UK Contemporary Circus History
A History of the Contemporary Circus in Britain from the late 1960s to 2006
This chapter follows a timeline from the late 1960s to 2006 as an overview of developments during this time and is a starting point for further investigation and discussion.. Geographically the greatest range of new circus creation over this timescale in the UK has been in and around Bristol, in London, Yorkshire (notably Sheffield, Leeds and Hebden Bridge), Manchester and Rochdale, Cardiff and Swansea in Wales, and Belfast in Northern Ireland. The chapter may have a London bias as I have generally lived there.
FromTraditional to New Circus
In the 1950s and early 60s the three principal circuses operating in England
were Bertram Mills, Billy Smart’s and Chipperfield’s. All three shows featured wild and domestic animals, human acts from around the world and a ringmaster. Through live touring and television exposure they established an iconic image of circus, which remains in our folk memory to this day. Billy Smart’s was regularly shown on the BBC, typically after the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, until it stopped touring in 1973 and Chipperfield’s was regularly shown on ITV, which started broadcasting in 1955. Bertram Mills, which closed in 1964, was not in favour of being broadcast.
Circus and other speciality acts could also be seen on the ITV variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, one of the most popular television programmes, from 1955 to 1967. In the 1960s it became very apparent that the pop groups, such as The Beatles, being shown within the format of the variety bill had a different culture and audience. This led to the development of music only programmes such as Top of the Pops in 1964 and the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971, in preference to the variety shows and fewer speciality acts were shown on television.
There was a feeling that ‘traditional’ circus had become generic and fossilised, more a part of our heritage than a contemporary art form.
It is worth noting then that much of the contemporary circus has roots in the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture. This era saw the development of the women’s liberation, gay rights, peace, anti-racism and the environment movements, and a challenge to the consumerist, capitalistic society and the mass-media that represented it. Many theatre companies had a significant social agenda, wanting to express and realise political ideals and reach beyond the traditional theatre going public. There was a strong belief in being inclusive, in empowering communities, and in encouraging people to actively participate rather than solely spectate or consume. There were experimental cross-art performances, site-specific events, happenings and festivals.
Circus skills fitted right into this milieu; from stilt-walking Uncle Sam caricatures to multi-person club-passing representing what can be achieved through co-operation.
The established circus practice towards creating a show was to book a range of established acts, which allows a new show to be toured each year with a minimum of rehearsal. In contrast, the emerging companies focussed more on devising and rehearsing as an ensemble. This was time intensive but allowed the performers to build stronger relationships with each other, and the companies to develop a greater depth of character and story and a more cohesive approach to music and costume.
American companies that influenced developments in Britain included the San Francisco Mime Troupe, from which performers Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider would form The Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco in 1975 and Paul Binder would form New York’s Big Apple Circus in 1977, and Peter Shumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, which had an annual Domestic Resurrection Circus each year from 1974 to 1998. Shumann wrote:
Our Domestic Resurrection Circus will be an effort to find a new way of doing circus that is more human, that is not merely a collection of superlatives, of extraordinary feats arbitrarily mixed together, but something that becomes a story of the world circus. We don’t use circus techniques: the heaviest acrobatics done in our circus is a somersault. Or the horse is done by somebody putting on a horse mask. In that respect, it’s only a parody of a circus […] It has to do with just creating a big outside attraction for the people in the area. It’s a piece that shouldn’t be travelled, something we want to perform where we can integrate the landscape, that we can do with real time and real rivers and mountains and animals. It’s something that is seen in the woods, up there in the hills, back here in the river. I guess it would be called an “environment!” (in Kourilsky 1974:107-08)
1974 “Dada and Circus.” TDR 18, 1 (T61):104-09.
One person who influenced the interest in circus was Hovey Burgess who taught circus skills from the early 1970s in New York, wrote papers and, in 1976, publishing a book called Circus Techniques, illustrated with photographs of Hovey and others demonstrating juggling, static trapeze and simple acrobatic moves.
Variety and Vaudeville were also revisited, with the terms New Variety (in England) and New Vaudeville (in America) used by young artists who revisited old television programmes and talked to the old artistes.
‘The New American Circus’ by Ernest Albrecht is a useful guide to the evolution in America.
The Late 1960s and the 1970s in the UK
The foundations were laid during this time for the new British circus companies of the mid 1980s. Welfare State International, Footsbarn, Peter Brook’s ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ and the Friends Roadshow; Glastonbury Festival and London’s Roundhouse venue are important in the emergence of a contemporary circus style in the UK.
1964 – date The Roundhouse, a large, round disused locomotive building in Camden, London, became Centre 42, named after the trade union movement Article 42 stating that the arts should be for everyone. This legendary, cutting edge performing arts venue hosted everything from early shows of the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd to avant-garde theatre, from the likes of Peter Brook, and a range of circus. While traditional circus proprietors Robert Brothers were the first to put a circus into the venue, over Christmas 1969/70, most of the circuses to follow were less conventional, such as Jerome Savary’s Grand Magic Circus (et ses animaux tristes) from France in 1972. While using the word Circus and alluding to circus in the performance this was much more an over-the-top avant-garde theatre for an adult audience than a recognisable family oriented circus. This company, which returned to London, though not the Roundhouse, in 1980/81, was an inspiration to new circus practitioners, below, such as Toby Philpott and Ra-Ra Zoo’s Dave Spathaky, as were Circus Oz (founded in 1977) which made its first London appearance at the Roundhouse in 1980, and San Francisco’s co-operative, counter-culture Pickle Family Circus (founded in 1975) in 1981.
1970 Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Roundhouse
Considered the defining twentieth century production of the play, the set by Brook and his designer, Sally Jacobs, was a white box with actors at times making use of trapezes and stilts.
1968 – 2006 Welfare State International “was started in 1968 by a tribe of artists, poets, musicians and pyrotechnicians – wayward dreamers in search of ‘entertainment, an alternative and a way of life’. We would be Guardians of the Unpredictable, travelling the world, creating site-specific celebratory theatre. Eyes on stalks. Not bums on seats.” John Fox, co-founder, The Guardian 4 Jan 2006.
The company was renowned for its fire festivals, lantern parades, rites of passage, community carnivals and site-specific theatre and circus was not to be a significant aspect of the company’s 38 year life, but in 1969 they presented Earthrise, their first multi-media show with Mike Westbrook’s band, astronauts, light show, films, images and 20 gymnasts plus circus acts at the Mermaid Theatre, London, and from 1970 to 1972 they had a group called ‘Cosmic Circus’, founded by John Fox and Mike Westbrook, which actually presented large-scale, once-off high technology shows.
John Fox and Sue Gill, founder members of Welfare State International, became Patrons of the Bristol based circus school, Circomedia.
1970 – date Footsbarn Travelling Theatre
Created in Cornwall, but based in mainland Europe since 1980, Footsbarn is an itinerant tented company rooted in popular theatre with “a certain aesthetic, the traveling players and storytellers of older times, with a particular passion for Shakespeare and Moliere and other classic Universal stories. Movement, burlesque, masks and original music are given as much importance as text. The actors possess a multiplicity of talents and theatrical techniques all of which inhabit and enrich every performance” www.footsbarn.toutatis.com .
Footsbarn had an irreverent clown based musical performance in the late 1970s called Circus Tosov, with a record of that name produced in 1978.
Their work influenced companies such as Bim Mason’s Mummerandada, below.
1970 – date The Glastonbury Festival, best known for music was initiated by Michael and Jean Eavis in 1970. Theatre and street performance, including circus, have been a part from very early on. Arabella Churchill was a co-organiser of the 1971 festival and still runs the massive Theatre and Circus side of Glastonbury. Since 1989 the festival has featured a dedicated circus field.
1972 Friends Roadshow American clown Jango Bates and Nola Rae, an Australian dancer and Marcel Marceau trained mime, came together in London and created a loose company of fools called ‘Friends Roadshow’. The Friends Roadshow spread abroad and led to the creation in Amsterdam of the Festival of Fools which ran from 1975 to 1984 and was a meeting point and inspiration for many – including Richie Smith and Jon Beedell who formed street theatre company Desperate Men in 1980. Richie (under the name Dante Agostini) subsequently directed shows for UK companies NoFitState Circus, Circus Burlesque and Swamp Circus.
1974 French company Le Palais des Merveilles, directed by Jules Cordiere, performed at the International Performance Festival outdoors in Birmingham City Centre. “Their work is outwardly reminiscent of the street players of the Commedia del’Arte in Italy, making use of tight-rope walkers, clowns, acrobats, fire-eaters and giants.” (from original programme)
1975 Reg Bolton (1945 – 2006), a pioneer of community circus who had studied literature at university, qualified as a primary teacher, worked with Lindsay Kemp Mime Company and run Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh producing plays for children, created Suitcase Circus and introduced circus skills into the streets and housing estates of Edinburgh.
