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I am terrified of clowns (possibly something to do with Tim Curry’s portrayal of IT in the Stephen King chiller), but I find the idea of the circus quite romantic. However, the days of running away from your life to star in the Big Top are long gone as, today, ‘circademics’ are offering up quite the career path. ‘We are seeing our graduates working in the industry and creating their own work,’ smiles Kate White, CEO of the National Centre for Circus Arts (NCCA). ‘There is a huge cabaret circuit here and in Europe. This year the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had a circus hub for the first time. We are seeing more and more work being made here and that’s reaching good audiences.’
The NCCA is one of Europe’s leading providers of circus education and their diverse range of work includes a BA (Hons) degree in Circus Arts, a structured progressive training programme for under 18s, and professional development opportunities for aspiring and established performers.
Then there is the stunning building adjacent to Hoxton Square, London. ‘We are blessed with it,’ Ms White agrees. ‘It was originally a power station, built by the local parish. Where we are now,’ we look around us, ‘this was a combustion chamber.’ The space is huge, with a whole mishmash of ropes, wires and circus apparatus dotted about. One of the NCCA tutors is spending some spare time grappling with some jump rope. Moving on around the building, there’s something going on wherever we poke our head into – and I am visiting during half-term, so can only imagine the buzz of the place when it is in full flow.
‘It’s incredibly exciting,’ Tim Roberts, Head of the BA (Hons) degree programme, joins us to talk about everyday life here. ‘There is always something going on in all the spaces [which amounts to two main halls and six smaller studios] and that can be quite hypnotic.’
It all looks like incredible fun, but that’s a comment that elicits a shake of the head from Ms White. ‘The students here are in school for 36 weeks a year, 12 week terms and in school every day. They are in at 8.45am and in class until 4pm, then in practical time until around 6pm. They are without a doubt the hardest working group of young people I have ever met. They have a focus and a passion for something. They have found something that is hugely significant to their lives.’
There must be something in the water around here as, walking west for 10 minutes, and I find more passion on a different level. At the time of writing, the London Boys Ballet School in Angel had just enrolled its 100th pupil within a year of opening, something founder James Anthony Cunliffe is incredibly proud of. ‘The kids who come to the school love it,’ he beams about his students who range from four to 18. ‘The image of ballet has changed a lot. It’s never had a macho image, but ballet is very difficult to perfect – dancers have to work on their strength. Trying to get that message across is difficult, but our boys all come in wearing their beanies and hoodies that are all branded. “Be part of something different” is one of my mottos.’
Growing up in Wales, the majority of Mr Cunliffe’s family were by and large involved in dance, but his passion for it was stemmed as ‘kids knew my mum had a dance school and I used to get a little bit of stick – so if I had danced too that would have been worse’. In his late 20s he decided to follow his dreams and train to qualify as a professional dancer, ‘something that I wanted so badly’, achieving his goal within two years. Taking over the running of his mother’s school, Mr Cunliffe eventually moved to London to open his boys ballet school here. ‘They learn about dance itself,’ he says on their experiences. ‘What I am passionate about is they get the whole experience. They have to be comfortable in as many genres as possible – it’s not just about ballet. We do regular theatre trips and, next year, for many of them they will have their first experience of performing in a live theatre venue, which is all part of the learning process. The students leaving us will be equipped for all sorts of careers, not necessarily just dance. They will leave confident and articulate.’
Currently running classes every Saturday and weekday evenings, Mr Cunliffe has big plans for the future and teaching expansion across the week seems inevitable. Back at the NCCA and I witness a younger group sitting remarkably quietly, listening to a tutor talk about their impending ‘experience day’, an offering for all ages to come in and just have a go at some circus arts. It makes me wonder if there’s ever a chance that circus arts could be incorporated into the wider curriculum. ‘It would be a good thing if it did,’ nods Ms White. ‘We find a lot of people who don’t learn well in traditional ways get a lot from circus arts. We have seen students who have come here [in their spare time] whose schoolwork has then improved, as has their behaviour. I am a massive believer that it’s not about STEM but STEAM – the arts are hugely important. One thing about circus that sets it aside from other art forms is that perhaps it doesn’t have a one size fits all approach. There are so many different parts to it: there will be parts where you need strong people, and there will be others where you need those with a real focus and balance when walking on a wire.’
‘One of the biggest things with circus arts that young people understand is we never tell them about people that have a natural ability to do it,’ chips in Mr Roberts. ‘They realise that if they spend time on it and work hard, then they can do it.’
Putting aside that nagging fear of clowns, I can only agree with Ms White’s summary: ‘Circus can definitely find a place within the curriculum.’
WORDS Mark Kebble
National Centre for Circus Arts, Coronet Street N1 6HD; 020 7613 4141; nationalcircus.org.uk
London Boys Ballet School, Urdang 2, 259-263 Goswell Road EC1V 7AH; 020 7183 3728; boysballetlondon.com
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