Running Away with the Circus

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Acrobats flip and tumble across crash mats, a slender girl stands on the shoulders of a bare chested young man as another student cavorts around in a giant steel wheel – it’s business at usual at the National Institute of Circus Arts as it prepares for its tenth anniversary celebrations. NICA is Victoria’s premier (and only) Circus-based higher education institution, and they plan to show off the rich contribution the organisation has made to the arts in the week long Melbourne Circus Festival. Director Stephen Burton seemed completely unfazed by the commotion around him as he spoke to Milk Bar about the history of the institution and the role of circus in contemporary Australia, but the background proceedings certainly added a compelling air of authenticity to his words.

Circus isn’t dead, it’s thriving, and NICA is ensuring that there will be circus performers for many generations to come.

Milk Bar: Can you tell us a little about NICA and the history of the institution?
Stephen Burton: Well I suppose there was a growth in the Australian circus industry, and in some ways NICA was a precursor to the rest of the world just in terms of the contemporary side of it. If you had a circus show in 1985 you could get on an aeroplane and if everything could break down to three metres you could be in Sydney on Monday and be in New York on Wednesday. . . if you didn’t have an elephant. The growth of Circus led to a demand for training – prior to that in Melbourne there was no training, you were finding it yourself as an artist.

MB: So this is the only training institution in Australia that offers a Degree in Circus Arts?
SB: It’s probably the only training institution there is really, with or without a degree. There’s quiet a lot of youth circus programs where they train and do shows, but it’s not an educational institution. These days you can get Certificate III and IV through the schooling system, but there’d only be half a dozen worldwide where you actually get a degree. So here we are ten years later and there’d be a hundred and thirty or so people out there who’ve got a degree from the National Institute of Circus Arts.

MB: And what kind of student draw do you get?
SB: It’s a national draw, and there are international students as well. In terms of who they are and where they come from it’s a mixed bag every year. There a solid inputs from gymnastics traditions, we’d take twenty-five a year and be left with fifteen or twenty by the time they get to the other end.

The there’s a whole youth circus input, wherever youth circus organisations are quite often you’ll have kids arrive here and they’e been doing circus already for twelve years. So they understand the training, understand what a cue is, and they move quite quickly here. Gymnasts can move really quickly physically but the whole notion of ‘here’s an opening night and putting on a show together’ is a new experience for people.

MB: So aside from the physical skills are you also teaching industry skills. How do you make it as a circus performer in Melbourne in 2011?
SB: It’s interesting, the questions of are you going to work, how are you going to find work? There’s no great formula about it, and the question is raised, are we going to produce too many people for the industry to cope with? Certainly since I started it’s never stopped growing, it’s only got exponentially bigger both in the size and the number of operations. It’s a multi-million dollar industry and if you throw in the international aspects of it, I mean Cirque du Soleil will spend ninety million on a show, then spend a few million more on building the venue for the show.

People are encouraged within this institution to actually know where they’d like to be, which will fashion your training a little bit.

MB: Are your graduates going on to form their own circus companies?
SB: Yeah, and I suppose that brings us to this festival because that’s something that we are bringing back. Personally, I had no formal training, and over thirty years now I’ve done one other thing in my life for a week, but for the rest of the time I’ve worked in the circus industry. You need to have a bit of flexibility about you and not be too proud. You need to know how to sweep the floor as well as direct a show or run a festival or jump through a hoop. So I suppose that there is an element of the school that strongly pushes them too specialise and have some thing that you’re going to be able to sell, but then from my point of view I’d also encourage them to learn everything. Because you do, if you spend ten years in this industry you’ll have fifty things up your sleeve. You’ll end up doing it all no matter what, and I think they learn that quite quickly as soon as they get out the door.

MB: Where do you see circus fitting in the spectrum of contemporary arts in Australia?
SB: I suppose one of the unique factors with Circus is that it appeals to people of all ages and types. Rich and poor and old and young, it’s a popular art form, and within the performing arts it’s probably the most popular art form. Theatre has a big audience, but it’s a particular audience. And that’s one of the most satisfying things, sitting in front of a general public audience and entertaining them and that you have such a range of people in that room who are all getting so excited by this one art form. It tends to be priced mostly at a level that is accessible to a large part of the population, so at that level it’s never going to die. It’s always been a bit of a struggle in terms of the government institutions that are there to support the arts, there’s no ‘Circus Board’ within the Australia Council, whereas all those other performing arts tend to have a section looking after them. But there is this other level with circus where you can get out there and you can make it, you might be poor but the audience is going to come back and pay you for what you’re doing at a much stronger level than you can ever do with just theatre or just dance, and it’s a real sense of satisfaction. There’s a direct exchange.

The great thing about circus is that you can use other art forms as well. Visual linguistics,  film and audio-visual, dance, all the disciplines of theatre, and magic can be in a circus show. It’s easy to find inspiration if you’re a circus performer, a great bit of Shakespeare can make five seconds of your act. It was something that happened in Circus in the late seventies and early eighties was that ability to get excited about all those other things that were going on and to work them into your act. There was a coming together of a lot of things and the realisation that you could put them all in, and at a production level there was a realisation that the things you could do in a theatre only added to what you could do in a circus. The notion that you could take the theatrical lighting tradition and do things with it in circus was something the people had fun with and played with.

MB: What do you see as being the future of circus in Australia?
SB: This place is going to have it’s own affect if it hasn’t already. I’m not sure if there are many places in the world where you’ll spend three years so close to twenty other people. These guys have to spend nine-to-five in a very physically demanding environment putting up with each other. So they come out here with quite a lot of closeness and a whole network of people that they know in the industry. They are going to be making new work and share a physical vocabulary they all understand.

In the ten years NICA’s been operating I think we’ve ended up with forty-seven different companies that have been made up as a result of coming out of here. I guess the world’s their oyster and I can’t see any reason why the audience will stop coming.

Melbourne Circus Festival will run from the 26th of September to the 2nd of October.
Visit www.nica.com.au for more details.

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