Reg spent a short time studying at L’Ecole Nationale du Cirque, Annie Fratellini’s Circus School in Paris which was founded in 1974 and then ran three Edinburgh Summer Circus Schools, from 1977 to 1979 attracting students from Scotland, England and overseas. The teachers included Annie Stainer (who studied at the London Schol of Contemporary Dance and with Etienne Decroux in Paris, and was Reg’s wife), actor and director Emil Wolk (who trained in mime with Etienne Decroux, in acrobatics with Tudor Bonno, Johnny Hutch and Eugene Balla – the latter two of whom influenced and taught many of the emerging artists of the 1970s and 80s), puppeteer and juggler Toby Philpott (who ran workshops at the Oval House with Emil), aerialist Paula Melbourne, and Franki Anderson who would set up School for Fools with John Lee and subsequently be the director of training at Fooltime, Britain’s first permanent circus school.
Reg developed community Children’s Circuses in the Craigmillar and Pilton housing estates in Edinburgh. One participant, Willie Ramsey, went on to Gerry Cottle’s Circus School in 1984 and remains a key member of Gerry’s team.
In 1981, Suitcase Circus organised the first ever Community Circus Festival, in Manchester, featuring performances from 6 or 7 groups from various parts of England and Scotland.
Reg Bolton wrote two seminal books: Circus in a Suitcase, a guide to creating community circus, in 1983 and the Gulbenkian funded New Circus in 1985.
In 1985, the Bolton family moved to Perth, Western Australia, and Reg continued to run community circus until his death in 2006.
1976 – 1982 Cunning Stunts
Formed by Iris Walton, this was a ‘gathering of wild women performers, musicians and comediennes show could all either acrobat, fly, juggle or fall-about. And if you couldn’t, well you would, because we all taught each other. There were no circus schools then. You had to go searching, seeking, finding your teachers. Learn, bring back and share! I found Eugene Balla. A great circus acrobat and performer, a master teacher and a unique and wonderful man who, at the age of 85, still teaches me.’
(Iris Walton, Circus Symposium 1997)
1977 – date London International Mime Festival
Instigated by mime artist Nola Rae and producer Joseph Seelig, the festival, now co-directed by Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan, has always featured a broad range of professional, non text-based work including animation theatre, circus, mask, mime, clown and visual theatre. It has been a champion of contemporary circus and has presented a substantial amount of international and British new circus, such as Annie Fratellini’s contemporary circus company Circus Fratellini, featuring students from her school, in 1984 and the first full show of Ra-Ra Zoo (below) which broke new ground in the UK through combining theatrical effect with pure skill in 1985.
1978 – date The first European Juggling Convention was held in Brighton with 11 jugglers including Toby Philpott, and Stuart Fell, Lynn Thomas and Tim Bat who continue to perform. The 27th Convention held in 2004 near Lille in France attracted almost 4500 jugglers. Typical of the community aspect of the new circus movement, the conventions are organised by volunteers in a different town each year and the price is kept as low as possible. As well as space for jugglers to throw things at each other and a range of workshops, the Conventions have formal and informal stages with every range of performer from the absolute beginner to the world’s finest.
The 1970s saw the start of classes/workshops at the Oval House theatre in London in improvisation, mime, juggling, and acrobatics; and at Interaction and Pineapple Dance Studio in juggling, while Ronnie Wilson ran mime classes at the City Lit and Desmond Jones, who had studied in France with mime teachers Etienne Decroux and, to a lesser extent, Jacques Lecoq, opened his School of Mime in 1979.
Alongside the ‘alternative culture’ companies there were other notable circus activities:
1970 Gerry Cottle and Brian Austen started their own circus, having been performing with a show run by the Fossett circus family. By 1977 Gerry Cottle was touring two circuses, with the Blue Unit staring clown Charlie Cairoli, while the Red Unit starred animal trainer Mary Chipperfield. Subsequently, as described below, Gerry Cottle would start an all-human circus and circus school in1984. Since the 1990s Cottle and Austen’s Circus, the Moscow State Circus and the Chinese State Circus have all toured under the European Entertainment Corporation owned by the two men. In 2003 Cottle sold out his share to Austen in order to be able to purchase the Wookey Hole Caves tourist attraction in Somerset.
1971 Moscow State Circus performed in London, featuring clown Oleg Popov who had been with the show on its first visit in 1956. The Moscow State Circus returned in 1985, when it toured from July to September, mainly in theatres, and again starred Oleg Popov. The Moscow State Circus returned in 1988 for the first big top tour in UK, and has toured annually since 1995. While the shows have been act focussed, the fact that all the acts were from the USSR, which invested massively in circus and has had a circus school since 1927, gave a cohesive quality. While the original visits included animals (including polar bears in 1956) animals haven’t been included since 1985.
1975 Chinese Acrobatic Troupe from Chungking made their first visit to the Coliseum (home of the English National Opera), not returning to the UK until 1984. The shows did not have animals and presented acts of high skill with a distinct Chinese aesthetic and music.
1975 – 1977, Seaside Special – circus/variety spectaculars, recorded in Gerry Cottle’s big-top, were broadcast by the BBC
1976 – 1985, The Circus World Championships were broadcast each year. For the first years they were broadcast by the BBC then switched to ITV, with Norman Barrett as the regular Ringmaster. The format of the Championships was to select around five circus disciplines each year and have two or three acts competing in each, plus some additional acts (typically with animals) to balance the programme. The co-creator of the Championships was Ivor David Balding who subsequently worked for Chipperfields Circus and the Big Apple Circus before setting up Circus Flora in America in 1986 – a circus which aims to tell a story, and which inspired Nell Gifford to start Gifford’s Circus in England in 2000 (see below). David Balding’s nephew, Gerald Balding, joined Gifford’s Circus for the first few seasons.
Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Prime Minister in 1979, through to 1990, and the 1980s saw the Falklands War, the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, the Miners Strike of 1984/5, and the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. The Government funding to the Arts Council of Great Britain was capped, meaning an effective reduction. The new circus movement became very popular and circus schools and companies were started but all struggled to grow and survive given very little access to funding during these years.
1980 – 1981 Lumiere & Son Theatre Company toured Circus Lumiere, devised by David Gale and Hilary Westlake with the company supported by the Wimbledon School of Art Theatre Design Department. The aim was to create a dark circus aiming to “return to the art of clowning an energy and certain demonic qualities that were plainly lacking in all contemporary displays of that art.” The show was performed by actors rather than technique driven acts and featured a man scooping out spoonfuls of his own brain and eating them, and a strongman eating a brillo pad (in reality a painted shredded wheat!). In 1982 the company produced ‘Son of Circus Lumiere’ at the ICA, and reprised Circus Lumiere at the London International Circus Festival in 1988.
Le Grand Magic Circus, Footsbarn, Welfare State and Lumiere & Son are examples of companies that utilised elements of circus within their imaginative, theatrical performance. They didn’t seek high levels of technical circus skill. The early 1980s saw the arrival in England from abroad of new circus shows combining an increasingly high level of technical circus skill with a contemporary theatrical style emphasising the creativity of the performer, ensemble playing and a heightened political awareness.
1980 Circus Oz, which was founded in late 1977 with the principles of
“collective ownership and creation, gender equity, a uniquely Australian signature and team-work. … The founding members of Circus Oz loved the skills and tricks of traditional circus but wanted to make a new sort of show that a contemporary audience could relate to, adding elements of rock’n’roll, popular theatre and satire. They wanted it to be funny, irreverent and spectacular, a celebration of the group as a bunch of multi-skilled individual women and men, rather than a hierarchy of stars. Above all, they didn’t want to take themselves too seriously. They sewed and welded together their own circus tent, got together a collection of old trucks and caravans and went on the road. Circus Oz was a fresh and original voice in circus and the company was immediately popular with Australian audiences.” (www.circusoz.com.au/ViewPage.action?siteNodeId=103&languageId=1&contentId=-1) The Company was first brought to the UK in November 1980 by producers Hetherington-Seelig, touring London, Norwich, Bath and Chichester.
Circus Oz returned in 1987 for the London International Festival of Theatre; in 1988 for the Edinburgh Festival; and in 1991, 2004 and 2005.
1980 London premiere of Le Cirque Imaginaire, featuring Victoria Chaplin (one of Charlie Chaplin’s daughters), Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and their two children Aurélia and James. In 1970 Victoria Chaplin joined up with actor and director. Thierrée, who was dreaming of a renewed, innovative style of circus. From 1971 to 1974 they toured Le Cirque Bonjour with some 30 artists plus deer and horses. Some years later the couple moved towards a more personal approach of the world of circus creating Le Cirque Imaginaire featuring themselves and their two children Aurélia and James. This premiered in London in 1980 and then returned for a longer run from Dec 1982 – April 1983. In 1990 Le Cirque Invisible was created and toured internationally. In the new millennium the children developed their own shows, Aurélia touring ‘Aurélia’s Oratorio’ and James Thierrée’s Compagnie du Hanneton touring ‘The Junebug Symphony’.
1981 San Francisco’s co-operative, counter-culture Pickle Family Circus, founded in 1975, performed at London’s Roundhouse.
