By Lucy Ribchester Published

With aerial choreography in theatres, clowns exploring autism and jugglers inspired by Sir Isaac Newton, will 2013 be the year that circus gets serious? Lucy Ribchester finds out.

There isn’t a dedicated circus section in the Fringe brochure yet, but if there was, the past five years would have seen it gradually filling up. Victorian sideshows, trapeze artists and rag-tag jugglers in bowler hats have become familiar sights come August in Edinburgh.

But a glance through the 28 circus companies rolling up this year suggests that even dedicated circus groupies may be in for a bit of a surprise. There’s juggling show Smashed, inspired by Sir Isaac Newton and late German choreographer Pina Bausch; an aerial re-working of Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale; and a clown show tackling autism. Contemporary circus big-hitters NoFit State are back, but as well as their big-top spectacular, Bianco, they’ll be offering a lunchtime show with a smaller, more theatrical feel. And then there’s the return of Casus. One of the runaway hits of last year’s Fringe, Casus’s Knee Deep was a pared-down journey through the power of the human body, stripped bare of glitz, gimmicks and vaudeville. Circus, it seems, is starting to get serious.

“28 years ago when we started out,” says NoFit State co-founder and creative director Tom Rack, “we were doing popular entertainment. People thought there was no reason we should get Arts Council funding. Since then there has been a real change and a real recognition of circus as an artform. Consequently a lot more young companies are developing work.”

Rack describes the new-style small-scale choreographic works as “circus-dance”, and says the movement in the UK is only now beginning to “snowball”. Some of the best contemporary dance he has seen, Rack says, has been by circus performers, a factor which inspired NoFit State’s decision to create their show Noodles, which will be presented, not in their big top, but on stage at the New Town Theatre.

Both Rack and Casus’s Jesse Scott agree that the pioneers of choreographic circus are coming from Down Under. “I think that circus in Australia is quite unique,” says Scott, over the telephone from London where Knee Deep has been performing for the past four weeks. “In Europe, America or Canada, you have exposure to all these other countries. In Australia, we are quite removed from the rest of it. We don’t have any other influences to change the way we think, so we create our own style of work.” His top Australian circus tips for this year include 3 is a Crowd’s Fright or Flight and Adelaide-based Gravity & Other Myths, who present A Simple Space.

Scott claims it’s not just performers who have changed their concept of the form, but that audiences too, have allowed circus to develop into something more creative. “People have become more savvy to what circus can be. You used to go to a big top with lions and tigers and a ringmaster, and it was pure entertainment. Going into a show now you don’t have expectations.”

But it’s not only circus-dance that’s bending the boundaries. Clowns too are growing up, taking on social issues and treating them with tenderness. Last year’s heartbreaking Waiting for Stanley celebrated the role women played during WWII, using the vulnerabilities of the clown to draw on an uncertain and fraught period in history. This year, New Zealand-based Kallo Collective are using the medium of clown to explore Asperger’s Syndrome in their show Echolalia. “Clown has the potential to cut straight to an empathetic response from the audience,” says Jen McArthur, solo performer in the show. “The audience relates directly to the situation of the character. I think it’s a really useful way to tell a story about a section of our population that could do with some increased understanding.” McArthur used to worry that people who hadn’t seen the show would misunderstand it and think that she was mocking her subject. “It’s a widely held notion—and fairly true—that a clown who makes fun of themselves is an idiot. But there’s another side to a clown; through their failings, we relate to them through the heart and genuinely feel something for the character.”

Not to be left behind, circus storytellers are also getting in on the act, with Cambridge University’s Strung Up telling The Franklin’s Tale through aerial acrobatics, and Theatre Re re-locating the Cain and Abel story inside a circus in The Little Soldiers. But does this move towards the realms of theatre and dance spell an end to travelling big tops? Not according to Tom Rack.

“I think circus has the capacity to be accessible and work on so many levels. My worry about some of the smaller intellectual approaches is that they’re great shows by fantastic people, but they’re not always really circus and they’re not always really accessible. I think it’s an emerging strand of the circus spectrum and I wish it all the success, but I hope that it doesn’t take over all the other strands.” For Rack, the magic and the ethos of circus still goes far beyond what the audience sees. “As a company we put the tent up and take the tent down, drive overnight. There is a real equality amongst the whole company, and a spirit and an energy and a bond that is about living that lifestyle. There’s an indefinable magic of circus that people get caught up in.”