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Dea Birkett: Circus must bridge divide between traditional and new

Compagnie XYs It's Not Yet Midnight at the Roundhouse, London Compagnie XYs It's Not Yet Midnight at the Roundhouse, London. Is it really so different to more traditional shows such as Cirque Berserk (pictures below). Photo: David Levene
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Earlier this month, London’s new Bridge Theatre announced its opening season for October 2017, including especially commissioned work from leading contemporary playwrights and a Shakespeare revival. It boasts of being an entirely new theatre built on a wholly commercial basis – the first in the capital since the 1930s. It is supported by venture capital and run by Nicholas Hytner, former director of the subsided National Theatre, and Nick Starr, previously executive director at the NT (alongside Hytner) and the Almeida. From taking the subsided theatre shilling, they’re shifting to making a few shillings.

This marvellous mash-up of subsidised and commercial is at the heart of much UK theatre. But in another area of performance – circus – there’s no such magical mixing. The gulf between two wings – commercial and subsidised, traditional and contemporary – is wide. And as a result, all circuses lose out.

A scene from Cirque Berserk!. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s not really the shows that are so different. Contemporary circus generally places more emphasis on narrative and artistic direction, but plenty of artistry is shared. Cirque du Soleil draws heaving on performers from the traditional community with their high level of technical skill. The contemporary Lost in Translation circus recently invited artists from Moscow State Circus to a skills-sharing workshop. And when asked which is my favourite traditional British circus company, I might answer NoFitState. This contemporary, Cardiff-based tented circus has much in common with the aesthetics of a traditional circus but takes it one more exciting teeter on the tightrope further.

Traditional and contemporary now also often work in similar spaces. Many new circuses are building up big tops, realising a tent is a wonderful way to achieve true outreach. Cirque Berserk!, arising from the traditional tented Zippos Circus, tours theatres. Its new audiences were, at first, confused about how to behave, unused to waving a light sabre in the stalls. Theatre-goers are trained to be quiet. But the Cirque Berserk! tour has proved a huge success, without a penny of public money.

Neither is the divide between the old and new entirely about public benefit. Both contemporary outfit Crying Out Loud and traditional circus Zippos put on special performances for autistic children and families.

The origin of all circus, of any form, goes back just under 250 years to 1768, when entrepreneur and equestrian Philip Astley drew out a 42ft ring in the centre of London and filled it with astonishing acts – tumblers, juggler, acrobats, clowns and equestrian stuntmen. The world’s very first circus was created. Any circus, anywhere in the world, traditional or contemporary, has its roots at that moment.

This significant date in the circus calendar will be celebrated next year in a UK and Ireland-wide festival. But although traditional circuses recognise Astley as their cultural ancestor, many contemporary circuses don’t. I’ve heard current performers describe themselves as “the first female trapeze artist to perform in our town”, when there have been women swinging high above for more than 100 years. It’s just they’ve been flying over a sawdust ring, not a proscenium stage.

There’s no such divide between modern and classical theatre.  An actor wouldn’t claim to be the first person to play Hamlet just because they don’t recite in a doublet and hose.

This lack of a common sense of heritage has arisen because there’s another significant starting point for contemporary circus. It arrived at a time of generous public funding for the arts and expanded in an era of arts optimism. Arts Council England continues to support it, although it has never financially supported traditional circuses. That’s not the case elsewhere. In Ireland, for example, the Arts Council has funded Fossett’s, Duffy’s and Gerbola – three traditional tented circuses with sawdust in their rings.

So why isn’t there similar support here across the whole sector? Imagine traditional circus proprietor Gerry Cottle getting ACE Strategic Touring funding to put on his tented show Wow. And imagine one of the major contemporary circus companies daring to devise a nationwide tour without such a grant? It’s so unusual that, at a recent Circus250 Scotland board meeting, when contemporary Let’s Circus announced it wouldn’t be seeking funding for their next Hebrides tour, the whole room gasped. Such a death-defying feat was unimaginable. I don’t imagine anyone gasped when Hytner and Starr announced they were going to develop their new work without filling in grant applications first.

Funding is a significant division. But the widest chasm between contemporary and traditional is in how it’s perceived and, as a result, the audiences it attracts.

When I described circus as an ‘art form’ on a radio show just last week, I was corrected by the presenter. Circus, he said, wasn’t an art form; it’s entertainment. Ideas of ‘popular versus highbrow’ and ‘emotional versus cerebral’ lurk behind the ‘contemporary versus traditional’ divide. Even a contemporary circus company such as the fabulous French Compagnie XY, with its extraordinary physicality, seeks to appeal more to our heads than our hearts. We may wonder at their four-man high, but we don’t whoop. Yet when watching Tweedy – Britain’s best clown – who draws upon traditional circus, it’s our soul he twists, turns and tantalises, not our brains.

The most fabulous thing about circus, of any kind, is its accessibility. You don’t need to appreciate 17th-century iambic pentameter to understand it. Everyone can enjoy circus. It’s just that not everyone turns up to see it in all its many wondrous forms. Because when you appeal to different bits of the body, the heart or the head, you appeal to different audiences. Currently, the paying audiences for commercial circuses, with their more heartfelt and less cerebral appeal, are far more diverse than those who attend subsidised circuses.

The aim of Circus250 is to bring all these many expressions of circus together under one tent and to recognise that each form of circus has it own excellence. The 2018 celebrations aren’t only about celebrating a common heritage, but creating new futures where each learns from the other. When Astley created the world’s first circus almost 250 years ago, it was groundbreaking. Circus250 in 2018 will be in his radical spirit.

So perhaps Hytner will open up his new Bridge Theatre to circus in 2018? In doing so, he’d be opening it up to our heads and our hearts.


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

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