Circus and Celebrity

After reading ‘Who Was Philip Asteley?‘ by Nell Stroud (co-founder of Giffords Circus) I got thinking about the lack of modern day circus celebrities.

Why are there no circus celebrities?

I think it’s important to define what I mean by ‘circus celebrity’. I mean an individual widely known throughout society who becomes and stays famous because of their circus work.

Astley's Amphitheatre in London circa 1808.
Astley's Amphitheatre in London. Image via Wikipedia

In the past when circus was one of, if not the primary form of entertainment there were many minor circus celebrities and a few superstars such as Philip Astley and Jules Léotard.

Older members of the public might know the name of some past famous clowns but it’s unlikely they will know the names of any trapeze artists or acrobats. But artists from other circus disciplines have made it to the top of the bill and become household names in the past. It may surprise some of you to know that there have been few juggling celebrities equivalent to the David Beckhams of the world today. Both Enrico Rastelli and Paul Cinquevalli enjoyed fame and fortune, with sell out shows and even product endorsements.

As circus lost it’s status as the number one entertainment destination house hold circus names went in decline. Cinema and then TV created starts of their own that were better suited to their medium. The best way to become famous in the past was to appear on TV or in a film, if the guys in charge wen’t interested in you then your were out of luck.

But now we have the internet.

We all have access to our own publishing company and film studio. Society is diversifying. Individuals are forming their own tribes of like-minded people, no longer held back by geographic constraints.  Within these communities artists and experts appear and become ‘micro-celebrities’. These tribes are linked by individuals who belong to more than one tribe and share an aspect of one tribe to another. Often these connecting individuals will share their favorite artist or expert, turning a micro-celebrity into a ‘hyperlink star’.

I think it’s a matter of time till a circus performer/entrepreneur becomes famous, someone will be at the right place, at the right time, have the right attitude, image and work. And it could be good for all of us. Someone able to interest society at large in circus would mean more ticket sales and more competition, resulting in a better standard of work.

It’s what Philip Astley, P.T. Barnum and Guy Laliberté did. Only when they did it they could rely on interruption marketing. Shouting on a street corner and hoping people would stop. But now everyone is shouting. So you have to create your own tribe and rely on connectors sharing  your art on Facebook, Twitter and the rest. Build your fan base and let your fans build you. But people will only share your work if it is remarkable.

So make remarkable work that others can share, become famous and then share your success. Simple.

(Sorry if you were looking for an article about celebrity circus, fortunately you’ve missed reading about that for at least another click!)

Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette: Simon Drake vs. Derren Brown.Russian Roulette

Both of the above performers produced versions of the Russian Roulette game/trick for British television. Drake’s was a 70 second routine for a closing act of an episode during the second series of The Secret Cabaret in 1992. Brown’s was built up with the actual stunt performed live as the closing 10 minute segment of an hour long special.

I find both of these performances to be masterly and beautiful pieces of theatre. These are magic acts made specifically for TV, and choreographed and directed perfectly for that medium. And I find that the massively differing decisions taken in each case in terms of that staging allow a (possibly) useful study. Well, they might. Let’s find out!

Simon Drake – The Secret Cabaret (1992)

Derren Brown – Plays Russian Roulette Live (2003)
(15 minute edit, with the complete live segment)

Despite the long length of Brown’s final presentation, both versions are staged in a minimal manner: so what differences come over when we compare the minute long piece to the hour long presentation?

Let’s start with “believability”. Which of the pieces is more real? Drake’s is certainly more of a “theatre” piece, allowing us the distance to simply watch and draw our own conclusions. Do we really believe he is in any real danger? Perhaps not, but I don’t find that this diminishes from the effect in any way (the same way as I know that Juliet doesn’t really die, yet I can still feel the emotional content of the play as if she did). Brown’s version on the other hand is set up to make it more “real”. He goes out of his way to convince us of how real it is. To convince us at every opportunity of the tricks fairness and danger.

It is far easier to dismiss Drake’s as “just a trick”, but is that an issue? Can we enjoy it more because we are given less information? Does Brown’s insistence on the fairness and truth of the situation actually give us more inclination to search for a method?

Both the performers act (and react) as if it were a genuine stunt, with a genuine risk of death (check their pre- and post-gunshot reactions!). But we accept the danger in Drake’s staging without having to have it explained to us. The music, sound effects, imagery etc communicate the danger. Brown tells us (literally) exactly what the dangers and risks are.

Brown’s presentation also led to a gentle backlash when it became clear that all wasn’t exactly as it seemed. A police statement claimed that despite the script, “there was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk.” Was Brown’s insistence on “fairness” and “real danger” too much?

How much information do we need to give the viewer? And perhaps more to the point in terms of circus, how much of that information is already there? There in the technique, or in the cultural history, or in the audience’s own experiences?

When the “story” of the act is as clear as in Russian Roulette, how much extra information do we need to put on to make the act even stronger? I can imagine that Brown’s version lives on stronger in the collective cultural memory: but this is also related to general popularity and famousness, of course. Is it stronger as a piece of theatre than Drake’s 70 second telling?

I find both these pieces to be incredibly strong works of art – and the massive divide between them in terms of running time simply shows the two extremes of staging. The actual trick, the act of Russian Roulette, loading a single bullet into a revolver chamber and guessing (with death being the result of failure) where the bullet lies, is a stark and reduced piece of magic. Simon Drake chose to highlight the feat by cutting it to the bare minimum, whilst Derren Brown took the opposite route – making each step as open and clear as possible.

When the effect (the trick, the act) is clear and strong, then the staging needs to be at least as lucid and direct. How we create that clarity is down to our own artistic needs and choices. And in these two extreme examples we see that staggeringly different presentations can create a similar emotional impact. What they share is clarity, directness, and simplicity in their final execution.

