How can circus create change? What can artists in the UK and other parts of Europe learn from each other? As circus celebrates its 250th birthday, Lyn Gardner reflects on Fresh Circus in Brussels, continuing our Culture after Brexit series
The future of circus is social
NoFit State is a master of promenade circus performance. Photo: Dan Tucker
The UK has a history of being an innovator in many fields, including science and technology, but also a reputation for not always following up or exploiting those innovations to the full. That’s very much the case with circus.
Philip and Patty Astley invented modern circus 250 years ago with their trick equestrian acts in London. But while the UK has a long history of traditional travelling circus, which has thrilled and delighted generations, it has not been at the forefront of contemporary circus practice. That has been left to Europe – most particularly France and Belgium – as well as Canada and Australia.
There's a theory that you are more likely to develop work inspired by the physical and visual if you don't have a strong literary theatre culture (which the UK does with its highly developed playwriting). The rash of remarkable contemporary theatre shows coming out of Flanders suggests there may be some truth in this observation.
It's not, of course, a case of Shakespeare versus the Cyr wheel. As Icelandic company Vesturport proved with Romeo and Juliet, words and silks are a potent mix. Theresa Heskins at the New Vic – a theatre in the round in Newcastle – often melds circus seamlessly into text. At ENO, director Phelim McDermott has put aerialists and juggling into modern opera with both Satyagraha and Akhnaten.
"Circus has often been a Cinderella of the funding system"
Circus pioneers such as the Welsh-based NoFit State have offered promenade shows where the performance happens around and above the audience. Gandini Juggling has smashed the boundaries between disciplines to set up what Sean Gandini described at the Fresh Circus symposium in Brussels last month as a "series of artistic Tinder dates". Gandini suggested that since circus is "27 random disciplines that have been put together", it has a natural affinity with cross-collaborative and interdisciplinary work. Anyone for Kabuki and German wheel?
Gandini proposed that "in circus we are imprisoned by our skill much more than in other disciplines". But as he has proved again and again, there are ways of escaping that prison and enormous benefits in being "a joyous promiscuous collaborator" looking beyond the big top.
There are signs of that happening more widely in UK circus. As this year's CircusFest 18 at the Roundhouse shows, there are increasing numbers of young British circus companies – some of them female-led – who are exploring what happens when circus, contemporary theatre and live art crash into each other.
The UK may well be on the brink of its circus moment, the kind of moment that it has seen in other artforms such as dance: an explosion of creativity that moves the artform on and brings new audiences. But it's a tough ask because along with other non-literary artforms such as street arts, circus has often been a Cinderella of the funding system.
"The only place British circus practitioners get to fail is on the stage"
Sean Gandini speaking at the Fresh Circus symposium 2018. Photo: Jean Poucet
British companies look with envy to other parts of Europe. In some western European countries, companies enjoy long research and development periods and substantial rehearsal time. As Upswing's Vicki Amedume observed at Fresh Circus, one of the differences between UK and European circus is that the only place British circus practitioners "get to fail is on the stage in front of an audience".
Artists in any artform deserve to be paid and to be paid well. As King Lear said, "Nothing can come of nothing." There is a correlation between good funding and good work. But great work also sometimes comes out of adversity, when artists have something to push against, when they bite the hand that feeds them. When they stop thinking about aesthetics and start thinking about what the purpose of art is and how they meet and engage with audiences.
In Brussels, I sensed a sharp intake of breath when Felicity Simpson of Circolombia dared to suggest that while secure funding streams are a wonderful thing, they can also create complacency. "A little bit of difficulty can be a good thing," she said. A little bit of difficulty is what the European circus world is currently facing, as funding cuts and changes to cultural policies mean that artists will be accountable not just in terms of their aesthetics but also in terms of their social usefulness.
It's something that British artists in the performing arts have long been familiar with, and there may well be lessons to learn from the British experience as European artists grapple with a less friendly funding environment. Organised by the Circostrada network and L'Espace Catastrophe, the strapline of Fresh Circus was "More than Circus!", a recognition not just of everything circus already has to offer but also what it may yet discover it can deliver. It's a reminder that while change brings challenges, it can also bring opportunities.
