ORIGINAL SOURCE – www.australia.gov.au

Circus has changed since the days when a trip to the ‘Big Top’ meant encountering acrobats, clowns and animal performances, sometimes including dancing elephants and whip-cracking lion tamers.

While classic circus still exists in travelling shows, neither Silvers Grand Magic Circus nor Joseph Ashton Circus have elephants or lions. There are other circuses that include these animals though with an increased focus on animal welfarea ‘new circus’ emerged in Australia during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Emergence of a ‘New Circus’ in Australia

Photograph of a hoopdive in action from the Flying Fruit Fly CircusHoopdive, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Photograph by PRPIX.

Troupes like the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz have spearheaded a new style of circus performance that features highly physical activities and no animal tricks. According to Nicola Brackertz, circus history teacher at the National Institute of Circus Arts, this style has made a rich and vibrant contribution to culture both in Australia and on behalf of Australians internationally.

The people who started [Circus Oz] didn’t come from a background of performers, necessarily. They taught themselves a lot of the skills. It was as much about being in an organisation where they had equal rights between the sexes, where they had communal decision-making, where they had political statements that they wanted to make… as providing audiences with something new and lively that they could respond to. The really big shift [was] not just having this new form of circus without animals, which is what people often point to, but the big shift [was] also in politicising it.
Nicole Brackertz, teacher of circus history at the National Institute of Circus Arts. Interviewed on 4 June 2004.

World class recognition

Hula hoop artist Judith Lanigan

Judith Lanigan trained with a small modern circus company, Bizircus in Perth from 1992–95 with professional circus training once a year at the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Albury. Lanigan was introduced to hoops by Kareena Oates from the Rock n Roll Circus in Brisbane,who had just spent three months training in China. Lanigan’s performance combines clowning as well as the physical skills learnt at the Moscow State Circus School and Escuelo de Circo de Rogelio Rivel (Barcelona). Studies in Clown with Angela De Castro, Magic with Andreu Sabadell, and research into the Daikagura of Japan, the history of Burlesque and Clown all contribute to the style of performance.

The Dying Swan. Image courtesy of Judith Lanigan.

Created in 2000, Judith Lanigan’s solo piece ‘The Dying Swan’, performed in 12 countries around the world, is

a hula hoop act based on the ballet divertissement choreographed by Fokine for Anna Pavlova in the early 20th century. Using hoop skills learnt at the Moscow State Circus School and contemporary clown techniques, the Dying Swan has played at many international Arts and Street Theatre festivals, Comedy and Burlesque events and in Circus, both traditional and contemporary.
Judith Lanigan at http://www.thehulahoop.com.au/


Lanigan’s experiences have provided the background for her award winning novel A True History of the Hula Hoop (Picador) . The book

weaves together two parallel stories, one of Catherine, a struggling Aussie hula-hooping performance artist, and the other of Columbina, a feisty 16th century Italian female clown travelling through Europe with the first ever commedia dell’arte troupe – a travelling company of clowns.
The Age , 1 September 2009 .

Melbourne trapeze artist Emma Henshall

In February 2009 Melbourne trapeze artist Emma Henshall, 22, won the Gold Medal for her solo trapeze act at the 30th Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (Worldwide Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow) in Paris. She also took out The President’s Award, the Franco Dragone Entertainment Group Award and The Moulin Rouge Award at the prestigious festival. Emma has performed professionally since graduating in 2006 from the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) based at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Circus Arts students awarded Bronze in Moscow

NICA students Billie Wilson-Coffey and Julian AldagPhoto by Scott Hone NICA students Billie Wilson-Coffey & Julian Aldag. Image courtesy of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA).

In September 2009 in Moscow, National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) students Julian Aldag and Billie Wilson-Coffey won Bronze at the 4th World Festival of Circus Arts. Aldag and Wilson-Coffey are the first Australian artists to be invited to perform at the international festival which attracts elite level circus performers from around the world. The couple, both third year NICA students, won for their act Memento.

Circus Oz

Circus Oz is a travelling physical-theatre company based in Melbourne, Victoria. The company is made up of between eleven to thirteen members, often including at least two dedicated musicians. Circus Oz performances combine subversive social satire, slapstick humour and acrobatics to produce shows that emphasise the importance of teamwork. The common Australian trait of parody and self-ridicule is also a recognisable feature of Circus Oz performances.

Circus Oz was founded in December 1977 when two existing companies amalgamated—Soapbox Circus and the New Ensemble Circus. None of the original 25 members came from a traditional circus background.