Story telling

Occasionally I hear circus artists/directors/random people who feel their opinion is important talk about ‘how to make circus more than just an act’, about how we can use circus to ‘tell stories’. As Mr. Wilson has so eliquentley commented on this before I’m inclined not to comment as I would be just wasting keystrokes.

However if you must layer on a storyline do it well. This video could help you do that:

Dr. Seuss ‘If I ran the circus’

I love circus books. I love Dr. Seuss. So when I was given ‘If I ran the circus‘ by Dr. Seuss I was excited!

Unlike a lot of books aimed to be read by children Dr. Seuss books are fun to read! The plots aren’t mind numbingly predictable and the vocabulary is nicely varied. But the thing that always made them stand out to me was the superb illustration. The amazing colours, characters and even the lettering made Dr. Seuss books a joy to read.

‘If I ran the circus’ is no different, as you might imagine it’s a brilliantly surreal take on traditional circus (I’d guess mostly heavily influenced by Barnum & Baileys). Elephants on stilts, a walrus who can stand on one whisker, a juggling dot “Who can juggle some stuff, You might think he could not” and many more amazing attractions feature in ‘Circus McGurkus’ which the book centres around.

It’s a fun book, perfect for any youngsters learning to read or possibly any circus performers looking for some inspiration! 

Circus on TV

Being half french means half my family live in France. I was recently chatting with my grandparents over the phone and they were telling me they had watched 3 Circus programs on TV that day; one was the “International Festival du Cirque de Monte-Carlo” (an annual Circus festival  and competition held in Monaco), the second was “Sous les etoiles du cirque de pekin” (A Live Stage/TV Circus show based on Chinese Hero Mulan from what I can make out.. ) and the third was “Le gala de l’union” which I think maybe the French version of the English Royal Variety Performance in a Circus big top with circus acts… And, of course, the next day they indulged in more quality circus with “Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde” – A top quality televised Cabaret regularly aired in France which our very own CircusGeek Founder Arron Sparks has starred in.

I enjoy watching Circus as much as I enjoy performing it so when they told me about what they’d watched I was a bit jealous to say the least… It got me thinking and asking the question – why is there hardly any Circus coverage on UK television? Is it just the UK that doesn’t have much coverage or are other countries the same?

It’s probably worth noting that the reason there was so much circus on TV in France when I spoke with my grandparents was because of the festive season, with the exception of Le Plus Grande Cabaret Du Monde I don’t think they broadcast circus on a regular basis. However it is still a lot more than we get in the UK. Although it is possible to see some quality Circus Acts on the box these days here in the UK, it seems they are always linked with a reality TV show or game show where the actual Circus Act is not really the main focus.

I suppose it’s down to a number of reasons, obviously and primarily it’s down to the broadcasters wanting to get the maximum viewing figures and Circus isn’t number one on their list for boosting their audience, which is understandable considering our general publics view on Circus. I guess the second main reason is the quality and type of circus happening in the UK right now, for instance if there was an International circus competition hosted in the UK such as Cirque de Demain which would bring the best of the best in Circus to the UK I’m pretty confident that would get some coverage, even if it was at 3am, at least it’s a start. The quality of  traditional circus in this country has deteriorated which doesn’t help the case. And “New” circus which is being created is more aimed at Theatres and is reaching in other directions, so it leaves the TV producers with nothing to work with really.

There is a lot of talk about developing Circus audiences and generally developing Circus in the UK and unfortunately it seems the best way to reach an audience is through TV. To me it feels like the people really pushing the Uk Circus scene are more concerned with creating thought-provoking / narrative lead work which is great for a seasoned theatre audience and I have no problem with – as it is developing a new type of Circus, BUT  it is completely unreachable for the general public who at the end of the day already have their pre-conceptions of Circus and will never go to a Theatre to see the latest developments in UK Circus. There’s nothing to bridge the gap and get the general public to, firstly, appreciate Circus as Circus, which gets their attention and then, secondly, introduce them to where else Circus can go.

In conclusion it seems the French seem to have a pretty good balance of Traditional and Contemporary Circus and their audiences appreciate that. TV can help, I’m sure, we just need to find the way…


Circus Sideshow “Geek”

GEEK: \’gēk\, noun
From the low German geck, meaning “fool” (1914).
1: A carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off of a live chicken or snake.
2: A person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked.
3: An enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity (computer geek).
— geek•dome, noun
— geek•i•ness, noun
— geeky, adjective
— geek, verb

Merriam Webster On-Line

I am actually considered a geek because I eat, or geek, fire. Any time we eat random items nowadays (lightbulbs, bugs, etc.) it is considered geeking. Though originally this term was reserved for biting (geeking) the heads off of chickens with great show, usually dressed is white.

I Want To Learn Circus – Part 2: Circus in the UK

Many people these days want to learn circus, whether it’s just for fun or fitness, or professionally because they want to be a performer.

Regardless of why you want to learn circus, the circus arts are a fantastic set of skills to have and to learn. Training in circus skills is great for strength, flexibility, stamina, dexterity and coordination, and is also incredibly social. Circus skills are used to develop physical, mental and social skills in young children are used around the world as a tool for social change with disadvantaged youth.

Depending on your age, experience and your intention (do you want to be a professional performer or do you just want to do it for fun/fitness?) there are many skills you can learn and lots of places you can learn them.

Through this short series of posts I’ll direct you to a variety of places where you can learn them. Rather than trying to list every place or circus company in the world that offers circus skills training (which I’m pretty sure would be close to impossible) I’m going to try to point you in the right direction. If you can’t find anything on your doorstep, get in touch with something in your region and they can probably tell you about more local groups.