1981 The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Californian long-haired, black-clad and very funny juggling troupe (1974 – date), had a 6 week run of ‘Juggling and Cheap Theatrics’ at the Mayfair Theatre, London (and took the opportunity to perform an interval set at a Grateful Dead concert at London’s Rainbow – where I saw them and was inspired to become a juggler). The FKBs returned to the UK to perform in the Edinburgh International Festival in 1986 with ‘Juggle and Hyde’ and 1990 with ‘Club!’
1981 – date Philippe Genty Company made their first appearance in UK at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, then 1990 and 1991 Edinburgh International Festival, and 1991 Sadler’s Wells, and London International Mime Festival 1992. The mix of puppetry and movement in his imaginative, beautifully staged shows has been a continuing inspiration to new circus artists.
1981 – 1983 Barnum, a major West End musical, telling the life of the famous showman and using circus skills, opened at the London Palladium starring Michael Crawford. Barnum subsequently toured and returned to the West End and cast members during this time who went onto perform in new circus companies included Jo Robley-Dixon, Jackie Sysum and Alan Heap.
1980 Covent Garden Market reopened and rapidly established itself as the centre for Street Entertainment in London, the equivalent of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. At the time of its reopening the area was the home of London’s alternative culture.As there were no venues for the emerging speciality acts to perform, the street pitch became the meeting place for jugglers, acrobats, magicians, comedians and musicians, with a regular juggling workshop taking place in the adjoining Jubilee Hall.
Maggie Pinhorn, of Alternative Arts, described the development: “The plan then (1960s) was to demolish most of Covent Garden to build new hotels, conference centres, ring roads and offices.
In 1971 the Covent Garden Community Association was formed to fight these plans and present alternative ones which preserved the environment and the community. In that same year Alternative Arts was founded to support the local community by presenting entertaining events, helping with neighbourhood festivals, puppet festivals and encouraging the formation of the renowned Covent Garden Community Theatre… In 1975 Alternative Arts presented its first season of Street Theatre in front of the Portico of St Paul’s Church…. When the Market reopened again as a shopping centre in 1980 Alternative Arts invited lots more individual entertainers to come and perform in the Piazza.” P8/9 Time Out Street Entertainers Festival Programme 1984. The Festival was started in 1982 and a programme on it shown from 1983 to 1985 on Channel 4.
1979 – 1994 The Paul Daniels magic show featured guest variety and circus artists. In the mid 80s the producer, John Fisher, included inspirational new wave acts not shown elsewhere on television in the UK such as American jugglers Airjazz (1986) and the UK street jugglers Mr Adams and Mr Dandridge.
The 1980s saw the growth of the Alternative Comedy circuit, with many venues and promoters starting following The Comedy Store, which started in Soho in 1979. which offered reasonably regular work to a number of new variety acts used to working on the streets such as comedy jugglers Steve Rawlings and Paul Morocco, and The Long and the Short of It (myself and Olly Crick). The new circuit included CAST New Variety, established by Roland and Clare Muldoon (later to run and restore the Hackney Empire). Rachel Clare who worked for CAST New Variety went onto work with Ra Ra Zoo and in the new millennium produces James Thierree and Aurelia’s Oratorio amongst others with her company ‘Crying Out Loud’.
1984 Goffeee the Clown (David Goff Eveleigh), who had started clowning with Gerry Cottle’s Circus in 1976, organised the first of ten New Circus Conventions on April 1st 1984 in Monmouth (though most were held in Hay-on-Wye), and founded Circus Dda, probably the first travelling and tented New Circus Show, with a show based on the early Wesh poet Taliesin. Running for just one season, the circus toured around Wales and the Welsh Borders
1984 – 1994 Ra-Ra Zoo
In 1984 Dave Spathaky teamed up with Sue Broadway, Stephen Kent and Sue Bradley while at the Edinburgh Festival to form Ra-Ra Zoo, a company that was to break new ground in the UK through combining theatrical effect with pure skill.
Dave Spathaky was one of the Amazing Mendezies duo, with Chris Adams, which was the top street juggling act of the early 1980s in Covent Garden. Sue Broadway (an aerialist and founder member of Circus Oz) and Stephen Kent (musical director of Circus Oz for two years) had come to London with Tooth Tooth Tooth an “Eccentric mixture of the comic and skilful – juggling, acrobatics and fire-eating.” 1984 Street Entertainer of the Year festival programme and Sue Bradley was a member of a busking/cabaret musical group, Pookiesnackenburger (with Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas who subsequently created Stomp, which was to become a West End hit).
“Ra-Ra Zoo…..is at the forefront of your wildest dreams; in the middle of the air and on ground; a company of comic performers who provide and ecstatic blend of lunatic juggling, aerial dance, heartbreaking platespinning, escapology, magic, acrobatics and much more. Original live music stuns the action…laugh?….your teeth’ll fall out….” (Programme 1986)
“Ra-Ra Zoo believe that Circus is a theatrical entertainment that can be enjoyed by everyone; a popular art-form that transcends the barriers of class, age, sex, culture and language. They are part of a world wide community of performers who are rediscovering Circus and have forged links with groups and performers in Australia, China, Spain, Belgium, Holland, France, Germany and America. They have a commitment to live original music, can work in the largest venues and outdoors and provide invigorating and exciting shows which can appeal to anyone.” (Programme 1986)
Their main four-hander show, which officially premiered at the London International Mime Festival in 1985, was My Life on a Plate of Toast, which ran in several versions from 1984-86 and in 1988.
Other full shows were
Domestic Bliss, 1987, directed by Joe Page (and which featured Deborah Pope later to form No Ordinary Angels, below)
Stop Laughing This Is Serious, 1989, directed by Ben Keaton (and which featured aerialist Lindsey Butcher, Sean Gandini who would form Gandini Juggling, and Mark Digby and Ali Houillebecq who would form the duo Le La Les), with musician Shirley Pegna who has been involved in many new circus productions.
Fabulous Beasts, 1991, directed by Roy Hutchins.
Gravity Swing, 1992, directed by Sue Broadway (and which featured Jeremy Robins who would create the erotic ‘Slippery When Wet’ acrobatic act on and in a bathtub in the late 1990s and Jackie Sysum who would work with Circus Senso and Cirque Surreal)
Angels and Amazons, 1992, directed by Debbie Oates, with an all female cast
Swan, a community show which laid the groundwork for
White Snake, 1993, directed by Deborah Pope of No Ordinary Angels.
Cabinet of Curiosities, 1994
Dave Spathaky has written an entry for Wikipedia, including:
“They (Ra-Ra Zoo) toured internationally for ten years playing in theatres notably to Africa, South America, Australia and extensively in Europe. Their show under the joint Artistic Direction of David Spathaky and Sue Broadway combined the ethos of ‘alternative’ comedy of the 1980 with a 1970s revival of Circus skills, variously called ‘New or Neo Circus’ which largely promoted human skill without the use of animals. Their background in street performing and the influential Circus Oz gave the show an irreverent, fast paced, surrealist feel.
They produced several different shows and were occasionally supported in the UK by the Arts Council and other grants. Several large scale community shows and touring two shows at the same time in the early 1990s created work for over twenty five people simultaneously at times. They adhered to a political commitment of a balance of men and women on stage and of equal pay for all company members throughout their existence.
Ra-Ra Zoo was influenced by the agitprop and political theatre of the late 1960’s and early 70’s and the ritual theatre and ‘Happenings’ associated with it notably the ‘Grand Magic Circus’,’Circus Oz’,’The Festival of Fools’ in Amsterdam & ‘Pina Bauch’. Political influence also came from the rising awareness of the feminism movement and political direct action like the protests at Greenham Common in the UK and the general resurgence of ‘street theatre’ in Europe.”
Ra-Ra Zoo were the ground-breakiing, inspirational company for a generation but regrettably they only ever received project funding from the Arts Council. In Dave Spathaky’s view this lack of security impacts on the ability to produce good work and in the end the lack of Arts Council commitment killed off Ra-Ra Zoo.
1983 – date Ian and Trea Scott-Owen started Albert and Friends Youth Circus with a two week project. They developed into the largest youth circus in London and held an International Festival of Youth Circus at Riverside Studios in 2004 and 2006.
1984 -1985 Gerry Cottle’s Circus School. Working with circus trainer and choreographer Basil Schoultz, Gerry Cottle brought together a group of 16 – 24 year olds to train in circus skills and form a new ‘student’ circus company integrated with professional troupes and supported by a live band. The all-human show, which ran for two seasons, was reminiscent in style of the poetic imagery of Bernard Paul’s Circus Roncalli which was started in Vienna, Austria in 1976. The show introduced 16 year old Willie Ramsay, who came from Reg Bolton’s Pilton Community Circus and who continued to perform regularly with Gerry Cottle into the new millennium, and the cradle act of Andrew Watson and Jacqueline Williams. Andrew and Jacqueline went on to perform with Circus Senso, then with Circus Roncalli before joining Cirque du Soleil in 1987 for ‘We Reinvent The Circus’. Andrew went onto become Director of Creation for Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and Zumanity, following a creative role with the aerial aspect of the Millennium Dome’s central show. Jacqueline was course director of Zippo’s Academy of Circus Arts before setting up the Circus Maniacs school in Bristol. Also in the company were Gregoire Carel who went on to perform with Mummerandada and NoFitState Circus, and Julian Wisdom, who went on to perform with Circus Burlesque and The Circus Space and now teaches at the National Institute of Circus Arts in Australia.
