu
3. Impartial dissemination of funds for artist development is a key responsibility, and can be extended to other resources. Cirqueon in the Czech Republic releases space for artist residencies alongside promoting the newly created projects at home and abroad, production consultation and administrative support. cirqueon.cz
4. Commissioning research that can provide evidence to support further sector development allows for strategic planning beyond initial reactionary action. In Italy, the Associazione Giocolieri e Dintorni has just completed a three-year audience development project, Quinta Parete (‘Fifth Wall’), and will be publishing the results for all stakeholders and participants. giocolieriedintorni.it
5. Regular communications keep the sector informed and involved. CirusInfo Finland produces publications such as the Contemporary Circus: Introduction to the Art Form by Tomi Purovaara (2012), and the Finnish Youth Circus Association publishes quarterly print magazine Sirkuspyramidi. sirkusinfo.fi
The excellence exhibited by Belgium may well be influenced by the country’s proximity to France, the world leader in circus support. In 1993, the French Ministry for Culture founded HorsLesMurs, a national information centre for street and circus arts that merged in 2016 with the Centre National du Theatre to form Artcena, a new national centre for circus, street and theatre arts that continues HorsLesMurs’ communication and development activities.
These include coordinating the international Circostrada network for circus and street arts organisations, which has been funded by the European Commission since 2007 as part of the Creative Europe programme. More than 100 member organisations from over 30 countries make up the network, and more than 20% of those dedicated to circus are based in France. Circostrada’s activities focus on developing professional exchange of resources, knowledge and communication between members, advocating for better recognition of circus and street arts at a European level and integrating academic studies within the professional field.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Irish Street Arts, Circus and Spectacle Network is Ireland’s leading support and advocacy organisation. Founded in 2010, it represents more than 90 member organisations and individuals, supporting international exchange and sector development for the likes of the National Circus Festival Ireland.
The Baltic Nordic Circus Network comprises 17 organisations from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden, working to strengthen regional collaboration and sector development. They offer workshops for artists and industry professionals to boost skills and enhance cultural identity, alongside lobbying activity, meetings and seminars.
Across the Atlantic, the currently dormant Circus Now project provided a national platform for the United States circus sector to connect as a community, both online and through organised events, but is now considering a possible merger with the American Youth Circus Organisation. Set up as a non-profit organisation in 2013, Circus Now was modelled somewhat surprisingly on the immense success of the National Rifle Association, recognising the power the NRA developed through creating a formidable group identity for its members, which it has gone on to harness for lobbying purposes.
Canada also hosts a membership network for circus professionals. En Piste (which roughly translates as ‘in the ring’) provides discounted products and insurance services in addition to research, development and advocacy activities. In Mexico, the recently launched Circo en Red is building a digital information space for the network of professionals in Queretaro, Jalisco and Mexico City.
On the other side of the world, a legacy of support structures that date from 1990 began transferring services last year from the Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Association to Theatre Network Australia, where circus and physical theatre will be represented alongside other membership categories. Other promotional work is carried out by the National Institute of Circus Arts Australia, which functions as an agency as well as providing open training opportunities for approved professionals.
In the UK, the National Centre for Circus Arts also offers access to training spaces and facilities at discounted rates to members of its Artist and Company Development Centre and provides a regular newsletter to members. Equity’s Variety, Circus and Entertainers Committee is able to help on some issues around industry conditions, but art form development is beyond its scope.
Vicki Amedume, erstwhile aerialist and now director of national portfolio organisation Upswing, sits on the committee and explains what we are missing that other countries have managed to achieve: “The UK circus sector is growing fast. For that growth to be healthy we need a strategic plan for development, and support in its implementation.
“People approach Equity with problems that are beyond its capacity, but no circus organisation in the UK is funded higher than Band 1, which means everyone is functioning on relatively small resources, and any development in the sector tends to be fragmented. Individual organisations can lead on particular actions informed by particular needs at particular moments, but there is no big-picture strategy.”
Jacksons Lane in north London is a prominent supporter of new creation. The Association of Circus Proprietors has worked tirelessly with legislators on issues around touring. Producer Crying Out Loud has led networking and audience development projects. Upswing has provided opportunities for nurturing circus directors. Circus Futures has organised a series of conference events for the sector.
5 tips for seeking performance opportunities abroad
Lina B Frank, co-director of Circus City festival and coordinator of the Baltic Nordic Network, offers her advice for artists looking to develop international careers:
1. Go to a range of big festivals as an audience member to get a sense of the different styles, cultures and work environments available. Europe is not one generic work pool, and getting outside of Europe is important too (Australia doesn’t count).
2. Find a company from another country whose work you click with and suggest doing a joint residency.
3. Don’t write 300 emails to people you don’t know and then think no one cares when you receive no answers.
4. Go where your heart tells you, not where everyone else says. Focus on personal connections with people, places and your work. If you spread your net wide, you’re less likely to find genuine connections for sustainable and long-lasting relationships.
5. Think realistically about what you need to develop a strong personal network. A 30-date tour may not happen in your first year. What might makes more sense would be to go out of your comfort zone and do a workshop with completely new people. One thing always leads to another, and it’s impossible not to make connections if you’re constantly meeting new faces.
But now Clore fellow Amedume is beginning to push the conversation about building an informal network to move things forward in a more unified, sector-led direction: “Looking towards Europe, particularly countries like Finland, which, since the advent of CircusInfo Finland, has grown to have companies touring internationally to huge acclaim. It’s the result not only of talent, which we do not lack in the UK, but also of clever planning and long-term thinking.”
Lina B Frank coordinates the Baltic Nordic Circus Network, but also works as co-director for the Circus City festival in Bristol. “The main focus of our activity with the network is building international capacity,” she explains. “It’s about how you share knowledge inter-culturally and learn from each other. This is completely missing in the UK.”
For a while the UK did have a Circus Development Agency, which emerged in 1998. Although it was never publicly disbanded, activity wound down – presumably due to lack of funding – leaving just a community-run Facebook group to share jobs and opportunities. British circus still has the ambition to return to a level where it can compete internationally and, perhaps, in its 250th year, this is the project that will take it there.
“It feels like an urgent need, to be honest,” says Amedume. “And if the artists within the sector aren’t going to do it, who is?”