Following on from Learning Circus – Part 1: London, I thought you’d probably be interested in some places to train circus skills outside London, around the UK. So if you’re not in London and want to learn circus skills either professionally or for fun and fitness read on… Continue reading “I Want To Learn Circus – Part 2: Circus in the UK”

Video of the Week – Taschen Book

After my rant from this post I thought I’d post something a little more helpful on the subject of circus history.  Released by world famous publishers Taschen, ‘The Circus 1870-1950’ book should be on the (reinforced!) shelves of anyone remotely interested in circus history.

Read more about the book here and buy it for cheap on Amazon.

Or if you like supporting local shops do that, go out of the house into daylight (more likely rain) and have a lovley conversation with an actual human (although my experience of local book shops is a little more like this).

*Note in the video above the clips of Lottie and Francis Brunn, cool eh?!

Know Your History!

Why is it that few modern circus artists seem to know or care about the history of circus?

The job of an artist is to be creative, rather than recreative. Knowing the history of your discipline is important; You don’t want to merely repeat what others have done before you.

It’s a good idea to know the history of the genre you’re involved in and possibly the history of other related disciplines. In a world where we know ‘knowledge is power’, why would anyone not want to know as much as they can about their passion or career?

With this in mind, why can I still have a conversation with a professional who knows nothing about the history of what they are doing!?

I’m not saying everyone needs to be an expert or want to be on Time Team, but please take the time out to educate yourself, just a little.

Creative Technique

Tap Portugal flight 511, en route from Stockholm, Sweden, to Lisbon, Portugal. I am travelling to my sisters home in the north of Portugal, with the intention of catching my last sun of the year before heading back to Germany and shows through ’til January.

The last four weeks have been spent teaching full time. A week at the circus school in Rotterdam, a week in Tilburg, and then the last two weeks in Stockholm. I wrote the first draft of this essay back at the start of that tour, and now I have tried to clarify some things that became more clear to me over the following weeks. Much is still unclear, and although I can now state a solid intention, it may not be clear if it is a good one, or indeed a possible one!

It all started when I was sitting in the teachers room at the circus department of Codarts, the University for the Arts in Rotterdam.

Alongside me at the large table, eating their sandwiches and drinking tea, were four teachers from Russia, one from China, and one from Bulgaria.

Three of the four Russians came purely from traditional circus, the Bulgarian from Sport Acrobatics. I am not sure of the Chinese gentleman, but I believe him to be traditionally based (he was teaching Chinese pole and hoop diving, so I feel quite safe to make that blatant assumption). Classical circus backgrounds. In contrast, the theatre teacher was German, the dance teacher American. I was the only circus discipline teacher there with a non-classical background.

This situation highlights one of the longest running discussions of modern circus education. Technique vs. creation. Skill vs. art. Old vs. new. Who teaches what? Is it better to have strict old-school technique teachers (circus artists, gymnasts), and have the “art” come from external sources (theatre class, dance class), or should the combination be more fluid and involve more overlap? It’s an old issue, but being there reminded me that it is still not completely solved in a practical way.

Jugglers have historically had more of a combined technique/creation education than other disciplines. I don’t think it’s pure (or at least, not only) juggler arrogance on my part if I say that jugglers have tended to be slightly ahead on the “modern circus” curve. Partly because we can take more risks without actually dying, and perhaps partly, in an ironic twist, because of this lack of full-time juggling teachers compared to acrobatics or aerial coaches.

There is a continually refreshed pool of retired circus acrobats, of professional gymnastic coaches. Potential circus teachers. Jugglers have a longer performing shelf life: we can keep going ’till we drop, literally, dead on stage of natural causes, which means less full-time juggling teachers in the world.

Having a changing pool of guest teachers at a school, rather than or in addition to one full-time teacher, has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages I will ignore for now, perhaps for a later post. One of the advantages of the situation is receiving many different approaches and beliefs towards juggling, and thus being forced to search for ones own opinions and artistic feelings.

So, these guest juggling teachers tend to be active performing jugglers, and thus have a current understanding of that world, and most of them are of a generation where they are concerned with “new juggling”: with creation and choreography within the technique.

When I have but a scant week to spend with some students, I don’t wish to use all our precious class time doing pure technique classes. If I am only there for a brief time I see more value in sharing what I care about within juggling and beyond pure technique, to talk about the stuff that excites and inspires me, and to hope to give some of that energy to my students. If it seems necessary to spend some hours standing around talking about body position and making fine corrections to arm movements, then fine. But that is not my normal priority. I have to assume that they get that from other sources (that assumption is, of course, one of the disadvantages of the situation!).

Yes, it is absolutely vital to learn good technique. To learn it in a safe and clear manner, from first principles and onwards. But can we teach it in a creative manner from those first principles? If we learn the proper technique to climb a rope, then obviously we should learn leading with the other foot, with the other hand. But maybe rather than doing that because it is “good technique”, we could do it because it is an exploration of all the possibilities offered by that technique. So that already in those first steps we are dissecting tricks not only for technical reasons, but for creative ones. You’ve learnt your rope climb? OK, show me the variations, and tell me what they change internally as well as externally. Show me a rope climb I’ve never seen before, and build me a sequence that highlights each element within it. Good technique doesn’t need to be at the cost of creativity, or of exploration and play. And that play could be introduced at the same time as the technique, rather than as a separate factor, in a separate class, with a separate teacher.

I experienced an example of this technique/creation separation recently when I found myself in the slightly surreal situation of working for 45 minutes on someone’s finished act: a graduation piece after a four year circus education, which was already six months old and oft-performed. Despite it’s “finished” status I was expected to bring something new to it, and was being watched by two performance teachers. The act was a solo using the Chinese pole, and before the session I was asked “Have you worked with someone on Chinese pole before?”. My answer was “no.” If I had been more brutal and honest, then after the session I should have added “and I still haven’t.”

