As told by Lucy Medlycott
I fell in love with circus a while ago….mid ‘70’s to be precise.
The sparkle, the magic, the sounds, the smells, the sawdust, the candy floss…. All of those evocative stereotypes that we imagine when we conjure up an image of circus.
Sitting there on the hard benches, was my first realisation of a future dream existence. Some might call it a vision, but for me I knew right there, it could be a life worth living. That swiftly gave me a superb answer for that never ending question every adult asks every child ever, tying them immediately to a land of drudgery and predictability. I just felt in my blood, that through circus one could enter another dimension, a life less ordinary. My six year old brain was transported into a realm of imagination and possibility. I could be superhuman in the circus. I could be fantastic. I could be glamourous, poetic, romantic, light as a feather and strong as a horse, fragile, invincible, vulnerable, untouchable, sensational and incredible – the possibilities of being were endless.
My mother, for my subsequent birthday, cleverly sewed me a lace tutu out of a net curtain bejewelled with multi-coloured sequins each lovingly hand stitched into that curtain….and I was there! I wore it every day after school for years, prancing and skipping around the hall of the house…. that linoleum floor playing silent witness to the most spectacular leaps and daring acts of twirling known to man! I fear my mother had no idea what she had unleashed!
I am hardly alone in realising that one of my first memories of live performance was the circus. An art form which has specialised in bringing its unique set of skills to every small town all over Ireland, whatever the weather. The original outreach/community engagement/audience development programme if you will. This capacity to engage with everyone, of every age, nationality, social/economic class is one which has stayed with circus throughout its 250 year plus history.
Circus as we now know it, is widely accepted to have originated in the mid 18th century, from there it grew to its dizzying heights of what we call the ‘Golden Era’ throughout the Victorian times. Frequented by the most fashionable of circles, all the way to royalty. Circus evolved at a rapid rate introducing more and more incredible acts, death defying stunts and unique acts, challenging their competition to match them in audacity. Few other art forms have made a speciality of bringing an audience to the brink of fear. We have all been there gasping with horror, swiftly followed with sighs of relief. The rush of adrenalin overcoming all our senses.
As we moved into the 20th century, the world is faced with war and ensuing depression. Circus in Ireland perseveres, providing much needed escapism and entertainment for many right on their own doorstep. The real challenge comes in the fifties and sixties with the introduction of cinema and television, which brought about a revolution in the world of entertainment, forcing circus to reinvent once more, matching the cinema with epic sound tracks, flashing lights and dazzling colour combinations.
This takes me up to my own living memory, where my original memories of sitting ringside at Duffy’s Circus in Santry abide, or when the Moscow State Circus visited Ireland in the mid eighties bringing an enormous all people circus and nine tonnes of equipment to the RDS, or when the Flying Karamazov brothers played at the Dublin Theatre Festival – juggling kittens and chainsaws simultaneously. Circus continued to transport.
The possibilities for creating a new type of circus emerged in the eighties, nineties, with many artists inspired by the work which happened under a big top. Footsbarn Theatre company incorporating circus technique and bouffon throughout their work, Phillipe Genty introducing illusion and puppetry and many more artists reinventing form. This spawned a new way of creation merging theatre and circus together to tell a story and deliver a narrative incorporating all the physical skill, technique and mystery of circus to evoke a sense of awe, connection and amazement.
Artists such as Tumble Circus have been reinventing circus since the mid nineties, bringing their own Belfast brand of anarchy and comedy to the streets with a healthy blend of doubles trapeze and clowning to tell their tales. Fidget Feet Aerial Dance established over 20 years ago, have blended contemporary dance and aerial skills together to create astonishing spectacles both across the skies and in small intimate venues all over Ireland.
More recently we have seen artists like Alex Allison of Cie Maleta reinvent virtuosic juggling and combined with immaculate choreography and film to create beautiful vignettes of synchronicity and chaos which can only be created with superb timing and precision.Or Aisling NiCheallaigh who has turned down not one but two offers to perform with Cirque du Soleil because she wants to make her own work and stay true to herself as an emerging artist. Her skills on aerial hoop know no bounds and we look forward to what is to come.
Aisling Ní Cheallaigh
It is also worth noting that Circus artists don’t just wake up one day and become an artist, they take time to train, often starting from a young age to reach a high level of technical proficiency. This is where circus education becomes necessary, a resource in short supply in Ireland. We are blessed with excellent Community Circus centres such as Galway Community Circus, Belfast Community Circus and Cloughjordan Community Circus and these centres provide a vital steppingstone for many young people. Their work is often grounded in the power of circus to harness social change and to build confident young people. What we are lacking is a next level training centre to develop professional artists and an insurance system here which allows the education of young people in physical skills. Many of these outgoing students leaving Ireland for further training – such as Freddy Burrows who went to Rotterdam’s CodArts Circus school to train in aerial straps – a highly challenging physical skill and one performed by very few people in Ireland currently.
A delay in the recognition of the circus long standing contribution to Irish society was painful, as circus was excluded initially from accessing government supports. Thankfully that has now been remedied, in no small part to the ongoing persistence of several key people and we are delighted to see that three of Ireland’s Travelling Circus families – Circus Gerbola, Duffys Circus and Fossetts came together in a show of solidarity and support at Slane Castle with a once off production ‘A Celtic Voyage’. This production was made possible via support for Circus Gerbola through the LPSS scheme distributed through the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
The recent announcement made by Minister Catherine Martin TD, which saw Circus and funfairs recognised on the inventory of Ireland’s pieces of Living Cultural Heritage was especially significant, given all the challenges that Circus has been dealing with and continue to deal with over the pandemic. This community are unique, they are strong, but they are vulnerable, and they have been under serious threat.
This recognition demonstrates the state’s role and commitment in protecting the past, while looking to the future. In this regard, there are two distinct things that our State need to do directly and without hesitation.
Protect the Past | Establish a National Circus Archive:
There is a plethora of circus memorabilia – play bills, programmes, equipment, photographs, newspaper clippings that are sitting in private collections all over Ireland – in attics, in car-boots and more. These items paint a dramatic social, cultural and political picture of our society and country. The state can play a direct role in preserving these unique archive materials for future performance art academics, students and writers to access.
Invest in the Future | Reinstate the educational programme for circus and fairground families:
The Circus and Funfair support scheme which provided access to education for circus and fairground families was axed approximately 7 years ago. This scheme gave primary school children access to a teacher in the town where they may be performing, for three days a week up to sixth class. Currently circus families who want to access mainstream education must travel to their regular school from whatever part of Ireland they are in on a given week. Sometimes that can be a six hour drive just to go to school. We urge the Minister to recreate a suitable workable solution for travelling circus children to access education.
To be designated as protected living cultural heritage is a great first step, now what are we going to do to protect it?
Note from Arts Act 2003: ‘“arts” means any creative or interpretative expression (whether traditional or contemporary) in whatever form, and includes, in particular, visual arts, theatre, literature, music, dance, opera, film, circus and architecture, and includes any medium when used for those purposes;’.