CircusFest at the Roundhouse: ‘You can’t have circus without people looking after each other’

Pirates of the Carabina

Pirates of the Carabina - Credit: Archant

CircusFest sees performers from Kentish Town to Palestine taking part in a feast of contemporary circus at The Roundhouse

Pirates of the Carabina

Pirates of the Carabina - Credit: Archant

From exploring circus as a force for social and personal change, to fusing feats of physical skill with the music of hip hop and punk, CircusFest celebrates the diversity of the modern art form.

With performances also at Jackson’s Lane, the three week festival ranges from family-friendly extravaganzas to a darker exploration of migration.

Festival curator Molly Nicholson hopes it will enable “new audiences to see circus for the first time and have a brilliant experience, and support the circus community by developing new work.”

This year marks the 250th anniversary of modern circus; when equestrian trick riders Philip and Patty Astley opened Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre near Westminster Bridge and became the first to market a variety show with music, acrobats animals and clowns in a circular arena.

Pirates of the Carabina

Pirates of the Carabina - Credit: Archant

Nicholson says its fitting that the very latest in contemporary circus is showcased across 15 shows. Headliners Pirates of the Carabina’s present new show Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine: “They are a brilliant emerging UK company doing large scale work that’s fun and engaging for anyone who hasn’t seen circus before,” says Nicholson. The troupe specialise in creating new equipment including a counter-weighted trapeze, a neverending rope trick and a king pole that spins around the stage. Jawdropping feats fuse with a story about two acrobats questioning their place in a world where machines come to life.

“They believe circus is for everyone and make accessible work for any age or walk of life. The show is also about being human. When everything is chaotic and changing fast around us, how these two characters look after each other. By definition the art form is about supporting people and that comes through beautifully in the show.”

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Groupe Bekkrel’s The Bekkrell Effect features five performers who channel the anarchy of punk and riot-grrl music.

Inspired by physicist Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity, they hurtle around the stage, creating an unstable universe of perpetual movement with atoms decaying and bonds disintegrating.

“It’s a beautiful chaotic show with circus skills like Chinese pole and tightrope,” she says.

Two shows are testament to the Roundhouse’s belief in the power of creativity to transform lives.

Palestinian Circus School perform SARAB at Jacksons Lane. “It’s a powerful show about migration and being refugees, pursuing the unexpected that turns out to be a mirage.

“They are a social circus who explore how the art form can be mentally and physically rehabilitative.”

The Roundhouse’s Street Circus Collective presents Throwdown, featuring 20 local circus and hop hop artists aged 16-25 with the music and production all done at the Chalk Farm venue..

“It springs from the Roundhouse’s work with young people and is a big fun celebration that demonstrates how circus is so broad. It’s not just someone on a trapeze, it’s got a relationshiop with street dance and parcours.”

Ellie Dubois’ award-winning Edinburgh Fringe hit No Show heartbreakingly reveals what lies beneath the perfection of traditional circus performers - and the cost of achieving feats of physical skill.

“It’s about showmanship and failure in a really human way. It breaks down the wall between performer and audience so you see the person behind the smile and make-up, and the work it takes to develop those skills; the calluses on the hands, the sweat on the costume, and how they have to push themselves for their body to be powerful.”

Aat Jackson’s Lane, Yablochov Candle is a poetic evening of jazz and aerial skills set in a 1920s Viennese cabaret, and Even When I Fall traces Nepalese trafficking survivors as they confront the families who sold them and build a future using the circus skills taught by their captors.

“These are brilliant artists from around the world who remind us that circus is performed across different countries regardless of language or borders. It has always been a home for transient weirdos who lived on the edge of society. But in the circus you feel you are part of a family. You can’t have circus without people looking after each other.”

As to the future, Nicholson believes the art form will spread to different spaces.

“It’s been restricted by time and money but we’ve had circus in theatres and outdoors where else can it go? It has always been innovative, pushing boundaries, what can you use circus for? There are so many exciting possibilities.”

CircusFest runs April 3-27