There was a major disconnect between the technique and the theatrical setting. It was to me a clear example of the wrong way to make modern circus. It was “I do this technique set, what theatrical story can I drop on top of that to make it more interesting?” Rather than making some kind of statement using circus technique, here was someone using the circus technique purely as punctuation. It was something in parentheses, something which was referred to rather than being the main event.

I believe this to be the direct result of separating technique from creation. Of learning the words, rather than coining new ones for the required intention. Of theatre teachers dropping circus into theatrical situations, rather than delving into the situation that is the circus discipline itself. And if the students say “yes”, if that is their final statement after a long and intense education? I find that to be a shame.

I don’t believe that there are no more tricks to find on the Chinese pole. Or on the Corde Lisse or the cradle or any other apparatus. Why don’t we see as much new technique from those disciplines as we do from the jugglers? Yes, the risk is a factor, but so is the psychology of the teachers and the students, and that is something we can take responsibility for. If there really are no more tricks to find, then let’s give up all those other disciplines and all be jugglers together!

But in the mean time, and after so many years of talking about how to create creative circus performers, let’s start by being creative circus teachers: teachers who can kick their students to learn pure technique, but who can also communicate the need for new technique. For technique that tells it’s own story, that is specific and personal and high level. Technique that contains it’s own theatricality, in addition to risk and spectacle and difficulty.

Theatre should deepen and clarify reality: so let’s start with our reality, circus techniques, and see if we can tell some new stories using that language.

Learning Circus – Part 1: London

Many people these days want to learn circus, whether it’s just for fun or fitness, or professionally because they want to be a performer.

Regardless of why you want to learn circus, the circus arts are a fantastic set of skills to have and to learn. Training in circus skills is great for strength, flexibility, stamina, dexterity and coordination, and is also incredibly social. Circus skills are used to develop physical, mental and social skills in young children are used around the world as a tool for social change with disadvantaged youth.

Depending on your age, experience and your intention (do you want to be a professional performer or do you just want to do it for fun/fitness?) there are many skills you can learn and lots of places you can learn them.

Through a short series of posts I’ll direct you to a variety of places where you can learn them. Rather than trying to list every place or circus company in the world that offers circus skills training (which I’m pretty sure would be close to impossible) I’m going to try to point you in the right direction.

Being a Londoner, I thought I’d start with circus training in London. So if you’re in London and want to learn circus skills either professionally or for fun and fitness read on…

Continue reading “Learning Circus – Part 1: London”

Why Circus?

I was required to write this short piece some weeks ago for a residency application. Originally, I was planning to take some time and really try to be as honest and clear as possible. But, as these things so often transpire, I ended up writing it in pretty much one draft just before the deadline…

So, I reckon it’s a slightly odd mix of honesty and keyword hitting, but re-reading it now, I am quite happy to share it here, and I stand behind it. And it got me to the interview, so it’s original purpose was fulfilled…


Why circus?

Circus imagery is some of the strongest cultural imagery that we have. The clown, the candyfloss, the laughing child, the strong man and the beautiful ballerina, the horses and the lions. To say it is timeless would be a crass naivety, but the shared emotions that circus is still tied to are still alive, and are felt by peoples of almost all ages and cultures.

But beyond the imagery, circus should not remain a “timeless” art. Its core concepts – including physicality, strength and risk – stay ever fresh, but over time the reasons for its necessity change. We have a responsibility to keep our art form relevant and fresh. Circus is a “time art”: one that happens anew each time in real time, as opposed to the snapshots offered by painting or engraving or sketching, or the set in stone offerings of ballet or cinema, and as such it has the opportunity to develop and evolve over time, and at a quicker pace (how short our history is compared to that of music, or dance, or even cinema!).

Circus’ roots are in spectacle, fantasy and exoticism. In showing that which it was not possible to see anywhere else. Now that we can see almost anything we want, at almost any time we want to, we must look deeper into the purpose of the circus arts. Circus arts, the techniques that belong to the circus, speak their own language and carry their own emotional baggage and weight. To me, the biggest step that circus has taken in it’s recent development is that of opening it’s doors to people from outside it’s traditional families and dynasties. It is obvious to say that many circus practitioners today chose of their own free will to study the skills of the circus, rather than being born into it, and one hopes that that means that not only do they have the physical abilities to say something, but also that they have something they wish to say.

Circus as it is performed today really shouldn’t need (30 years after the birth of nouveau cirque) to justify itself as “circus with theatre”, or “circus with dance”, or “circus with value added art”. Circus should be proud enough to accept that it is an art, and then to look once more within itself to find what it wishes to communicate. I believe that not only different practitioners, but the different disciplines themselves, have personal and important things to say. Things that can be said better with circus than with any other medium.

Otherwise, what would be the point of practicing circus?

To answer the question “why circus” is to me exactly this process. Why did I become infected by juggling at the age of 14? Why did magic capture me three years before that? And why did those obsessions develop into the love for circus that I have now? What is it about juggling that speaks to me, and how can I be more honest to my artform in my interpretation and performance of it?

And what about all those other disciplines? Why do I “know” (or even have an opinion) about what a “good” handstand act is? Or trapeze or teeter-board or or or? The more the technique can speak to us, the closer we can get to the real meaning and purpose of circus.

This excites me.


Kiev – Part 3

Part 1| Part 2

Victolds Students

The handbalancers trained only on floor (their theory; if you can do it on the floor then you can do it on canes.) The floor was wooden and uneven which meant that people would use things to even it out, using a plank of wood or anything that was flat.

The teacher was Victold a 74 year old man, he was very delicate and polite. On my first day he told me ‘do whatever you want so I can see what you can do and I will help tomorrow’ well, an hour later he came over and said ‘shoulder weak – push more, gufus/figure bad and 1 arm lower to croc bad, everything else, good’…that was it. I guess it was a compliment that he wanted to help me straight away, or I was that bad he had to start straight away!

