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.

Kiev – Part 1

So, I had just graduated from The Circus Space and had been working for a few months but for a long time I had wanted to go to the circus school in Kiev. Finally I had got it all sorted but now I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go because I had built up consistent work in London. I kept changing my mind until one thought prevailed; screw it this is a one in a lifetime chance to go and train a little more and learn the secret of handstands. From day one I have always heard that Kiev is the best school, from all the videos and circus festivals like Cirque Du Demain all my favourite acts (that I consider the best) come from Kiev. I wanted to know why they were so good what they were doing differently to me, what was their secret. So at the start of October I went to Kiev and trained handstands for 8 weeks.

I’ve had many people ask me about it, so this blog is about my journey, my experiences and my time in Kiev and I truly hope it will answer your questions and help you.


KievThe circus school and its surroundings

Circus Artist Hotel

I stayed in the Circus artist hotel, which was about £15 a night for me; in my room I had 3 beds and 1 wardrobe. The decor was absolutely sublime; blue painted walls that if you ran you fingers down, the paint went onto your finger tips; along with bed covers that had dolphins on (which kept you safe during the night). The kitchen had an oven which didn’t work and 3 hobs, a sink and a fridge. So we had to make a cup of coffee the old school way. The bathroom had a normal toilet and then a TUB, it was a bout 2ft by 2ft, it was tiny and not comfy or in the slightest practical to have a bath in.

Again with showing how well they have moved with technology there was no washing machine and there were no laundrettes so it was hand washing (you get very sore hands) but at least the heating was good. It was also cockroach infested, which really hindered my sleep because I have never seen cockroaches and I’m not that brave (being in a different country, not speak the language was bad enough).

The walk to the circus school

The school was a 20 minute walk from the Circus Artist hotel where I was staying; it is situated in the middle of a military training base and looked like an old derelict Olympic area. It had a football pitch surrounded by concrete seats, a sand pit for long jump, high jump and pole vault, around the edge it had the running track and also had rugby goal posts. It is very old now and has Kiev graffiti all over it and is reddened with a lot of very cute stray dogs, but it was still being used everyday either by young students running and jumping or by older lads playing football tournaments.

Then you come up to the military base, where you’ll see the police marching around, they were any age from 16 to 40 and they rule – you don’t mess with them and you get out of their way – which I learnt quickly. They have to keep the whole place tidy, digging holes for trees or digging up trees. The main chore they had to do was sweep up the leaves, it really showed how traditional Kiev still is because they swept the leaves up with a bunch of twigs bundled together. It took me a while to get used to these traditional things still in their culture, to me they seemed really contrasting to the Ferrari garage that was down the road, and the ‘super cool’ sushi restaurants that all played dance music to having no washing machine and everyone sweeping up leafs with twigs and branches.

Then there is a swimming baths, I never went in them which was odd (I had a lot of spare time) but it’s this big blue building which was always being used. Then you come up to where I was, first of all it just looks like a average sports hall, you have 5 a side football courts and male and female changing rooms and communal showers, the Ukrainians there were very homophobic but they are a lot more comfortable with getting changed, showering and talking in front of each other than people are in the UK which was very interesting (I began to realise they are all much more mature for their age). I saw that they also had fencing classes there and there was an outdoor cinema but I never saw that being used.

The School

So you then get to the circus training space which starts at 9am. Every morning all the students will be waiting outside for the doors to be opened, we tried to go in early and warm up but we would get shouted at by the cleaners who every morning vacuumed the room and washed the floor, they would also sow up the crash mats (every morning!) they were like patch works (not very reassuring!)

So the space we trained in was one massive room, it looked like an old male gymnastic room, it had a Olympic size sprung floor for FX and sports acro routines and another sprung floor half the size which wasn’t very sprung more soft floor. It had 3 sets of rings (low ones, high competition ones and a pair in the pit) which we used for muscle up competitions, conditioning and a laugh. Nearly everyone in the school could muscle up – it was a basic strength move. The gym had 3 pommel horses ranging from on the floor to competition height, one mushroom into the floor which most people could do 1 double leg circle and bail, 4 parallel bars: 2 about 4 foot high and then one at competition height and one beside the pit, which ended up getting kicked and punch by the handbalancers, then 3 high bars: 2 in the pit and 1 low one on the floor which was used so all students learnt Split leg rotation/mill circle and up start and finally a tumble track running into the pit that really wasn’t that sprung just soft.

At times it was warmer outside than it was inside the training space, me and the other handbancers sometimes wore gloves to train in and lots of layers but you always got the odd guy still walking round topless, generally the straps boys they were known as the crazy ones. The windows were not double glazing and they had been broken, usually from the jugglers throwing their juggling balls in anger. We commonly had little birds flying around and trying to find out how to get back out, the lights and heating only came on when it was really cold and dark because of cost but also the lights got broken a few times – again from jugglers getting angry. There are ceiling rafters which all the circus equipment was hung onto which would never happen in the UK due to health and safety but also the jugglers would climb up the walls and walk along it about 30 ft high and place a ball up there just so they could try knocking it off with another juggling ball from the floor, again something that wouldn’t be allowed here in the UK, safety safety safety.

From what I gathered circus was in 9-1 which was students and professionals, after us was professional time and then sports acro but they sometimes trained with us, Shcherbak and Popov were sometimes there when we were but mainly after or before. On a Saturday younger boys about 8-12 would come and train from 12 doing gymnastics, they would always come early so they could throw them self into the pit before their coach came.

One last thing about the space, the toilets are just a hole in the floor, you didn’t really go for many number twos there.

Double Dutch

A lot of my work over the last years has been teaching based, and this month found me teaching for the first time at the circus school in Holland.

I mean, at the circus schools in Holland.

Both Rotterdam and Tilburg now boast circus departments within the auspices of a university organisation. Both offer four year bachelor programmes. Codarts in Rotterdam are about to present their second graduating year, ACaPA in Tilburg their first.

Another difference:

Codarts school hall
Codarts school hall
ACaPA circus tent
ACaPA circus tent

When coming in for a week, I am always torn between wishing to spend the short time available doing strict technique classes, or to rather concentrate on eg choreographical / concept based work. I hope always that I find a balance between these two, but manage always to come away wishing that I’d had more time…

The major difference between the two schools, or rather the one that has the most effect relating to my work at them, is that Codarts has a permanent juggling teacher in the shape of Gregor Kiock. This means that I can trust the students to have, and to keep to, a consistent and strict technique training programme. It also means that my guilty conscience at tweaking people’s technique is made even guiltier…

It feels so good to make tiny physical corrections (hand position, cross point etc) to someone’s pattern and to instantly see an improvement. That work can feel just as creative and valuable, sometimes more so, than seeing the results of a pure conceptual exercise. Hopefully both will make an impression of some kind on my students.

My next stop in the world, after a single and all too brief day at home in Cologne, shall be the GOP Varieté in Hannover, where I shall be for all of May and June. Sometimes my job feels like several different jobs. Which seems like rather a healthy and challenging, if somewhat stressful, position to be in. Come visit me if you happen to be near!

Photos with Photosynth on iPhone