Vicki Amedume has an unusual career trajectory. The founder and artistic director of circus company Upswing studied pharmacology at the University of Leeds and landed a job as a research assistant after graduating. The plan was to do a PhD and pursue a career as a scientist. But then she ran away with the circus.
Amedume’s company, Upswing, aims to widen the audience and social relevance of circus. It combines the creation of its own shows with consultancy work for other companies, community participation and inclusion projects, and accessible training opportunities. All of this is deeply rooted in Amedume’s own, often difficult experience of encountering, training in and pursuing the art form.
“There was this point where I knew that if I didn’t follow the dream then I would regret it for the rest of my life,” says Amedume. She was introduced to circus as a student by her “wacky next-door neighbours”, Al Orange and Rachel Nitz, who ran the aerial circus company Exponential and invited Amedume to give it a go. It was, she remembers, an inauspicious start.
“Until that point I’d moved pretty easily through life,” says Amedume. “I was quite academic at school and had been quite good at sport. Aerial training was the first thing I encountered that I totally failed at the first time. That got me hooked.” Circus training also introduced her to new, unexpected talents. “Being quite academic, you’re used to catching on to ideas and reading books and being able to do sums in your head quickly. But discovering that my body could be extraordinary as well was something that was really new to me.”
Amedume developed her skills with Exponential before travelling to mainland Europe to pursue further training. In France, she landed with a bump. “I discovered I was in a completely different world with people who had been training since they were seven or eight years old,” she remembers. She was also taller and broader than the typical aerialist and the only black woman among her fellow students. “I felt so out of place; it was a really difficult period.”
Sheer determination kept her going. “My family at that time thought I’d gone crazy,” says Amedume. “How could I walk away from everything that I’d been working up to for most of my life and become a circus artist? To a lot of people, it looked like I was just throwing my life away. I was really stubborn and determined to prove them wrong.”
The other thing that Amedume discovered during those early years was what she calls her “USP”. Rather than trying to emulate the balletic style of other aerialists, she embraced her strength and power. Still, it was difficult to find work as a performer. “If people were focused on what was more traditional, what was more normal, I was never in the running,” she says. “And when I did get work there were some situations where I felt that my identity was being exploited and used in a way that I just didn’t feel comfortable with.”
Amedume’s solution was to establish Upswing in 2004 and “take full control of my identity”. She treated the challenges she faced as an opportunity. “If you have a difficult experience when you encounter something for the first time, it teaches you about it – and how to make it accessible for other people,” Amedume says. Using this experience was central to what she wanted to achieve with Upswing, as was the desire to make circus open to everyone.
What was your first non-circus job? Lab technician at the Institute for Child Health in London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.
What was your first professional circus job? With Leeds-based company Exponential.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That it would all be all right. I was incredibly scared because I was giving up a stable career that I’d worked really hard to build and just jumping into the unknown. I wish someone had told me that it would be okay.
Who or what is your biggest influence? This is really cheesy, but it’s always going to be my mum. She’s an incredible woman. I know everybody says that about their mum, but I think my mum really is. She’s a fighter, she’s incredibly intelligent and she’s always made me feel that I can reach as far as I want to. Obviously, that backfired when I decided to become a circus artist.
If you hadn’t got into circus, what would you have done? I always imagined myself as some kind of crazy, mad scientist in a lab with lots of things bubbling around me and winning a Nobel Prize and saving the world. Unfortunately, when I got into science I realised that the reality is very different.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? With circus, when you step out on stage, you are taking your life in your hands. Sometimes it just goes wrong. As a bunch, circus performers are superstitious, though they wouldn’t admit it. I had a whole ritual with my prep for getting on stage when I used to perform. And if something got in the way of that it would leave me feeling really nervous and unstable.
“I wasn’t aware of any work that connected to people like me,” says Amedume of the circus she was seeing in the UK at the time. “I come from south-east London: I grew up in a really diverse community and a very working-class area. I wanted to make work that connects with people like me.”
Amedume believes that circus as a form is “open to everybody”, a philosophy that sits at the heart of Upswing’s work. Over time, two key interests have emerged: communication and community. “When I say community, I’m talking about those kind of temporary communities that are created around an idea,” Amedume explains. “I’m interested in bringing people together around an idea or a conversation and using circus as the access point for everybody to that conversation.”
This bringing together of people is achieved through shows and projects in community settings. Amedume offers the example of a recent residency in a care home. “Even though people are living together, you have a group of people who might never have met each other in day-to-day life. Suddenly, they’re placed in the home and asked to form a community. We were looking at how we could use the skills that we have, which are great at bringing people together and helping people build trust with each other, to give the staff and residents an opportunity to see each other differently.”
Another important goal for Upswing is to make the circus sector more diverse and representative. “I want to have more different voices in the industry,” says Amedume. “Diversity is essential to having a really rich creative landscape. The more people from different backgrounds in the industry the more creative and credible we will become as a sector.” For Upswing, the way to achieve this is by training more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, both as performers and as the industry’s future producers and artistic directors.
“I go to so many circus networking events and increasingly I’m seeing more BAME performers, more diverse performers and more disabled performers coming into the industry,” says Amedume, “but quite often I’ll be the only one who’s at leadership level, running a funded organisation and also functioning as a producer. I think that’s a real problem.”
She adds that conversations about diversity have begun to happen in the circus sector, but, as a result of under-funding, it still lags behind theatre when it comes to representation. “To grow we need to address these questions now,” she insists. “If we don’t address these questions now, we won’t be representative, we won’t be connected to contemporary society and we won’t grow and develop in the way that we should.”
Amedume’s latest experiment with Upswing is a foray into family work, both with last year’s show Bedtime Stories and with a new production, The Ramshackle House, which will tour in the autumn. These shows, Amedume explains, are designed to engage both children and adults. “For me, it illuminates why circus is such an amazing art form,” she says. “If you use it correctly, you can make something that’s really multilayered and has lots of access points for different people.”
Such is Amedume’s determination, she makes it seem as though circus can achieve anything. “More than anything, I want to continue to push our understanding of how we can use circus to make a better society,” she says of Upswing’s future. Her ambition shows no signs of wavering. “Circus is a great tool for bringing people together, both in performances and in participatory experiences. I want to continue to explore how we can do more and better.”
Born: 1974, Ghana
Training: Exponential circus company; Centre National des Arts du Cirque; Circus Sarasota
Landmark productions: Loved Up (2008), Fallen (2011), Red Shoes (2012), What Happens in the Winter (2013), Bedtime Stories (2015)
Awards: Clore Fellowship (2016)