He then held my hand to do a straight one arm, if you were off balance or out of shape he didn’t say or do anything, if your shoulder dropped he would say ‘push push’, which seemed to be his main concern. Gufus/figure; again he held my hand in straight 1 arm and made me get into it from there and then held my feet. I found that very odd and off putting, I couldn’t really balance but it’s just another technique and it’s good to try them all. He made me do it on both sides (I hate my left side it’s alien to me) Lower to croc he completely changed my technique and I found it so hard, I found it really odd though because all the people that could do it used a different technique to the teachers, and all the ones that couldn’t would do it the teachers way. I now do it the same as the students, without purposely changing anything.  He then also made me do gufus/figure holding a pole that had 2 wires running off to the floor which you would rest your feet on, perfect for positioning. For the proceeding 3 days he made me do each of those exercises with him 3 times. Every day he would say this was nice, that was better and then, lift your legs more. He would always start positive then say something I should work on and then leave. It was really nice instead of everything being negative, it would also be something simple, like lift legs, squeeze bum or push in the shoulder. But all he really ever seemed to say was; push more and stronger legs.

He was one of those people that you always wanted to impress especially because he was so nice.

Victold would teach all his students certain exercises, his basics…

1st – handstand, look through at your chest and then pike down to 90 degree, back up to handstand and head back through. This was for stretching and opening the shoulders and working on your line.

2nd – Cartwheel in to a handstand, no wobble, no sticking the chest out. Just cartwheel and stick the exact right shape straight away then cartwheel out, do both sides. Again this was just for shape.

3rd – Handstand pirouettes, this is for keeping shape and pushing in the shoulders. You would do quarter turns.

4th – From a handstand, tuck down and as you push up to straight hop of the floor as high as you can and land in a straight handstand without your shoulders sinking and your back letting go so you are solid like a piece of wood. Some people could make this look quite surreal.

5th – In a straddle handstand rock to 1 arm and take your hand off straight away and touch the knee and back down and then the other side. So you don’t take your time and make sure everything is ok, you just have to do it straight away to learn to be in the right shape. Straight away. Every time. I found this really good because it would also make you really strong if you went too far and had to pull it back.

About the individual Handbalancers

In our little training area of handbalancers there was 5 of us; me, Rimma (female), Andrei, Denis and Romeo (all male.)

Rimma had just started handstands properly at the school, I spoke to her the most because she had the best English and wanted to get better at it. She was 17 and an ex rhythmic gymnast, though it was a long time ago so she didn’t have as good flexibility. She was a great person and made my stay so much better. So, for the whole 8 weeks I was there all she did was: with little wooden blocks on the floor, handstand on the block, transfer to 1 arm and push the block away and place that hand on the floor, then transfer to the other hand and again place on the floor and then back up onto the blocks. At the beginning she could do 1-2, at the end of my stay she could do 10, no one else could. That is nearly all she did all day every day (except condition lower to croc and planche and then do a few sides, but I would say 80% of her time was spent just going up and down on those blocks.) Absolute dedication and persistence. Just before I left we said try and hold a 1 arm and she held for 5 seconds comfortably. An extreme way but it works.

Andreiwas 19, quite big but very flexible, flat in box splits in a handstand and toes on hands in Mexican. Andrei was the best technical student in handstands, but he was in fourth/final year. He would train the same sequences day in day out – that’s if he came in, Andrei was one of the few that didn’t always come in. His tricks were straight 1 arm on right into pike gufus/figure, push through to legs together in a 1 arm side on left then lower down to croc 1 arm on right, slowly- and I mean more controlled than you have ever seen.

Andrei katkov handstand
Andrei Katkov

He would also train katkov (as seen above, named after Andrei Katkov)that would be his main sequence, he was the most solid there, but he also would kick and punch the p-bars if he messed up (which made the rest of us get angry – especially me, I didn’t need help getting stressed with handstands).

Mana Handstand position

I would train mana (as seen above) with him and we would train 7 sets of 10 seconds , sometimes holding flat, holding past and pulsing from low to past. Due to his flexibility he had some really nice acrobatics, free walkover, free tinsika and a capoeria move, the rest of his tricks looked odd and heavy.

Weirdly enough he was quite un-coordinated, he was amazing at what he could do but not at other things. I remember we were all messing around trying to do pirouette while holding your leg in split at your face and he would literally fall over every time, like his leg was too heavy for him to kick up or he would kick it up and take his own leg from underneath him, the same with illusion turns. It was a very funny day. One big problem with Andrei was his wrist, it was always badly injured, and one morning when he was complaining about it, I just grabbed his arm and started to massage his forearm, something simple. A lot of people know about doing this (but they don’t have a physio, so could be hard to know anything) anyway he couldn’t take any pain; he was terrible, screaming like a girl but after 5 minutes he went into a handstand and couldn’t believe how much better it was. Bad idea for me, then everyday someone wanted me to massage them and fix them. I think Andrei will be amazing and I hope that his wrist won’t affect him. At the end of each day Andrei would finish conditioning 1 arm lower to croc holding the radiator and going down as slowly as possible, he would also then do a sit up combination lasting about 3 mins which a lot of people knew and did, seemed a little pointless to me though. I think we will be seeing him next year or the year after, he’s going to be good.

Denis, the most dedicated there, he was 18 and had done circus and gymnastics from a young age. People would joke and say that he was ‘stupid like a bench’ because he wasn’t great at English and would say and do funny things. He was a good friend of mine and we trained hard together (he is one I miss a lot).  In the morning he would stretch like the rest and then do back arch raises. He would ask me to stretch his feet and his knees (he would say it in English and I would say it in Russian, neither very well) then Denis would make his make-shift equipment (see picture above). He would train straight 1 arm, gufus/figure, leg’s together and 1 arm lower to croc. His thing was 1 arm hops, transferring arms and hoping on the same arm sideways, though if he was on his right arm he would hop right, whereas I go left and most people I have seen do which was interesting. I asked why he went that way and not the other, he had no answer, that’s just what he did because no one taught him or told him different, the teacher would help or correct shoulder than say do it another way.

