CircusFest returns to Camden with a distinctly British twist

Super Sunday. Picture: Peter Hellman

Super Sunday. Picture: Peter Hellman - Credit: Archant

Festival programmer Leila Jones tells Bridget Galton about the thrilling three week programme of physical skill and cutting edge contemporary performance.

When Leila Jones put together her first festival line-up of contemporary circus, she found herself looking to Europe for the top acts.

Back in 2008, the UK was lagging behind the continent in its appetite and funding for the fledging art form.

Now thanks partly to her efforts and the championing of circus by venues such as Jacksons Lane in Highgate, circus is thriving here.

“The UK circus scene is so much healthier than when I started,” she says.

“Historically it was a poor cousin to a well funded European environment, and we were often looking across the channel for inspiration or trying to fit into a genre within the shackles of the traditional circus structure. But clever strategic interventions by the Arts Council, and the fact of circus being a strong element in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony has meant it’s more confident as an art form. The quality of work is so high I can now feature a strong British element in this festival.”

It was all very different when she started.

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“I remember working on the first festival – there was a feeling the art form had a limited amount of time. This was going to happen once and not again.

“But it’s such an exciting, constantly evolving and developing form that people aren’t tired of seeing it.”

She believes its accessibility and a cross fertilisation from other arts are two factors in the increasing popularity of contemporary circus.

“Text isn’t at the heart of it so it’s brilliant for such a multicultural city – you don’t need a degree in English to be moved by it.

“I also feel it’s got a much clearer voice now, it collides with other art forms, there’s a strong experimental theatre vibe, and the two forms inspire each other. Contemporary performance is in an exciting stage generally. People are pushing at its boundaries, cross fertilisation is happening, people who create circus shows are going to see spoken word or immersive theatre and vice versa.”

But it takes time to build up the skills and training to feed a circus scene. The performers who took part in the circus-influenced show at the Millennium Dome are now the elder statesfolk who have gone on to share and found new companies.

“It’s an art form that needs a long lead time. It takes months to embed a trick, you can’t show up three weeks before and say what are we doing?”

CircusFest sees three weeks of workshops and performances centring on the Roundhouse. Highlights include:

Race Horse Company is a Finnish all male ensemble of young acrobats combining black humour and traditional circus to explore male archetypes.

From the human catapult to teeterboard and the wheel of death, Super Sunday is chaotic, uncompromising, “bright, colourful, in your face and non stop.”

Pop fuses break dance, music, fashion and circus arts to create an “electric brilliant hybrid form”. It plays in a double bill with Barely Methodical Troupe’s Kin.

Their show Bromance, about male bonding, was a hit in 2014 and the world premiere of their next promises to energetically combine contemporary dance, parkour, tricking, falling and catching, trust and flying to explore the human condition. Following 2014’s project on Camden’s Maiden Lane estate this year Light Up is a site specific performance at Queen’s Crescent, Kentish Town.

Working with local performance poet MC Angel and two experienced circus makers who have been holding free running workshops, a group of 11-14-year-olds on the estate have devised a show combining spoken word, circus, parkour and digital wizardry to highlight their hopes, dreams and struggles.

“These are brilliant, well-subscribed workshops with a high percentage of girls who have been learning how to free run. It gives them another sense of their own estate and a sense of place,” says Jones. “It’s a celebration of those hidden parts of London. Like the Maiden Lane estate it’s a beautiful bit of architecture and landscape. That showed people from outside what an amazing place existed just around the corner. Both estates have brilliant youth workers who know the young people and encourage them to take part.”

Orbital is another promenade performance by young people in The Hub beneath the Roundhouse. 14-25-year-olds from its Street Circus programme directed by Sarah Fielding of the Invisible Circus take audiences for a ride in a disorienting subterranean space filled with bikes, wheels and hoops that evoke fast-paced city life where people are pulled in different directions, confronted by overwhelming choice. But how to hold on to your humanity in the face of relentless consumerism?

Ringside, an award winning solo show by Eli Dubois, is up close personal, intimate and visceral. In 10-minute one to ones with her audience, she explores how watching her performance gives them a sense of how taxing it is to be a circus performer and the strains on her body. “It’s quite uncomfortable having a personal relationship in an empty auditorium. It’s live art you can see in your lunch break.”

Me Mother is also about a woman’s relationship with her body during and after pregnancy, examining how it affects a circus performer’s life.“There’s a strong female presence in festival that challenges and turns on its head preconceptions that guys are strong and women are graceful,” says Jones.