Gerry Cottle’s Circus Parade souvenir brochure of c1989/90 stated that the effects of councils banning performances with animals on their land had
“been to largely deprive the people of the capital of the chance to see a traditional (with animals) circus.
Faced with this dilemma, in 1994 we took what we later realised to be a mistaken decision, and presented a circus without animals. It ran for two years and received considerable critical acclaim (though no support from the councils who had led us into this course of action), but it was too ‘theatrical’ for the average circusgoer. Surveys showed that audiences missed the animals, and in 1986 we complied with the wishes of our audiences and brought back the horses, elephants, lions, tigers and the rest.”
1985 Circus UK
Circus UK, which produced the show Circus Senso, came from two sources: Maggie Pinhorn of Covent Garden based Alternative Arts and Jenny Harris, Director of the Albany Empire in Deptford, South London, who ran a circus course following a six month sabbatical researching new developments in circus. Their inspiration came from the streets and from the new circuses of Australia, America and Europe. Circus Senso was produced in 1986 at the Albany Empire. Directed by Terry O’Connell, from Circus Oz, the show balanced youthful performers, supported by a two month training course, with the skill and experience of third-generation performer Brian Dewhurst (aka Brian Andro), a virtuoso on the tight-wire. The aerial choreography was by Helen Crocker, a former gymnast and graduate of London Contemporary Dance School who would subsequently teach at Fooltime and co-found Circomedia.
Other members of Circus Senso included Brian Dewhurst’s children Nicky and Sally, and Andrew Watson and Jacqueline Williams who joined from Gerry Cottle’s and then went onto Roncalli then Soleil.
John Turner then redirected Circus Senso for the Greater London Council Farewell Festival from 20 – 31 March 1986 in a little big top at the South Bank Centre, and subsequently produced a show for Christmas 1987 at the Hackney Empire with Lucy Allen, Brian Dewhurst, wire-walker Bernie Bennett, Sue Brent, Julie Day (Brian’s wife), Rogrigo Mattheus and Deb Pope (aerial duo No Ordinary Angels), Gina Powys, Rich Turner and Pete Gregory (of No Fit State), and street performer / alternative comedian Andre Vincent and a live band.
A particular strength of Circus Senso was its strong and cohesive (if very 1980s) visual style, with great costumes, make-up and hair styling.
The show was created without a production grant from the Arts Council of England, but was given a touring grant with the expectation that the show would tour large venues, rather than the medium scale that Maggie Pinhorn felt would be more suitable, and after a couple of seasons the show proved too difficult to tour.
Cirque du Soleil founders Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix saw Brian Dewhurst in Circus Senso and he subsequently joined the young company. Now in his 70s, he is still performing in Soleil’s Las Vegas show, Mystère.
Subsequent to Circus Senso, John Turner directed Circus Moon, which was presented at the Half-Moon Theatre in London’s East End at Christmas 1989 following an Arts Council funded training course with acrobat Johnny Hutch, magician Ian Keable, physical theatre director John Wright, Greta Mendez, aerialist Andrew Watson and acrobat/martial artist Ken Lewis as trainers.
1985 – date Belfast Community Circus
Established by Donal McKendry and Mike Moloney in Northern Ireland to provide positive shared experiences for young people from different communities. Belfast Community Circus has its own building and its mission is “developing circus arts to as high a standard as possible whilst making participation and viewing as accessible as possible.” Alongside teaching children and young people, BCC acts as a training school for professional teachers and performers of circus arts. In 1999/2000 they moved into a purpose built space….
1985 – 1991 Mummerandada
Bim Mason, who started performing Circus Theatre in 1978 with Johnny Melville’s physical theatre company Kaboodle, founded Mummerandada with other students he met while studying with Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Mummerandada tried “to balance the emphasis on skills with more dramatic elements by using the strong passions involved in conflict, love and death, so that as well as characters and storyline there are substantial shifts in mood and pace, allowing space for a deeper emotional involvement. If this balance is not achieved a show can become rather too shallow and tricksy.” Bim Mason, The Fool Times, Summer 1987.
The shows included ‘Hell Is Not So Hot’ (1988) inspired by the journey of Orpheus to the Underworld, combined with the surreal images of Hell by Bosch and the charming simplicity of the English Mystery Plays, and ‘Fools Gold’ (1990) an epic voyage beyond the point of no return.
The programme notes say that “Mummerandada combine the simple theatre of Mummers plays with the surreal style of Dada – the art of the disturbingly absurd. Mummers plays are folk traditions, thought to be ancient rituals which encouraged the renewal of life forces by acting out scenes of death and resurrection. …. They are now one of Britain’s leading circus theatre troupes. They have created a unique style of popular style, successfully combining a high level of circus skills, including acrobatics, juggling, magic, knife-throwing, and brass band with mime, masks, clowning and stage combat. They aim to touch and provoke as well as to astound and entertain.”
Mummerandada also included Kevin Brooking (American clown now resident in Belgium), Angela de Castro (subsequently to work with Slava Polunin in Snow Show), Gregoire Carel (who also worked with Gerry Cottle and No Fit State), and Ali Houlliebecq (later to form Le La Les with acrobat Mark Digby)
1985-1990 Circus Burlesque –– set up by Lecoq trained mime artist Mick Wall and marquee owner Henry Bassadone. In 1985 they undertook a small tour, with a ten week tour following in 1986, and a 3 month tour in 1987 ( this time supported by a small West Midlands Art grant). The cast of Mick Wall, Alan Heap, Jo Robley-Dixon, Thom Pod (musician), and Julian Wisdom were directed by Ben Benison. In 1989 they created Alice in Wonderland, written by Boris Howarth (who was Associate Artistic Director of Welfare State International from 1972 – 1986) and directed by Boris Howarth and Dante Agostini (aka Richie Smith of Desperate Men). The show, featuring David Hudson, Julian and Miki Wisdom, Maria Demelza (aka Rita van Opzeeland), Anne Quicke, Chris Hills (who had learnt flying at Jean Palacy’s school in France and is currently touring with NoFitState), Lucy Allen, and Sunshine Savage and was performed in the 1990 Islington International Circus Festival and at the Edinburgh Festival. The company had plans for an American tour in 1991 which didn’t come to fruition and the company ceased to tour.
1985 –date: No Fit State Circus
“In 1985 college was finished and it was time to decide what to do in life. Some people got proper jobs, but five of us (Ali Williams, Tom Rack, Peter Gregory, Richard Turner and David Williams from a college group ‘Balls Up Jugglers’) decided we liked this performing lark and would try it full time. Thus NoFit State Circus was born and off to the enterprise allowance we went. A winter school and village hall tour followed by a summer of street and festival work saw us through our first year. We were lucky to get involved with Arts Play Umbrella early on and they passed a lot of bookings our way. This relationship developed into a Big Fun marquee tour that saw NoFit State and other companies touring the UK providing summer fun day packages to festivals and local authorities.
1991 – time for us to grow, buying our own 350 seater big top and providing large-scale circus theatre productions. That winter we begged, borrowed, hassled and pleaded eventually securing a sponsorship deal with ASW (a Cardiff steel manufacturer). This combined with a large overdraft and other debts gave us enough money to buy a second hand marquee, seating, lights and HGV. Many frantic months were spent on the phone ot bookers pleading for work and come summer 1991 we had a four and half month tour. We came out of this broke but with our debts paid off.
Since then we have operated on similar lines gradually improving equipment, building new seats, trucks, members and most importantly a better show.
Touring a marquee and show is a difficult business. New circus does not get proper funding or recognition, despite being accessible and popular with a wide spectrum of the population. Much of our year is spent administrating, fund raising, building and fixing, often leaving little time to train and rehearse. The cost of putting the tour on the road is astronomical and hard to get back.
There is something special about working and living with a good bunch of people, working on your own ideas and the audience response to a good show. We have a formula that works for young or old wherever we perform – and hopefully you’ll see us around for a few years yet.” 1994 NFS Programme Totally Wicked (originally published in The Catch).
NoFitState Circus is now Britain’s longest established new circus company.
From 1991 to 1997 they had a different show each year, employing a writer who worked with the cast, and a director. The shows were Take a Chance (1991),
The Defective Detective (1992) written by Luci Gorell Barnes and the company, directed by Dante Agostini (aka Richie Smith), and including Flick Ferdinando later to co-found Company FZ, Dodo Island (1993), Totally Wicked (1994) written and devised by Claire Hudman and the company, directed by Jamie Garvin, Autogeddon Warehouse (1995), Alice in Wonderland (1996) written by Katherine Jones and the company, directed by Jamie Garven and Bill Bellamy, Treasure Island (1997)
Since 1998 NoFitState Circus have worked, initially through community shows Prophecy (1998) and Now-here (1999), towards a large-scale multi-media touring circus exploring themes of immortality. They acquired a 1000 capacity Silver Spaceship tent in 2002. That year they undertook Sci-Circus and realised ImMortal as a community show, with professional touring versions from 2004 onwards, achieving sell out runs in Edinburgh, good reviews and a high percentage of earned income.