After training handstands he would start training his airflares. This was big in Ukraine (Artur’s influence) but wasn’t seen as a hard move. Then for conditioning he would do 3 sets of 5 handstand press ups on something higher so he would go all the way down. We did this together and at the beginning I couldn’t even do one but because no one was spotting anyone I had to man up and do it alone, I now can do at least 4…I struggle on the 5th. Some of the bases did this but no one could do it like Denis and no other handbalancer did or could. Then he would go and do 3 sets of 5 muscle ups on the rings. This was common for a lot of people and was again seen as easy. I really think Denis will make it big, with a little bit of help with choreography, he got laughed at by the students for how traditional he was…

Romeo, was very quiet so I don’t know much about him. He did handstands and straps. He was amazing at straps, he was so strong. He would press all the switches on both arms and just muscle everything with ease. He had only just started handstands when I got there so was only doing straight straddle and tuck with his fingers on the floor. By the end due to his strength he was holding them all for 5 seconds. He then started to practice sides and flags, he would train plaudits slot and was getting good at them because he was so naturally strong.

One day Artur came in and asked if we wanted to play handstands add on. Hells yes I do! (Artur is another one that if he says something I will just do it, no questions asked) so he did a move, then I did his move and then added mine onto the end. It was great because it wasn’t about getting anyone out, we had people playing who couldn’t 1 arm yet, it was all about pushing each other, trying things you don’t usually do in your own training and staying in a handstand for as long as possible. It would end up being over 3-4 mins easily.

A quick discussion on the differences in schools

So, we had the usual conversation comparing schools and I told them about my school and I explained to them that I was getting, at the most 5 hours of handstands a week, now they got 23 hours a week, they couldn’t believe that’s all I got, and they were shocked and a bit confused – they even complained they didn’t get enough hours. Then I told them that those 5 hours was just me and my teacher, no one else, just the teacher and me doing exactly what he told me to do, with him spotting, correcting and pushing me to get better. Now they couldn’t believe this, they thought it was amazing but couldn’t figure out what was better – they just never considered being able to have it that way, of having a one on one class.

Staying healthy on tour

Traveling to a different venue each day can be exciting, fun and refreshing. But it can also be gruelling, hard on the body and mind. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way…

Photo by Sura Nualpradid

Don’t be afraid to get away from the group. A common mistake to make when working/living in close proximity to your fellow artists is not taking time for yourself. Of course you want to be a team player but it’s important to have some alone time, space to think. Don’t be afraid to miss out on a nights socialising to keep your sanity!

Watch a film, read a book, surf the net – anything that gets you some personal time and not thinking about the show or tour.

Exercises. This can be a tough one, particularly if you’re doing get in/build up, performing and traveling all in the same day but it’s important to do if your used to training hard and will make you feel better. Get up 30 mins early and go for a run. In every show run I’m in I try and find a point in the show where I’m not needed and do some simple conditioning, that way I don’t need to ‘remember’ to do it, it’s as much of a habit as putting my costume on.

Eat healthy. I’ve always found this one tough but when on tour it’s even harder. Eating out can really start to lose it’s appeal when you have to do it all the time. Take any opportunity you have to cook something for yourself. Smoothies also help!

What are your tips for surviving a tour? Please leave your suggestions below!


True story.

Some years back I met with a friend, a clown and juggler, who was educated in the French new circus system of the 1980/90s. We talked of a mutual friend from the same background. I asked if this friend was still performing a specific act (in my opinion, one of the greatest and most important pieces of “modern” juggling (or even circus)). “Well”, came the reply, “he doesn’t really do it anymore. I mean, he did it a hundred times or so!”

Just a few days later I visited a magician friend, who was performing his manipulation act in the Apollo Varieté in Düsseldorf, Germany. I told him how much tighter his act was looking compared to when I had seen it last. “Well”, came the reply, “I have done it a hundred times now, so I start to understand it.”

Last night I performed my “new” club juggling act for the 97th time.

Player vs. Character Knowledge

Much as I would love to preface this blog with a declaration of my long love for Dungeons & Dragons, with a nostalgic description of the hours spent painting tiny figurines in my parent’s basement, of the creative and social skills I learnt through the fine crafting of stories and situations as Dungeon Master: I can’t.

I did have a short phase of building models from the Warhammer series, but frankly, I was busy practicing my Centre Deal at the time that I would have (should have?) been getting into role-playing.

Like many other geek-centric activites however, it fascinates me deeply and I try on occasion to peer into the rabbit-hole that is it’s home. Just recently I spent over an hour watching Youtube videos of a Dungeons & Dragons game being played. Yes, I did that. And it was fucking fantastic!

Penny Arcade “is a webcomic focused on video games and video game culture, written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik”. They “also created… PAX, an annual gaming convention”, where (amongst many other activities) they sometimes play (and film) celebrity D&D sessions.


An interesting aspect to me of D&D culture is the crossover between play and performance, and one specific thing that makes me very excited to think about is the concept of “player vs. character knowledge”. This concept basically establishes that the character you are playing does not share the same knowledge as you yourself in reality. This is a two-way street: although she probably knows far less than you do about eg motor vehicles and the internet, her understanding of eg magic and fighting probably eclipses your own.

This seems so basic and obvious as a fact when sitting around a table-top role-playing game, but surely the same applies to any moment we step onto a stage? Let’s assume for the moment that at any point that we find ourselves on stage we are assuming a “character”, accepting that that character may be EXTREMELY close to our normal “player” self (and perhaps indistinguishable in some cases).