The troupe was founded on the principles of:

Photograph of a Circus Oz double trapezeCircus Oz double trapeze. Image courtesy of Circus Oz
  • collective ownership (all members share ownership in the company)
  • combining work with everyday life
  • gender equity (the equality of women)
  • striving for a uniquely Australian flavour
  • remaining open to inspiration from a wide range of sources
  • maintaining a balance between accessible performance and experimentation
  • emphasising the importance of teamwork in performances

Significant events in the company’s development include: a successful 32-week season at the Last Laugh Theatre Restaurant, Melbourne in 1979; learning new skills such as hoop-diving, pole-climbing and group-bicycle from Chinese acrobats in 1983/84 and 1985; and close relations in the early 1980s with the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, including shared performances and learning exchanges.

Circus Oz achievements and highlights include:

  • touring every state and territory of the Commonwealth
  • performing in 23 countries across five continents
  • performing at numerous Adelaide Festivals
  • representing Australia at international festivals
  • touring Arnhem Land (far northern Australia)
  • the first circus in history to perform on three continents in one year

The Flying Fruit Fly Circus

Performer with hula hoops, from

Based in Albury, on the Victorian and NSW border, the Flying Fruit Fly Circus trains young circus performers in skills such as tumbling, clowning, acrobatics and physical theatre. It is a working company and produces touring shows that are recognised in Australia and internationally. The circus was founded in 1979 during the International Year of the Child and became one of the first troupes to offer structured training to young performers in Australia.

In 1983, performers from the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe of China took part in a training project with Flying Fruit Fly Circus students in Albury. This was an important step in the development of Australian new circus. The experiment was a success and many of the students went on to join other troupes, including Circus Oz.

The Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Les Clownes Tristes, Japan tour 2005. Image courtesy of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus.

What does the Flying Fruit Fly Circus do?

  • Circus training—full-time circus training for up to 80 school-age children aged from eight to eighteen years.
  • Academic studies—as well as circus training, students also study a broad-based academic curriculum.
  • Touring—the group performs in Australia and internationally. Highlights have included a sell-out season at New York’s New Victory Theatre in 1999, performances at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival and at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and the celebration of the company’s Silver Jubilee (25-year-anniversary) with a touring production Skipping On Stars, based on the life of aboriginal performer Con Colleano.
  • Workshops and community development – trainers and young performers go out into the community and introduce various groups to circus. These groups include children, older people, indigenous communities and young people at risk.

Other Australian circus groups

Photograph of a performer, Julius, on a unicycleJulius on a unicycle, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Photograph by PRPIX.

Women’s Circus

Based in Melbourne, Victoria, the Women’s Circus gives priority to women and survivors of sexual abuse, women aged over 40 and women from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.


Aerialize is based in Sydney, New South Wales, and provides aerial and circus instruction to the public as well as performance opportunities for its members.

Vulcana Women’s Circus

Based in Brisbane, Queensland, Vulcana Women’s Circus celebrates, inspires and empowers women through learning, teaching and performing contemporary circus theatre.


Bizircus is a troupe that blends physical skill, comedy, music, and universal themes. Based in Perth, Western Australia, Bizircus draws influence from Chinese and European circus as well as street theatre, modern dance, and slapstick.

The National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA)

NICA studentsNICA students Daniel Crisp from Brisbane, Nathan Boyle from Bangor (NSW), Todd Kilby from Newcastle and Renee Koehler from Canberra, 2009. Image courtesy of the National Institute of Circus Arts.

Based in Melbourne, Victoria, the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) is the only government-accredited institution that provides professional training in contemporary circus arts in Australia. NICA’s first graduate show was performed at Festival Melbourne 2006, the cultural festival of the Commonwealth Games.

Suitcase Circus

Circus performer and teacher Reg Bolton started Suitcase Circus in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1975. The Bolton family moved to Western Australia in 1985 and re-established the circus. The main focus of Suitcase Circus is now teaching, empowering and communicating through the circus performance medium.

Alan Clay’s Clown School

Performer and trainer Alan Clay offers short courses and master classes through his Clown School in Sydney, New South Wales. The courses takes a broad view of clowning and allow students room to pursue and develop their unique clowning style.

ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People)

Based in Sydney, ATYP is a youth theatre company that performs nationally and internationally and runs training residency programs throughout Australia.

Juggling training and clubs

Juggling, combining mental and physical agility with a heap of fun, is a popular activity for many Australians both young and old. Juggling is performed, enjoyed and taught in juggling clubs throughout Australia.

Useful links

Australian circus links

Last updated: 29th October 2009