Written By Richard Watts  |  ArtsHub  |  Thursday 14 November, 2013

Independent circus artists are being forced to create small-scale works as a result of rehearsing in their lounge rooms and bedrooms.

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Australian circus companies such as Casus, Briefs, Gravity and Other Myths, and 3 is a Crowd won plaudits and praise from critics and peers alike for the quality and originality of their work. The Daily Mail heralded the arrival of ‘The new Wizards of Oz!’ in a recent article about contemporary Australian circus, while in her review of Casus’ Knee High, respected Guardian critic Lyn Gardner waxed lyrical about a show ‘full of extraordinary skill and brute strength … but also exquisite beauty’.

It seems our smaller circus companies, in particular, are creating spectacular and exciting work – but are they also being held back by a paucity of suitable spaces in which to devise and rehearse larger scale productions?

Yes, says Melbourne circus artist Rockie Stone. ‘I suspect that a lot of work that is made is made with a view to being able to tour it, being able to put it in places, being able to present it to audiences, and to be able to conveniently get it overseas, so it’s small scale work … but it’s also about where you create it,’ she says.

A lack of appropriate, circus-friendly facilities, Stone says, results in ‘work that’s created in lounge rooms’ – and while it is clearly of excellent quality, she fears that a lack of decent rehearsal and performance spaces may be inhibiting artists from creating larger, more ambitious shows.

Sydney-based circus artist Skye Gellmann agrees. ‘I’ve done a lot of training in the park and a lot of devising in bedrooms … and I think it really can slow the process down. Not having a good space does have a negative impact. It’s depressing, because you feel like you don’t have a place; you need to be able to connect with the community and the environment around you, and if you’re creating in a park and it’s winter you feel pretty shit, and you usually just go and have a cup of tea instead,’ he says. ‘And you need a lot of space – you need to be able to move big distances. You don’t want to be creating in your bedroom where you might kick something over, for example!’

Not every small circus company struggles to find appropriate space in which to create and rehearse, however, thanks to the support of organisation including Circa, Circus Oz and Cirkidz, as Lachlan Binns from Adelaide’s Gravity and Other Myths explains.

We’re fortunate enough to have quite a strong relationship with Cirkidz, in that we go in there almost daily and use their space, and we’re involved in the circus school there and we teach kids there, so we kind of have the ability to go in there whenever we want,’ he says. ‘But I think that’s a unique relationship to us; we’ve all come up through that program and are very close to that program, so have a little bit of pull there I guess, to be able to use that space whenever we want. When we go elsewhere to look for rehearsal spaces, it does become a lot more difficult.

Access to such spaces has a significant benefit for circus artists, says Gellmann, whose works tend to reflect the environments in which they’re made.

We created Scattered Tacks in a room in our squat and that was our studio room. It was a pretty small room, only 4 metres x 4 metres, just a room with a wooden floor, and that felt very cramped … [whereas] I found when I was able to work in Circa’s space in Brisbane on Blindscape, that improvisation and our freedom to try new things and not feel self conscious or held back was a real big factor in creating a lot of that work. It was a very freeing space, because it’s very big and it’s very private as well.

Unfortunately for circus artists, accessing appropriate sized spaces with all the attendant requirements they need – such as rigging that can carry the weight of a human body rather than just a couple of lights, and a wooden floor rather than concrete – remains a challenge.

Equally challenging is the necessity of working around the students and companies who already train in such facilities.

As Stone says, ‘There are training spaces that exist in Melbourne; I can identify a number, but whether they’re accessible to professional artists or not is another thing. People who create spaces, often there’s no funding involved, so they need to operate as a business; so they might be creating an independent space that they then run lots and lots of classes in, so it’s kitted out to be a training space, and that’s what it is. There’s tumbling runs and aerial points and you can hang things, and you can maybe go and do classes there, or maybe there’s times where there’s open training available, or if you’re a teacher you can maybe access the space when there’s not classes in there.

When Circus Oz is on tour they generously make their space avalaible to other artists. ‘They’re very good like that, they do actually make their space available for companies who are touring, but of course they have very limited space themselves; and they’re not a centre for other professional artists. They are a centre for their own touring company, because that’s what they are; they’re a business, and they have to concentrate on that … NICA is an amazing space, but that’s there to service their students … and CIRCA is a very small space,’ she says.