1986 – date Zippos Circus
In the 1996 programme, Martin Burton, aka Zippo the Clown, wrote “It is now twenty-four years since I created the character of Zippo the Clown, performing on the streets of London and Brighton. At the time I swore that I would never become a circus clown, then, in 1986 founded Zippo’s Circus and became known as one of Britain’s best-loved clowns. Zippo’s Circus was an instant success and grew each year, but I maintained that my circus remain all-human and never include animals. Now, in the tenth anniversary year of Zippo’s Circus, another dramatic change. For the 1996 season, I have introduced six beautiful Palomino horses and a gorgeous Shetland pony.”
Zippos Circus has included horses ever since and has in recent years starred the veteran ringmaster Norman Barrett and his budgerigars.
1986 – 1993 Fool Time – The Centre for Circus Skills and Performing Arts
Fool Time, providing the first significant professional circus education not tied to a company, was started in 1986 by Richard Ward with the Centre opening in a Victorian church hall in Bristol in April 1987, with evening workshops, weekend training and three full time courses that put together made a one year Basic Training course.
In Patrick Boyd-Maunsell’s 1988 ‘Report to the Arts Council on Circus’ he wrote:
“The project was initially capitalised by loans from Richard Ward. Other sources of initial funding were The Sports Council (£4,250), Gulbenkian Foundation (£12,000), Avon County Council (£1000), Bristol City (£500) and Marks and Spencer (£500). The Arts Council made a £2,000 grant for the initial course.” His suggested action for the Arts Council was that “Fooltime’s growth should be facilitated by a modest level of funding over a three-year period. Possibly £5,000 a year for three years linked to the loan repayment.”
In contrast, the French, under the guidance of French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, had opened the fully funded Centre National des Arts du Cirque in a purpose restored circus building in Chalons-en-Champagne in January 1986. Offering a four year course, the school took 25 students a year from 350 hopefuls at France’s regional circus schools!
In 1993 Fooltime failed as it was trying to effect a move to a new site, but Circomedia emerged in 1994 and succeeded in the development.
1986 – date Swamp Circus Theatre
Formed by a collective of acrobats and dancers in a disused steel works in Sheffield in 1986, Swamp Circus Theatre describes itself as “an all human circus theatre with an environmentally flavoured artistic direction, a commitment to arts in the community and a taste for adventure!” They have undertaken a Moto – Edinburgh Festival 2000 and European tour 2001.
1986 Swamp formed as a collective of travelling acrobats and film-makers doing site specific shows in big warehouses and factories eg Sheffield
1986 Toured France and Spain with an acrobatic dance show with live music – The Magic Box
1987 Met other circus artistes at Hay-on-Wye Circus-Theatre Festival eg Paka, Kwabana Lindsay, John Lee…Inspired to train more
1987 Set up Circus Studio in disused steel works in Sheffield with Forced Entertainment Company
1988 Rock n Roll Clown show tour across Soviet Union. VIP status – joint work with Moscow State Circus (as was)
1989 Outings Tour – North / Midlands small scale theatres . Director Brett Jackson / David Bingham
1990 Numbskull – Directed at Lecoq Paris Tour France / UK Arts Festivals
1991 Egg Show collaboration with Circus Burlesque Big Top – Director = Richie (Desperate Men)
1992 Swamp Circus First Big Top Tour
1993 Sky Dance tour – Big top tour in England – Scotland
1994 Fundango – Big Top tour UK – Germany – Director = Deborah Pope
1995 Buy church and with BBC build Greentop Circus Centre – Sheffield.
1996 Tour Sky Juice and Swamp Circus School to built venues include Jacksons Lane Theatre London- Director Gerry Flanagan
1997 Swamp UK Big Top Tour of La Grand Bleu – director = Gerry Flanagan eg 3 week residency in Blythe Valley (near Newcastle)
1998 Grand Bleu Big Top tour in South France eg Terre En fete Festival Antibes
1999 South Bank tent shows – Midland Live. Start Circus School in Chanel Islands
Millennium show in Channel Islands
2000 MOTO tour directed by Brett Jackson / Richie (ACE National Touring funding) Princess Street Gardens Edinburgh Festival 5* reviews
2001 30 theatre tour to Holland and Belgium / UK built venues
2002 MOTO II and Swamp Circus School UK tour/ Spain
2003 FRAGILE ( ACE FUNDED) Directed by Brett Jackson / Gerry Flanagan
2004 Fragile UK tour – built venues and arts festivals
Swamp Launch Circo Kernow (Cornwall’s Circus and Film School) Tour of Clown Bites director Gerry Flanagan(ACE funding) eg Clock tower Croydon
2005 Fundango big top tour with circus school (ACE FUNDED) in South West – Director Brett Jackson
2006 Tour of Swamp Circus Cabaret – Big Top – Director Brett Jackson
1987 New Circus by Reg Bolton, ISBN 0903319373, funded and published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, was a ground-breaking book outlining the nature of new circus and the opportunities that circus offered communities and society in general. Reg Bolton pressed for circus to be taken seriously, for vocational training provision and for training in circus as a community art form.
May 1988 Patrick Boyd Maunsell “Report to the Arts Council on Circus”
Recognising the impact of community circus, which had been supported by Gulbenkian Foundation since 1978, and the impact of companies such as Circus Oz, this report profiled the wealth of circus activity forthcoming in the year, considered what new circus was in Britain at the time and made recommendations for the future.
Four broad forms of new circus were noted:
A) The extension of the use of circus skills into a theatrical context and within a story line. Examples included Circus Burlesque and Mummerandada.
B) The traditional format of a sequence of acts presented for their own sake, but achieved within an overall production which prioritises the nature of performance and the artist/audience relationship above the pure display of breathtaking skills. Examples were Circus Senso and Ra-Ra Zoo.
C) Participatory community/educational activity. Professional workshops and performances centred around the process of learning circus skills and often culminating in group performance. Examples included Pilton Circus in Edinburgh and Belfast Community Circus.
D) Professional training
The principal recommendation was the development of training resources to increase the skill level of emerging performers. The Arts Council Strategy and Report on Circus (Felicity Hall 2002) noted that the Arts Council was “not able to carry out the recommendations. It was only in the late 1990s that strategic interviention in the funding of circus as an artform began, particularly with the support of two conferences in 1997 and 1998.”
In 2002/03 the Arts Council of England awarded £384,000 to circus projects nationally. The 2000/2001 allocation to Theatre was £42.8m
1988 The First British Juggling Convention, organised by Max Oddball (of the Oddball Juggling shop) and myself, took place at London’s Colombo Street sports centre. The annual conventions now attract around 750-1,000 jugglers.
In 1988, perhaps co-incidentally the year of the London International Festival of New Circus, the widest range of circus was shown on television: a documentary on the festival; the Moscow State Circus; Le Cirque Imaginaire; Circus Lumiere; The (Greatest) Little Show on Earth – a documentary on the Albury-Wodonga, Australia, youth ‘Flying Fruit Flies Company’ who performed in London that year (the documentary features Simon Yates who would later found Acrobat which came to the Roundhouse in 2002); and a youthful Cirque du Soleil, while 1989 saw the anarchic French company Archaos profiled on the Edinburgh Nights programme.
1988 – date The International Workshop Festival
Initiated by Greater London Arts and directed for the first few years by Nigel Jamieson, the annual festival features leading teachers of a large range of physical performance disciplines including circus.
1988 London International Festival of New Circus
This was a first class showcase of contemporary circus at the time and was an initiative of Greater London Arts, the regional body of the Arts Council, presented in association with the South Bank Centre. Adrian Evans and Nigel Jamieson, the festival directors, brought together many of the leading lights of new circus. There were shows by France’s Centre National des Arts du Cirque (which was established in 1985), Circus Lumiere (above), The Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe, Ra Ra Zoo, jugglers Hot & Neon (originally with LIFT in 1985), Archaos, L’Ecole de Trapeze Volant Jean Palacy, Circus Senso, Os Paxaros; Mummerandada; The Pioneers; Belfast Community Circus; Tim Bat; Brahim; The Howlers; Die Kempowskys; Mr Adams and Mr Dandridge; Palfi; Haggis and Charlie; Pierre Hollins; Original Mixture; Shopping Trolley. The finale was a Ship of Fools presented by Rose English.
Subsequently Nigel Jamieson moved to Australia, whilst Adrian Evans produced Archaos
1988 Following the huge success of its show, Le Chapiteau de Corde, at the London International Festival of New Circus, Adrian Evans co-produced Archaos in the UK and Scandinavia. The UK was the major audience for Archaos and the company achieved a mass change in the perception of what circus could be.
Archaos was a French company started in 1984 by Pierrot Bidon who had previously toured the horse-drawn Cirque Bidon.
