Breaking into the circus ring
Wonderful news that the work of the amazing Extraordinary Bodies has been recognised by the Arts Council in being given more than £700,000 to expand its operation. I’ve seen this remarkable troupe of mixed able/disabled circus performers, actors and musicians aged between 21 and 50, in a public park before a non-paying audience, with their piece, Weighting, combing circus, dance, theatre and music and accompanied by several local amateur choirs - at least one of which didn’t sing at all, they deaf-signed their words. The accomplishment is incredible, the physical differences disappear and the effect is extremely moving – and it’s the kind of community arts that might have died as a result of local authority subsidy cuts, and this decision by ACE deserves a loud cheer.
Extraordinary Bodies, created in 2013 from a merger of Diverse City, the Dorset-based theatre group, and Cirque Bijou, is being seen by ACE as a circus company, and circus is an art form the Arts Council ignored until fairly recently as falling between funding streams, and looked a lot more like PE than art. But the grant seems to be as much for the company’s diversity as for its circus skills. They work with amateur choirs, and they recently gave a collaborative performance with British Paraorchestra, the disabled musicians’ ensemble; you can see the EB performers in Bristol’s Castle Park on September 17 and 18 with Weighting plus their integrated choir SINGS, when you will be expected to join in.
The grant could not be better deserved, but it’s almost as if ACE needs an excuse to fund circus, the fastest growing art form in the country in terms of popularity but one which could be being used as a social utility. When foreign companies like Cirque du Soleil arrived in the 90s to enchant audiences here, the authorities turned a blind eye and it was enthusiasts, largely trained abroad, that created Circus Space which set up our own training programme for circus performers with no subsidy until Nesta saw its potential and stepped in. Now it has ACE funding and the much grander title of the National Centre for Circus Arts, but still in the former Hoxton power station where it started 22 years ago. In 2000 in the Millennium Dome the programmers used circus as the centerpiece, but had to recruit professionals from overseas who trained 100 young Londoners. Now those local tyros are the performers, teachers, directors and elders of a distinctive brand of British circus that is showcased once a year at the Roundhouse with CircusFest. In 2011 there were 30 circus companies in the UK, now there are 100.
Often circus performers, directors and teachers slip between dance and theatre. It is a young people’s art form in terms of practitioners and audience, an international one – the latest form of street circus of which Extraordinary Bodies could be seen as an exponent comes from Africa. And what CircusFest in April showed us is that circus can be a medium with a narrative, it can tell social stories in a unique way.
As the Roundhouse’s Marcus Davey told AI earlier in the year, “There are no stars in circus, no famous names, and now we need some investment into circus around the country, not only in spaces but in companies and directors, because it’s good for young people and you don’t need to sell it to them”. So let's hope that this grant is a modest start to an all-round support programme for circus as an art, not a one-off for a company that happens to do diversity.