"There may well be lessons to learn from the British experience"
Juggling a blend of different disciplines, Seeta Patel performs in Gandini Juggling's Sigma. Photo: ASH
It often seems odd that the performing arts, which are so creative in form and content, often lack innovation in the structures we use to make work. Perhaps it is because so many of these structures are old ones dating from 20th century models. Often, they encourage arts organisations to operate like silos rather than town squares, and artists to operate from a position of self-interest rather than looking for shared interests.
Simpson's intervention is not an argument against investment in the arts. As we all know, government investment in the arts brings financial and other returns. But it's a reminder that every artform has to think hard about what it is doing, why it is doing it, who it is serving, and how it can be more useful to the communities that it serves. The big questions that any artform needs to ask are: what are we for, why should we be funded and what value do we add? That applies to circus as much as it does to the visual arts or dance.
During her keynote speech, Ruth Mackenzie of the Holland Festival and Théâtre du Châtelet, described herself as a "circus outsider". But sometimes it is outsiders who can tell the truth. And perhaps Mackenzie did this when she spoke of the beguiling nature of circus but also asked how it could move beyond technical skill and aesthetics to tell "urgent personal stories" and explore "cultural identity".
The fact that circus itself is often seen as an outsider artform brings challenges but also offers opportunities. It can work in the cracks; it can go to places and into communities where other artists and artforms may be less welcome or treated with more suspicion. Whether that's an economically deprived suburb or a care home, a children's playground or an urban square, an empty shop or a parking lot.
"Every artform has to think hard about what it is doing, why it is doing it, who it is serving"
Is circus an outsider artform? Circolombia, Acéléré. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti
Simpson talked about the idea of being "temporarily permanent": not becoming institutionalised but being nimble and able to respond to changing conditions on the ground. This way, companies can respond and shape themselves into what audiences – or citizens – want and need.
This is not, stressed Amedume, about artists becoming social workers. It's about seeing circus not just as product but as a resource and a process that is endlessly adaptable. One led by people who can collaborate with different kind of partners, from universities to healthcare trusts and participants. Only then will it be possible to bring about real change in people's daily lives and impact on society.
Thinking about the role of the artist and redefining it so an artform can meet the needs of the 21st century is not easy. But as the UK experience of inclusive and participatory practice demonstrates, changing where art happens, who has access to do what, and who participates brings rewards for both society and artists. In the last funding round in the UK, it was the companies and buildings who were most embedded in their communities who saw the only uplifts.
As Amedume's experience suggests, when artists start thinking about how they want to meet the audience rather than meet the market, unexpected and innovative relationships develop, and new opportunities arise.
"Circus itself is often seen as an outsider artform"
Upswing takes circus to the streets with Red Shoes. Photo: Nick Rampling
As Fresh Circus indicated, circus doesn't have to lose its "beautiful outsider" status or sacrifice artistic integrity to succeed in a changing world and harsher funding climate. But it does have to connect more deeply with society. After all, it is working in the common interest rather than in self-interested ways that potentially brings the greatest benefits for all.
Many UK theatre, circus and performing companies are increasingly viewing themselves as community companies. They see making theatre for and with their local community as part of their mission. So perhaps European circus can look to a future where its accessibility and popularity puts it in a unique position to impact on people's lives, transform neighbourhoods, and bring about lasting change.
Circus boasts all the qualities that we need to live together in harmony. It's disruptive and transgressive and it requires skill, risk and an ability to work together. Juggling alone may not change the world, but as Fresh Circus indicated, it may not be a bad place to start.
This feature is part of Culture after Brexit – a conversation, curated by the British Council, about the future of the cultural relationship between the UK and the European Union after Britain exits the EU. To this conversation we will invite journalists, artists, arts professionals and policy makers to join a robust discussion about what Brexit means for the creative and cultural industries, and what a new post-Brexit cultural relationship could, and should, look like.
Find out more:
> Get an overview of Circus 250 celebrations
> Check out The State of the Art, a cutting edge circus conference in April
Follow the Culture after Brexit series:
> Holland Festival: What does theatre have to say about democracy?
> Ruth Mackenzie: "There's an awful lot of British theatre I couldn't programme"
> Lyn Gardner: Making a new future at the Holland Festival
> Outdoor arts: "We need to keep the traffic between the UK and Europe"
> Artsadmin: Two insider views on how Brexit will affect UK arts
> Tim Etchells: "When we first went to Europe we found another world"
> Playwrights: What draws British playwrights to Europe?