With Archaos, Bidon created an anarchic, frightening company of misfits, often with great skill and with wit and style, which made the company very sexy and very funny in between the explosions.
The first show, ‘Le Cirque de Caractere’ was performed in a 300 seat tent. In 1987 Archaos acquired a customised 650 seat tent (named The Condom) and toured a revised ‘Cirque de Caractere’ show, with music by Les Marcel Burins, building up to the 35 strong company that came to London.
In 1989 a new show, ‘The Last Show on Earth’, toured in France before arriving in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was a hit, subsequently enjoying sell-out runs in London. The show returned in 1990 to Brighton and Birmingham.
1990 also saw Archaos create ‘Bouinax’, with music by The Chihuahuas. The 60 strong company performed in a new industrial style tent, called le Fanny, seating 1250 people facing each other on huge grandstands. The show toured to Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bristol and London (where it sold out 57 shows).
In 1991 ‘Bouinax’, rebranded ‘BX-91’ and adapted for a 3000 seat big top, toured to Brighton and Bristol in the UK.
During 1991 Archaos also created ‘Metal Clown’ with music by Bahia Axe Bahia and The Thunderdogs, in a new 2,500 seat tent called The Cathedral. It came to Manchester and then went to Dublin where high winds destroyed the tent. The company regrouped and gave 44 shows in London. However it marked the end of the company’s touring to the UK, bar a brief visit in 1996 with a show called ‘Game Over’, with music by Lefdup and Lefdup, which performed 12 shows in London’s Brixton Academy.
1988 saw the first tented tour by Hebden Bridge based Snapdragon Circus. Co-founded by Jim Riley and John Whitehead in 1985, Snapdragon toured from 1988 to 1992, though Jim Riley left after the first tour and set up Skylight community circus centre in Rochdale.
John Whitehead is an artist and sculptor who had a strong interest in visual theatre and was particularly inspired by Horse and Bamboo, a company set up in 1978 producing visual theatre in which story telling and music is central and that originally undertook horse-drawn touring. He loved the notion of a show arriving overnight, staying a week and leaving people with wonderful memories. Originally the show was going to be visual theatre using large sculptural works, but having introduced some juggling into the show and undertaken some sessions with Reg Bolton it became a marriage of visual theatre and circus, with John wire walking.
The tented show ran for four seasons, directed by Gay Gaynor in 1988 (featuring aerialists Cathy Sprague and Becky Truman who went on to form Skinning the Cat) and 1989 (featuring Mark Morreau who also performed with Zippos Circus, NoFitState Circus, and the Generating Company), Luci Gorrell Barnes in 1990 and Richie Smith in 1991.
The 1989 season included a successful tour to Holland and Belgium, and in 1990 there was a one-off collaboration with Jango Bates and his orchestra in London.
In 1990 Snapdragon did a tented tour of over 60 performances.
John Whitehead feels that throughout its life there was never enough money to realise the potential, that there was insufficient devising and rehearsal time and that their was insufficient training provision for performers in that era to have a high skill level. The company had hope of finance for a big company for 1992 and an American tour. When this didn’t materialise John says that he decided it was time to call it a day.
1988 – date Scarabeus
Artistic Director – Daniela Essart
Now in its 18th year, Scarabeus creates exhilarating, site specific, aerial
performances that push boundaries and challenge preconceptions of space and
linear narrative. Using physical and visual theatre, stilts and aerial
skills, dance and acrobatics video and music, Scarabeus transforms its
environments into an interactive stage where anything can happen.
1989 Skinning the Cat founded in Bradford, West Yorkshire, by Becky Truman and tours first outdoor aerial show ‘Snakes & Ladders’. before touring Chameleon from 91 – 94 with four aerialists and one technician.
1989 Skylight was founded by Jim Riley in Rochdale. The primary focus has been to develop circus as a tool for personal and social development and to create a path from taster sessions to employment, with finance from regeneration and social inclusion funds.
1989 The Circus Space was established in a derelict building lent by its developers in North Road, Islington (where the Pleasance Theatre is now) by Jonathan Graham with support from volunteers following an appeal for space in the 1988 London International Festival of New Circus programme. As a pilot project the space had rehearsal space, practice space, evening and youth classes, and put on shows – notably Satellite 1, 2 and 3 which included acrobats Jacky Sysum and Jeremy Robins. In 1994 The Circus Space moved to its current site in Hoxton, gradually bringing it back from dereliction. In 1995, in conjunction with East Berkshire College, The Circus Space started the first course within the conventional Further Education sector, a BTEC Diploma in Performing Arts (Circus). It was a founding member of FEDEC, the European Federation of Circus Schools, with France’s Centre National des Arts du Cirque and Belgium’s Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque. It was approached in 1998 by the New Millennium Experience Company to train the artists for the central show in the Millennium Dome and ensure that they had a qualification. For this The Circus Space developed a Certificate of Higher Education with Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD), and in 1999 started the first BA(Hons) degree course in Circus, again with CSSD in place of the BTEC course. In 2004 The Circus Space became an affiliate member of a new Higher Education Institution, the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, offering Foundation and BA(Hons) degrees in circus.
Informal circus education for adults and youth has continued alongside the formal education courses.
Throughout, The Circus Space has actively supported circus artists and companies, such as Gandini Juggling, Lindsey Butcher, Company f/z, the Generating Company and Matilda Leyser through commissioning and showcasing work as well as providing practice and rehearsal resources. It has also presented a large number of emerging circus artists within the format of The Circus Space Cabaret over the years and in 2005 started to move towards a greater production role.
1990 – From January 1990 to May 1991 Teo Greenstreet was part-time Circus Development Worker by Greater London Arts (GLA), the regional Arts Council body, under the management of Linda Dyos who had managed to include Circus in her job title in 1989 and was an advocate of the artform within GLA. Teo focussed on the development of The Circus Space, becoming its first Chief Executive, a position he held until he left in 2005 to take a Clore Fellowship for senior arts managers.
1990 No Ordinary Angels New Zealander Deborah Pope and Brazilian Rodrigo Matheus formed this aerial physical theatre duo in London and in 1997, in Brazil, created ‘Deadly’ which explores the Seven Deadly Sins in a relationship between a man and a woman, its battles, pleasures, frustrations and inevitable complicity. The show was awarded best Physical Theatre Show in the 1999’s Fringe Edinburgh Festival, Total Theatre Awards, Public’s Choice and featured in the 2000 London International Mime Festival before undertaking a small tour in the UK.
1990 Cirque du Soleil Cirque du Soleil was formed in 1984, building on street entertainers Le Club des Talons Hauts, when founder Guy Laliberté persuaded the Quebecois government to support a travelling circus he planned with directors Guy Caron and Franco Dragone to undertake a three month 50 show tour of the province as part of the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada. They were able to recruit from Montreal’s Ecole Nationale de Cirque which had started in 1980. In 1987 the company made their first visit to the USA, continuing each year thereafter. In 1990 a new show, La Nouvelle Expérience, was created and toured North America, while a second tented troupe made its first visit to Europe during the summer of 1990, including Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank, next to The National Theatre. The show was a reworking of previous versions of the original Soleil show, untitled at the time but subsequently known as Le Cirque Reinvente. The tour was not an out-and-out success and Soleil chose to focus on North American developments and was not to return to Europe for six years (see below). The cast of the show included Daniel Cyr, who subsequently co-founded Cirque Eloize in Montreal, and Nicky Dewhurst, who had performed in Circus Senso.
1992 – date Zippos Academy of Circus Arts was started by Martin Burton, the Director of Zippos Circus and the course was led by Jackie Williams. The first co-ordinator was Verena Cornwall who now chairs the Circus Arts Forum.At first, the Academy toured with Zippos, but it is now an entirely separate company and charity, the Academy of Circus Arts. It tours the country training and performing full-time for six months.
1992 – date Gandini Juggling Gandini Juggling has been one of the most consistently innovative juggling companies in the world, blending juggling with dance movement. The dance department of the Arts Council was most receptive to new circus in the early 1990s and those shows which integrated with dance, such as the Gandini’s and Momentary Fusion, stood a chance of receiving some project funding. Shows choreographed by Gill Clarke include “n’Either Either botH and” 1993, CAUGHT-”STIlL”/hanging 1994, And Other Curious Questions 1995, Septet 1997, Remembering Rastelli 1999. In 2000 the company performed 1000 shows with a team of 12 jugglers in the Millennium Dome. 2003 saw the premiere of Dont Break My Balls. In 2004 the company performed a double bill of Dont Break My Balls and Quartet in the London International Mime Festival and worked with John Blanchard on a new company K-DNK with a show called No-Exit.
1993 A national youth circus conference led to the foundation of the National Association of Youth Circus (NAYC) in 1994. This established a code of practice for those working in youth circus and a network with occasional meetings, but the sector was too weak and fragmented for the association to get established as a charity and make funding applications which could have enabled the sector to develop well beyond its current level.
1993 Jim Rose Sideshow appeared in London before its Edinburgh Fringe debut. This modern-day freakshow featured Enigma, who had his whole body tattooed like a jigsaw puzzle and Lifto, who lifted a cement block with his penis.