One of the best places for Australian circus artists, Stone continues, ‘is the Vulcana space down at the [Brisbane] Powerhouse. They’ve been really great to artists over the years, they’ve provided several free and open training slots, day long, many, many hours – you can start in the morning, and that’s amazing. You can’t get that anywhere here in Melbourne. Here you can only get in after classes have finished, at 8pm.

But now even Vulcana Women’s Circus is under threat, after the company’s funding was axed by Arts Queensland during the latest, much publicised round of cuts.

Kitty Carra, General Manager of Vulcana Women’s Circus, told artsHub that the company has already had to start asking for donations from artists wishing to access its rehearsal space; they have also launched a crowd-funding campaign to help cover some of their costs, aiming to raise $50,000.

It’s a modest target in terms of what we actually need, given that we were cut $70,000. It’s less than what we actually require, but it’s enough to cover our rent and insurance. So if we can we do those two things, the rest of our costs are variable and we can make do; we can still provide the space, we can still be a creative space, and we can make money out of our workshop program, but we can’t do it unless we have the space and insurance,’ Carra says.

Should the money not be raised, the closure of Vulcana would have national repurcusions, she continued – not just for the company’s social circus programs with disadvantaged groups in Brisbane, but for the sector nationally.

A lot of people, when they travel – as performers do – they come here, to our space, to rehearse and keep their fitness up; to have a community to come to. But really, Vulcana – along with a lot of other spaces around Australia – is an incubator, and there’s so few truly community-based incubators where people get to play with their ideas and one another without intervention, and yet still have access to an artistic director or other people’s creativity.

‘Three of the five acts that were at the Edinburgh Festival this year came out of Vulcana’s space, and the use of its space, and that’s where we’ll see the impact. So it’s taking a really key incubator out of the arts scene nationally. That would be a real issue.

Without access to professional circus spaces like Vulcana, artists have to find venues of their own; a time consuming process, as Lachlan Binns explains.

‘I remember a couple of years ago we were rehearsing a show and we essentially needed to take over a large space – we needed somewhere 10 x 10 by 8 metres high to use, and such a space didn’t really exist. Well, there’s the Entertainment Centre and Convention Centre but they’re not affordable,’ he says.

‘We ended up going through Renew Adelaide and finding an old ice-skating rink on Hindley Street … this old space, which was not set up at all for use by anybody. It was filthy, and badly lit. So there was a fair chunk of time that was taken up preparing the space for us before we could go into a creative development, rather than just going straight in there. We made do, and it ended up being not bad, but there is definitely a lack of easily accessible, obvious stand-out spaces.’

While the lack of suitable development and rehearsal spaces is a challenge for circus artists, so too is a lack of suitable presentation venues, despite the quality of the work our circus artists are making.

As circus artists and small circus companies, we are smashing it overseas. We presented our show Fright or Fright in Edinburgh just a few months ago, and we were one of … five or six small circus shows from Australia that were totally dominating the scene in Edinburgh as far as contemporary circus goes. Reviewers were making comments about it, going “Wow, I don’t know what’s in the water in Australia but it’s coughing up some really quirky, interesting circus”, says Stone.

‘So overseas we have this reputation, so we’re doing it regardless. We’re doing it – Gravity and Other Myths, Casus, and Briefs and a number of other little companies; we’re busting to make this work nevertheless.

But despite the quality work our circus artists are creating, they’re not being fully supported by local presenters and venues, Stone continues.

‘I feel like Melbourne doesn’t even know that there’s some really good circus out there. I feel like there isn’t a level of trust that some of the work is quality, but it’s kind of the chicken and egg, really, isn’t it? There hasn’t been the programming to expose Melbourne to some of the quality contemporary circus work that is both here in Australia and coming from overseas. And so therefore they don’t know that it’s there and therefore they don’t believe they should program it.’


IMAGE: Casus’ acclaimed production Knee Deep.
ORIGINAL SOURCE: www.performing.artshub.com.au