The amount of knowledge shared between our two identities depends on the style and technique of our performance. It is something which is accepted (but maybe not always clearly stated) by the actor and the magician, but less so by circus artists. The usual way that this aspect is explored in the circus arts is by the juggler “discovering” that she can throw and catch the ball. By the aerialist “accidently” getting onto the trapeze whilst trying to change a lightbulb. I think (hope?) we can discount such examples for now.

If I am playing the part of an actual mindreader on stage, then obviously that character (let’s switch at this point to use the word “persona” instead, it has less connotations of fantastical oddness (and let’s use “performer” instead of “player” from here on in!)) has no knowledge of the magical technique that I am actually using to accomplish the apparent feats of ESP. The persona believes himself that he is reading minds, and I as performer must be able to use the magic technique so imperceptibly that perhaps I too can forget it is there. But what of presenting myself in the persona of “a juggler”?

How much of my performer (real life) knowledge is neccesary or desirable? Obvious things can be cast aside: the sad death of my hamster that morning, the shockingly high fee I am receiving, not knowing if the technician will hit my cues at the right moment. But more related to the performance itself: if I am about to juggle dangerous objects, then perhaps the persona should not know that he has done it 500 times before, or that the knife blades are dull and harmless. If one prepares for a drop on corde lisse, perhaps the persona should only be in that moment, not in anticipation of an (to them) unknown future?

Almost any act should appear to be fresh and new and never done before: is performer vs. persona knowledge a key part of that illusion? When discussing learning lines, we often talk about learning the text, and then “forgetting” it, so that when we speak it is as if spontaneous. Can we apply that to all our skills, at every moment?

Perhaps there is a finer distinction too? What about “audience vs. persona knowledge”? We can expect the persona to know more about the actual performance (the actual moment) than the audience does, and they should trust us with that. But perhaps the audience knows more about performance in general? If the persona is telling some story, then perhaps they don’t even know that they are on a stage, or in a theatre? If they are fourth wall up, then clearly the knowledge of the audience is at some odds with their own knowledge! But if the audience trusts the persona, then they too will play the game, and allow themselves to succomb as well to their role in the performance.

So it all comes down to that? Establishing that we all have roles to fulfil, that the performance is a game, and that each participant has a responsibility to play by the rules. Maybe if I’d spent more time playing Dungeons & Dragons it would all be much easier…

Poor Lighting

Being able to deal with less than idea conditions has been massively helpful to me over the years, particularly in the past few weeks on tour where there is little time to spend worry about lights after the get in and prop setting has been done.

Poor lighting affects almost all circus disciplines but none more so than juggling.

Here are a few training methods (some more useful than others) to help you train for poor lighting:

Practice in sunglasses
Practice directly under a bright light
Set up a bright lamp to shine in your eyes
Practice in low level lighting
Practice outdoors on a sunny day
Run your routine with someone switching on and off the lights
Practice with one eye shut (I’ve had to do a routine immediately after being accidentally poked in the eye!).
Practice with both eyes shut (are there tricks you can do blind, if so can you take advantage of this on stage?!)

Any suggestions? I’d love to hear how you train for poor lighting, leave a comment!

IJA Judging – A Manifesto

Notes from a discussion between Lana Bolin (IJA competitor (2001/2002) and judge (2004/2005), Françoise Rochais (IJA Individual gold medallist (1995) and performer and judge at international circus festivals), and Luke Wilson (IJA competitor (1999) and judge (2011) and performer at international circus festivals).

We believe the current judging system in use by the IJA (International Jugglers’ Association) for the purposes of deciding the Juniors, Teams and Individuals Championships to be over-complicated and flawed. We believe it to be overly focused on delivering fast and non-debatable results, at the expense of not allowing the opinions and experiences of the invited judges to contribute to the results.

We understand that it is the result of past issues with the judging systems used, but we fail to see its strengths and advantages over previous systems.

Until recently, the judging criteria was divided into two broad categories (technique and performance), weighted at sixty and forty percent respectively. The system now in use has split these categories further, into a total of seven wide aspects to be considered by each judge. Each category is ranked from 1 to 5 points, with a multiplication factor then taken into account. This has coincided with a move away from weighting the technique over the performance side, with the results now reflecting a percentage of 45/55, technique vs. performance.

Execution (x4)
Entertainment Level (x4)
Degree of Difficulty (x3)
Theatrical Framing (x3)
Creativity (x3)
Element of Risk (x2)
Stage Presence (x1)

A separate tally of Deductible Drops is also added in, with a deduction of 0.5 points per drop. This number may be any value up to and including the actual number of drops, at the judge’s individual discretion.

Although it may appear useful to define so many categories, we feel it detracts from a judge’s ability to rank the acts as she sees fit, and brings in a number of ambiguous factors.

Why separate Execution from Degree of Difficulty (how well you do the trick from what trick you do)? This can have the affect of rewarding poorly executed hard tricks, as a calculated risk against loosing some points in Execution.

How can one usefully define “Element of Risk”? As it stands now, five people standing on stage juggling three balls each should earn more points than two people doing the same three ball cascade. Or juggling three new and potentially slippery clubs earns more points than juggling worn-in ones. Juggling is, by definition, a series of risks. Any discussion of risk is simply a discussion of technique. At best this category is unnecessary, at worst, we find here again the possibility to reward poor technique (more points for a five club cascade if it looks like it is about to drop at any moment!).

We find these three categories to be unnecessary breakdowns of the “technique” aspects of a juggling act, just as we find the four remaining categories to be unnecessary breakdowns of the “performance” aspects.

In addition, we fail to understand the use of a drop count left to each judge’s discretion. Coming from the viewpoint of juggling performers, a drop is a very clear violation of the performer’s intentions, impacting both the technical and performance aspects of good technique. The impact or otherwise of drop events should be judged on the overall effect that it has on the performance.

The judges are invited due to their knowledge and experience of juggling as a performing art, and should not need such hand holding.