1993 – 2000 Momentary Fusion – Sophy Griffiths and Isabel Rocamora established this aerial dance-theatre company that toured theatre pieces, and undertook site-specific ventures and aerial choreographies for the camera. Its focus was on the artistic development of aerial choreographic techniques and the collaborative possibilities of light, music/sound and visual arts. Shows included Shifts 1994
and Stung 1996, 1997.
1994 Circomedia Bim Mason and Helen Crocker, former tutors at Fooltime, were able to set up Circomedia to build upon the foundations that Fooltime had provided prior to its collapse, in part of the Kingswood Foundation building that Fooltime had been seeking to move to. They now offer a one year diploma course with the option of a second year act creation course, a teacher training course, an outreach programme and a two year BTEC Further Education course for 16 – 18 year olds. In 2005 Circomedia added a second site, St Paul’s Church, which was refurbished by the Churches Conservation Trust as a circus training space and arts centre.
1994 Tantamount Esperance – Rose English, verbal and visual performance artist who combines text, imagery, design, movement and elements of circus presented this show featuring acrobats … at the Royal Court Theatre in London
1994 – 2002 Mamaloucos
Inspired by the shows of Archaos, Matt Churchill and Julian Rudd formed Mamaloucos in 1994 and in 1996 toured a small tented show ‘Mama Loves Ya’which included Petra Massey (who went with members of theatre company Spymonkey to work in Soleil’s burlesque show ‘Zumanity’ in Las Vegas from to 2003-5) and the Stretch People duo of John Beresford and Martin Varallo. In 1998 with Arts Council / National Lottery funding Mamaloucos purchased a new big top. In 2000 they approached Kathryn Hunter, formerly of Theatre de Complicité, to make a piece of circus theatre and she proposed a show based around the Birds by Aristophanes. The National Theatre collaborated on the project, and the show was put on in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre as part of the 2002 Transformations season. However plans for the show to tour in a big top could not be implemented and the company effectively stopped at that point.
1995 Cirque Surreal
Phillip Gandey, whose company produces The Chinese State Circus, Circus Starr, the Lady Boys of Bangkok and other shows in the UK and abroad (with a particularly strong presence in the middle east), introduced Cirque Surreal in 1995. With a set design similar in ways to those of Cirque du Soleil and music composed by Rick Wakeman, the show included clown Donimo, recent graduates (Les Mauvais Esprits) from France’s Centre National des Arts du Cirque, and a company of Cuban flying trapeze artists. It ran for 4 weeks in London’s Roundhouse. Cirque Surreal was revived in 2001 for a new show called Voyagers, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival.
1995 – date Greentop Community Circus Centre, Sheffield – A former chapel was acquired by Swamp Circus and transformed into a small circus training centre with the involvement of BBC’s ‘Challenge Anneka’ programme which attracted volunteers (particularly builders) to undertake works of social value . Greentop acts as a hub in its region providing a 12 week full-time Circus in Performance course and a range of evening and youth courses.
1995 – date Circus of Horrors
The Circus of Horrors made its debut at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival. It was created after a chance meeting between Haze and Gerry Cottle. Haze had been performing a version of the show in clubs and Universities, but felt he had gone as far as he could go in its current format. However he felt there was a gap in the market for an alternative rock’n’roll circus after the demise of Archaos. They brought Pierrot Bidon, the director of Archaos in to direct the show in 1996 and subsequently the show ran for 17 weeks in the Autumn of 1997 and has been touring since.
The mid-nineties onwards saw many of the companies which had benefited from the support of French and Canadian governments visit England. These included:
1995 Cirque Plume at Highbury Fields in London with ‘Toiles’ as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT).
1996 French company Cirque Baroque performed ‘Candides’ at Salisbury Festival, returning in 1997 to Salisbury, Edinburgh, Manchester and London. In 1998 the company performed ‘Ningen’ at the Salisbury Festival.
1996 Cirque du Soleil undertook the first of their very successful January runs at the Royal Albert Hall, with Saltimbanco, which returned in 1997, followed by Alegria in 1998 and 1999. In December 2000 Cirque du Soleil pitched a big top next to Battersea Power Station and staged Quidam, returning for Christmas 2001 and also visiting Manchester. In January 2003 they returned to The Royal Albert Hall with Saltimbanco, then presented Dralion in 2004 and 2005, when Saltimbanco also toured to Manchester and Birmingham, followed by Alegria in 2006.
The combination of very high design and production values, highly skilled performers in specially devised routines and choreographed ensemble work, and original music (plus great commercial acumen) has created a large new market and forced other companies to reconsider the quality and identity of their work.
The success of Cirque du Soleil has also led to a large demand for similar style performance in the corporate entertainment sector, creating employment opportunities for many performers, and a market has developed for circus workshops as a team-
Around the millenium circus was represented on television through occasional broadcasts of Cirque du Soleil shows at Christmas, conveniently prior to their London runs in January at the Royal Albert Hall.
1996 Circus Arts Forum – In 1996, following on from a debate at the Cirque Plume shows in 1995, the Circus Space hosted an inaugural meeting of a Circus Forum where representatives from all sectors of the circus industry sat down together and talked about the future of circus. Subsequently hosted by Total Theatre, the UK’s lead body for physical and visual performance, the Forum holds conferences, has developed a website www.circusarts.org.uk, initiated a National Circus Day and has lobbied on issues such as the difficulty in obtaining public liability insurance.
1997/8 During a few years when there was absolutely no circus on television the only place acts were featured was the ‘alternative magic’ programme, The Secret Cabaret, hosted by Simon Drake.
1997 The London International Festival of Theatre brought the intimate French circus Cirque Ici and the Argentinian company De La Guarda to London. De La Guarda returned to the London’s Roundhouse in May 1999 and ran until April 2000 – the 11 month run being the longest ever at the Roundhouse. The show, which featured a lot of aerial harness work, happened above and on all four sides of the standing audience, and included dropping down into the audience and picking members up into the air. In terms of the thrill and risk one perceived as an audience member it was the successor to Archaos.
1997 Circus Symposium ‘The Development of Contemporary Circus Arts in the UK’
This symposium gave an opportunity for senior practitioners in circus to meet with speakers presenting papers on the contemporary circus context, the current operating environment and ways of producing work
1997 Policy Studies Institute published ‘Developing New Circus in the UK’ in Cultural Trends no.28
Officially dated 1995, this report was published in 1997. It was primarily concerned with the development of new circus in the UK. It looked at the characteristics of new circus and evidence of demand for new-circus performance; the approach of the arts funding sector to this emerging arts form and the potential for its future development; UK circus schools; and the results of Policy Studies Institute’s surveys of UK circus companies and circus performers.
It’s conclusions included that: much of the activity appears to relatively small-scale and community-based and few UK new-circus performers work on a full-time basis; there are no large, flagship new-circus companies and only a very small number of companies touring shows in their own right. There was evidence of growing demand from overseas companies touring into the UK. These were funded in their own countries. In the UK, however, arts funders are unwilling to commit substantial resources to the development of new-circus performance. The bulk of the funding tends to be directed towards ‘community circus’ activities. The recent emergence of circus schools offering professional training courses was noted, and the fact that they receive comparatively little public funding for their training work. Their growth is an important development. In time it may help to break the vicious circle in which a lack of training holds back the development of high-quality UK-based new-circus perofmrance, which in turn restricts the arts funding suppport available for this increasingly popular artform.
1998 Conspiracy was a stylish show at The Circus Space presented by a young company featuring John Paul Zaccarini and Matt Costain, who went on to be leading characters in the Millennium Dome show, Stretch People, Luke Wilson, Ernesto Sarabia, Ben Richter, and Flick Ferdinando who then set up Company f/z with Zaccarini.
1998 Company fz
John-Paul Zaccarini and Flick Ferdinando created Company fz with a first show, Throat created in 1998. This one-man show demonstrated John-Paul’s range of theatrical and physical skills including a breath-taking wet rope aerial routine. It was performed in the 2001 London International Mime Festival and won a Total Theatre award at Edinburgh festival 2002. Subsequent shows have included Philomena’s Feast, with a company of four, commissioned by The Circus Space, and Night and Day which grew out of a award from London Arts to study Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, which led to a performance commissioned by the Jerwood Foundation and The Circus Space, and Loser.
1998 to date – Eclipse at The Globe, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Described as a Circballet, Eclipse was produced and directed by Amanda Thompson with Antony Johns as choreographer and Vladimir Kekhaial as associate director and a principal character with his strap act. The show runs each year over the spring/summer. With lavish production values and a cast of skilled actors and dancers, largely from Russia, the show’s title could be assumed to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Cirque du Soleil.
1998 Animal Defenders International conducted an 18 month study on the use of animals in circuses, which was published in their report “The Ugliest Show on Earth” in 1998. In 1999, some of this evidence was used to obtain cruelty convictions against Mary Chipperfield, her husband Roger Cawley, and their elephant keeper, though they were not working with a circus at this time. News broadcasts and a Channel 4 documentary, shown in April1999, showed footage of a chimpanzee and an elephant being ill-treated and increased public concern about the use of animals, particularly wild animals, in circus.
1999 – ReFract’99 Conference
Speakers from a range of UK circus companies, Cirque du Soleil and the Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal considered circus training; the Millennium Show plans; how to create a healthy climate for circus; innovation and entertainment and the the relationship with other art forms.
The conclusion was:
Circus is not on a level playing field in comparison with other art forms.
There is a need to establish and infrastructure where there are:
– proper training opportunities at all levels;
– access to professional advice, technical services, health and safety;
– money for investment (particularly the investment in R&D);
– advocacy for the sector.
1999 Arts Council National Touring Funds
For the first time funds were ring-fenced for circus, street arts and carnival, within the National Touring Programme. In 1999-2000 the allocation was £400,000 and several circus companies benefitted from grants of upto £100,000.
2000 Circelation was set up by Chenine Bhathena (who had previously worked with Ra-Ra Zoo, The Circus Space and the Big Apple Circus in New York) and Leila Jancovich. This is a professional development programme for circus performers and directors looking to develop and improve their skills and knowledge in the creation of new and innovative collaborative work. Circelation started with pilot projects in Sheffield in 2000, then in London, Bristol and Sheffield in 2001. In March/April 2004 Circelation began a three year Arts Council funded programme, based in Leeds.
2000 – date Giffords Circus was founded in 2000 by Nell Stroud and Toti Gifford. Nell had worked on the Chinese State Circus, America’s Circus Flora, Santus Circus and Germany’s Circus Roncalli. To date the show has predominantly toured in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Using a small tent (more a marquee than a big top) surrounded by traditional style mollycroft-topped showman’s wagons, and featuring horses, this is a show that presents a storybook image of village green circus. In 2002 the company was winner of the £10,000 Jerwood Circus Award in association with The Circus Space enabling them to develop ‘Living Dolls’, a piece combining traditional circus skills – aerial acrobatics (silks and trapeze), acrobatics on horse back, singing and presentation with the iconic circus imagery of children’s story books.
2000 Millennium Show in the Dome
The Circus Space was invited in 1998 by Paul Cockle, Head of Show at the Millennium Dome, to make a proposal to recruit and provide accredited training for 100 aerial performers. The training ran through 1999 before rehearsals started in the autumn ready for OVO the Millennium Show to run throughout 2000. 160 performers and 60 technicians staged the show three times every day and the show was seen by 6.5 million people. Additionally a South Bank Show programme was broadcast on the making of the show. The show sketched a parable of man’s relationship with the earth – innocence, corruption and enlightenment – in three spectacular technical and acrobatic tableaux. OVO was conceived for the Dome by Mark Fisher (Creative Director) and Peter Gabriel (Music). Working with them were Micha Bergese (Artistic Director), Keith Khan (Costume and 3D Props) and Patrick Woodroffe (Lighting Designer).
2001-date The Generating Company
Paul Cockle, Head of Show at the Millennium Dome, and The Circus Space were concerned to ensure a legacy for the performers following 2000 and so they initiated an independent not-for-profit company, The Generating Company. The first show ‘Storm’ ran at The Circus Space from 17 April to 12 May 2001, and was followed by ‘Gangstars’ in 2002, which then went on a national tour. At the end of 2002, Storm was reworked with commercial funding for the Barbican where it ran from 18 Dec 2002 – 4 Jan 2003. The third show, Lactic Acid, was presented at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, in September 2005. The Generating Company has also produced and run shows for others, from the club Manumission in Ibiza to Butlins in the UK.
2001 Street Arts and Circus: a snapshot – Size, activities and relationship with the funding system – Helen Jermyn, 2001
2001 Canada’s Cirque Eloize performed at Sadler’s Wells, Barbican and was the opening production of the new, prestigious Welsh Millennium Centre in Cardiff.
2002 French flying trapeze company Les Arts Sauts brought their show ‘Kayassine’ in its stylish big bubble top to Victoria Park, Hackney, London as part of the Barbican’s BITE season.
2002 The London International Festival of Theatre presented the Australian company Acrobat at the Roundhouse from 23 October – 3 November.
2002 Arts Council of England Strategy and Report on Circus written by Felicity Hall.
This marked a shift in the Arts Council position on circus, with the introductory statement being “The Arts Council of England values the artform of circus and its importance within the wider theatre ecology.”
It was clear from the response to the consultations and the survey conducted in 2001 that the Arts Council and Regional Arts Boards need to address the following key issues:
– The current perceived inaccessibility of the funding system to practitioners.
– The lack of consistency at regional and national level to recognising the value of the artform.
– The lack of consistent expertise within the funding system capable of evaluating and developing the artform.
– The low level of investment in circus, regionally and nationally.
– The need for advocacy for circus.
– A consistent commitment to circus as an artform at both policy and funding level within the funding system.
– The provision of appropriate level of genuine expertise at officer and assessor/advisor level within the funding system. Further, in the short term, it is recommended that there is a part time post for circus officer in the drama department at the Arts Council, in order to drive forward the recommendations outlined in this report.
– Ensuring that new simplified funding schemes address the difficulties experienced by many practitioners in applying for funding.
– A commitment made to developing an advocacy strategy for circus in partnership with the sector and other partners.
– Increased investment in circus and prioritising of spending in the following areas: artistic development, infrastructure, advocacy and profile, and distribution.
2002 – date Spirit of the Horse, is a large scale show, created by the Gandeys and Fossetts circus families, mainly touring showgrounds and racecourses (which have an interested audience and seem to be less targeted by activists against performing animals), presenting a range of breeds and skills.
2003 Circus Arts Forum publishes “Circus in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century” a searching new look at issues and key strategic needs of circus.
National Circus Development Project – pilot programme initiated by ACE in response to the ACE Strategy and Report on Circus Arts supporting The Wrong Size, Danny Schlesinger, Matilda Leyser, The Flying Dudes, Zippos Circus, Swamp Circus, FLYby
2004 – date La Clique is a risque German variety show directed by Markus Pabst for the famous Spiegeltent which has been a sell-out success at the Brighton and Edinburgh Festivals, featuring top acts in the intimate wood and mirrored setting of the Spiegeltent. The arrival of La Clique coincided with the coming of age of a new Burlesque scene in the UK.
2004 Bassline Circus started – a new skool company in a bit top.
2005 The Licensing Act 2003 came into effect with licences required for touring circuses, which had not previously needed these outside London, though they had needed to comply with Health and Safety inspection requirements. Several circus proprietors have concerns that the cost and bureaucracy involved will reduce the number of circuses touring.
2005 Pericles directed by Kathryn Hunter at Shakespeare’s Globe
Matilda Leyser, Mimbre, Heir of Insanity, No Ordinary AngelsFoolhardy Folk; Expressive Feat Productions; Kent Circus School;
· Mimbre, Albert and Friends, and Company F.Z. will each receive £20,000 for the financial year 2006/2007
· Mimbre, Albert and Friends, Company F.Z, and Nutkhut will each receive £25,000 for the financial year 2007/2008
Engineers of the Imagination
The Welfare State Handbook
edited by Tony Coult and Baz Kershaw
While the Circus Friends’ Association magazine King Pole and the weekly Worlds Fair have been published throughout this time they have not been a major source of information for those involved in contemporary circus.
1984 – date: Kaskade – the European Juggling Magazine was founded by Gabi and Paul Keast in Germany but published in German and English, with originally a French version too and was a primary source of information before the internet developed.
1990 – date Those looking for information about juggling benefited from the start of the newsgroup rec.juggling. In 1994 the internet Juggling Information Service started (www.juggling.org), followed in 2001 by the International Juggling Database www.jugglingdb.com). More recently newsgroups for the National Association of Youth Circus and for Trapeze were set up.
1992-?? The Catch Magazine, an English magazine for juggling, street theatre and new circus, which had a broader remit and was less earnest (more English tabloid) than the European juggling magazine Kaskade.
None of these compare to the glossy, erudite French publication ‘Arts de la Piste’. The best magazine in the English speaking world is ‘Spectacle, published by Ernest Albrecht, author of the excellent book “The New American Circus”.
Basic circus equipment such as juggling clubs, stilts and unicycles had been very difficult to obtain in the UK. The original cast of Barnum featured acrobat Terry Williams who was involved in training the cast too and set up Clown Alley in the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, selling equipment and holding circus workshops around 1984. Also around this time Nicky B started selling juggling equipment in the South West initially under his own name and then Butterfingers, a company which still trades today, as does the Oddballs Juggling Shop, set up originally in Max and Susie Oddball’s home, before relocating to a shop just off Upper Street, in Islington, London. Several other companies have come and gone. The major British manufacturer of circus equipment is Beard Juggling based in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, which was set up in the early 1990s.
In 1993 More Balls Than Most juggling retailers set up and rode the crest of the juggling wave in the mid 90s with their boxed sets of juggling balls on sale everywhere from mail order catalogues to Harrods.
Several people make small batches of trapezes and similar equipment to order but Unicycle in France is the major manufacturer.