We understand that an argument for this system of judging is to avoid lengthy discussions and arguments between the judges, so as to speed up the decision process. Why is this necessary? Events this year (2011) in the calculation of the Teams scores show that errors can still occur.

Is there any strong reason to announce the championships results directly after the championships show? Most other serious circus competitions allow the judges ample time to discuss and come to their conclusions, and announce the winners in a separate ceremony AFTER the completion of the final competitions. Sometimes the winners are notified beforehand, sometimes not. But the artificial, and unnecessary, pressure to have speedy results is not there.

With no time pressure on the judges to reach their verdict, isn’t the chance higher of reaching more informed and accurate decisions? An exchange between judges allows individual expertise and experience to come to the fore, and so can avoid the possible issue of any one judge lacking specific technical or historical knowledge that should be taken into account when judging competitors against one another.

If it is felt that the sub-categorisation of technique and performance into these seven aspects is useful as a guide to judging, then it is necessary to define each element in a far more precise way than is now done, and to consider whether said categories are really the correct ones to be focussing on!

In conclusion, we fail to see the advantages of the current system, and propose a return to the older system of judging, based on two criteria. For clarity, we suggest the two categories “technique” and “artistic”. We believe “artistic” to be a better and more specific term than “performance”, as the latter could include both technical and artistic considerations. The relative split should be either 50/50, or slightly favouring the technical side, eg 55/45. Discussion between the judges should be endured and encouraged, with ample time allowed for them to reach a decision. The winners should be announced the day following the competition show, which not only allows a more complete discussion of the acts, but which can also give the competitions more importance and weight at the festival.

The IJA Stage Championships have nurtured, produced and showcased some of the best juggling acts in the world today. We feel that the judging system in its current form is in best case ill-defined, and in worst case detrimental to the art of juggling.

Lana Bolin
Françoise Rochais
Luke Wilson

July 2011

Pole Dance Dictionary

Anyone interested in the documenting of ‘circus’ tricks or wanting to learn chinese pole should have a look at Pole Dance Dictionary for inspiration.

A very slick looking site, it’s just a shame they didn’t use YouTube so you could easily share videos. Also nice to see a familiar face on the site!

Pole Dance Dictionary on Facebook.


I am not sure how useful this little essay will be. I have a feeling it should be a Vlog, but that seems like too much effort, in case it simply turns out to be another rant about juggling…

I want to talk about tricks. “Tricks” has almost become a dirty word amongst certain levels of the “modern” circus world. But I am shameless, and am happy to admit that tricks make me happy. If technique defines an emotional state, so can tricks define technique. On a slight sidetrack now, I was thinking earlier of the Christian Slater skateboarding movie from 1989, Gleaming The Cube. Which I loved. What I remember most was being impressed at all the different skating styles he showed (street, vert, freestyle), and how they were shown as being tied to his emotional state (OK, I may not have explicitly thought that at the time). When he was angry, he went out to his backyard and shredded the half-pipe. When he was sad and lonely, out came the freestyle deck. Pretty cool.

Anyway, I want to write about juggling tricks. My example shall be a trick which has become somewhat of a standard over the last ten years or so, although when I started doing it I hadn’t seen it done before. The basic concept is of catching a club by the wrong end, and making a small half-spin throw to the same hand to get it back to the handle (commonly known as an Oh-shit). The small step I made was to have that throw and catch happen blind, behind the back.

Not a ground-breaking idea, but it made me happy. It developed thusly, in 1999 or 2000:

First trick: throw a club behind the back with a single spin, having it remain behind the body. Make the next catch and throw with the hand you just used, then catch the “behind the back” club back in that same hand. The club in question is thrown and caught at the same point in space. Quite easy.

Second trick: make that same “behind the back throw and catch”, but have it happen with no intermediate catches from the hand in question. No peeking, the club should remain unseen by the juggler at all times. Rather hard.

Third trick: the easier version! Change the “behind the back throw and catch” from a single spin to a half spin (an Oh-shit!). This means it barely has to leave the hand, and is therefore very easy to do. As a bonus, it also, I think, looks better. (I later saw Maksim Komaro’s solution to this same problem. He changed the pattern he was using to add time to quickly spot the club, making the single spin variation quite doable. But I still wanted the blind version!)

So, there was the trick. A behind the back thrown and caught Oh-shit. Without getting too much into overly technical details, there are several possibilities of patterns (another dirty word!) for doing this trick. The obvious ones (to a juggler) are called 423 and 522. I chose a hybrid pattern, 52242, to be my default for this trick. The reasons for this I shall get to soon.

I started to perform this trick in my act, and did it at juggling conventions and showed it at workshops. The process to find the trick was very easy and obvious, and no doubt others found it to. It is now a very common “new juggling” trick.

And everyone else I have seen do it does it in one of the obvious patterns: 423 or 522.

I might be overly cynical about it, but I get the impression that most people think of the “trick” being the little half-spin throw, and the pattern that it is done within as a necessary evil: an afterthought, perhaps. Simply a shortcut to get to the “trick”.

As I wrote before, tricks make me happy. And so I want my juggling to show each trick in it’s best possible light. I chose my odd little hybrid pattern because (I believe) it is constructed in a way that brings attention and focus to the (very small) trick that it makes possible. The throwing order of the hands, the relative heights of the throws, the planes the clubs move in, the way that my body and head have to move to allow the pattern: these things bring the focus to the place I want it to be, and so, I hope (and believe) make the tiny little “throw and catch” moment clear, interesting and IMPORTANT to my audience.

The moment we stand on a stage and show our juggling, we must have a complete understanding of what it is we are showing. It is not enough to do some tricks, no matter how happy they make us. Each trick must be understood, selected and, if necessary, added to or pruned in order to give our audience the show we want them to have.

We should understand our tricks, so we can present them in the best way possible.