This will be the second degree programme for circus in the UK. There is an equivalent in London that has been going for a few years. It's going to be interesting to compare the two. We've been having some meetings about what being a circus school means, what circus means, too. I was trying to clarify to them that we have a different approach. One part of circus is to impress people with your skills – wow! And all those sorts of things. That's fine, and we do that, but we are also interested in a much wider brief. We are interested in people using circus skills as a medium to deal with their concerns and their issues. It could be all sorts of things – Burlesque, kinetic sculpture, live art, stand-up, Bouffon, narrative-based work – but it's about using circus skills to go beyond just ta-Dah! Beyond just impressing people. Really, the third year is going to help that develop. I hope and expect that with time, we will show what we mean. It's no easy task; a drama degree is three years, and full circus training is three years, so putting the two together can be difficult. We have to get their skills up there so they have tools to communicate their ideas, but we also want to work on the creativity.
Does this make you different from other circus schools?
I think it does, yes. I mean, every school can claim it is unique, because it is different from all the others, but we are focussing on the idea of the performer as the creator of the work. Everyone has different bodies, different cultures, different concerns, so, as with live art, it is very appropriate that they use their identity and their shape to do what's best for them, rather than trying to compete by doing the same things as everyone else, like in gymnastics, or sport.
So it's like a similar tension as you find in the dance world, where people can either become an instrument for a choreographer, and be directed and positioned, or they can author and perform their own work?
Yes. We have two main aims. One is to train students to get work for an existing market. They need to get jobs – particularly at the moment – it's a big concern with the recession and increasing student fees. But the other thing is to move the art form forward. If we only work within existing expectations, we can't push the boundaries. It's really important to keep challenging the audience's expectation or it all gets very conservative, just doing what needs to be done.
There seems to be a perception among circus artists that circus as an art form struggles in the UK, especially when compared to mainland Europe. Would you agree with that?
Of course, yes. I have to say that the comparison with France can be misleading. France is exceptional and most of Europe isn't like that, though similar levels of funding go in in Scandinavia. Arguably, the position of circus in British culture is related to class. In the mid part of the 20th century, it was seen as the lowest common denominator – working class, popular entertainment. While everyone might have done once or twice in their childhood, it was seen as cheap.
Do you think the association with carnival and travelling performers put it beyond the pale for some people, too?
Yes – it's all a bit uncontrollable for a lot of people. There are two major lines of development in the history of circus. One is through gymnastics and sport, and so martial arts and horsemanship, originally, way back. The other is ritual and theatre, and exotica. The weird, the stuff that is outside. Circus is always fluctuating between these two things. It is exotic and edgy, but it also needs discipline, structure, and skill. Circus in Britain has suffered an image problem which has meant that the people who have cultural power have resisted its emergence. The collapse Fool Time was the direct result of someone in the National Theatre saying, No, circus is not art.
Have things improved?
There is still something about circus that is problematic. For some, circus is craft, or skills. I was having a conversation recently where someone said that music was a craft. You need to play the notes well and do the scales and all that, and those skills somehow make the art. That's a very linear and structured view. I think the other side to that is that you can't be too structured about creativity. It's about unique combinations, and turning things on their head. We try to look at things afresh, in order that the skills and form is dealing with concerns that everybody shares. It's not just about physical prowess. I've been in that battle for 35 years or so. There are little advances – it is advancing – but there is always an inherent conservatism around it, too. It's interesting; first we fought the traditionalist over use of animals, and then the treatment of women. Those battles were won and now there is a sort of new circus norm established around Cirque du Soleil and their model. It's very hierarchical, it's all about a big spectacle, and there is a tendency to refer to that and say, Oh, that is circus. I just think that is terribly limiting. It could be so much more than that. We deal with circus as a base for creativity.
Where do you think your approach has come from?
My main training was with Lecoq in Paris. He used mime as a base. There was a bit of the traditional stuff, like pulling ropes, but it was mime in a wider sense. For him, it was about the imitation of movement that happened in nature. You could imitate the movement of mountains and the elements, as well as people or animals. It was the whole idea of imitation rather than the cliché of mime. In the same way, I view circus as a really useful grounding because it can give you so many possibilities. It gets you fit, it involves equipment and movement, and it extends the energy of the body in many different ways. The juggler extends their reach with throwing and catching, the aerialist extends their range of movement by working the air, and upside down. But it's a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That's how we view the whole thing.
Arriving at this point, being able to offer a degree programme, it must be the result of years of work.
Yes, and we're planning to bring out an MA in a couple of years, and then research projects and PhDs. It's very hard work and we have very few resources, so we have to take things one step at a time.
Did you have a grand plan all along? Did you expect to be sitting here in 2014 discussing the possibility of MAs and PhDs?
No. Well, partly … like Lecoq, I had a difficult history with academia. He didn't like over-theorising and all his theories were drawn out of practice. He started as a gymnastics teacher. The other side of that, however, was that we always thought about the training as holistic. It's not just about the body, but also the mind and the emotions. We wanted to get people thinking about what they were doing, and how it fitted in. We wanted them to look at other people's work. Intelligent circus is what I would be after. We were left with the difficult question of how to make that work, and the answer has been a slowly evolving relationship with Bath Span University. It hasn't always been easy. Universities seem to find the performing arts problematic in general – how do assess things that are so subjective and fluid? Circus is even more out there on the edge. It's been a whole process of trying to make a bridge to meet them. It hasn't really been a grand plan, though. We started years ago with a diploma and little bits of qualifications to help students get career development loans and to reassure their parents that it isn't some Mickey Mouse course. The degree happened mostly because we were so frustrated with only being able to do a one year course. The only way that people could do longer courses was through student loans, so in some ways there was a very practical motivation. It also came from the founding principles of Circomedia 20 years ago, which were a development of what we had done with Fool Time since '86. I've got more interested in ideas as I've got older – partly because I can't rush around like I used to, but also because I was after a more complex form of what we were producing. There is a basic toolbox of 15 moves, and you can only watch people climb up a rope and back down again so many times! After 20 years of that, you wonder where the form is going.
Where do you think circus can develop?
Being around the emergence of street theatre was massively exciting because we were asking how the form could work, what we were doing. It was similar with early circus theatre. There are still lots of good questions we are researching. We still have integration week where we look at how you put forms together; how to put juggling and aerial together, how to incorporate theatre and text with physical work. It can be as simple as literally, how do you say something when you are all puffed out. It's a very different prospect from just making an act for a cabaret. There is something in just not dropping the balls, or falling off the trapeze. There is risk and danger, success and failure, all those inherent things that can be metaphors for the human condition, but they are only metaphors if you think in those terms. If not, it's just anthropology. You just say, well, that's the culture of this thing. You are separate from it and you can't relate to it.
My last question relates to politics. One of the top questions on my list when I talk to artists is about the politics of the work they make. The intersection of politics and circus seems a little less obvious to me, however. Can circus be political? Is circus always political? Can you separate politics from circus?
It's a lovely huge question, and one which I get very excited about! Circus is interesting because it is a culturally contentious form. It has these pulls between great conservatism and radicalism. Of course, everything is always political – you only have to look at Archaos and all that sort of thing. That was very political. Less overtly, and less obviously, so is Cirque du Soleil in the model they use and their attitude to cultures around the world What is uncommon, however, is for circus to be talked about in those terms, and I think that's a shame. It's seen as countercultural in a vague sort of way, and it's very unformed. The people involved as well may have made some political decision, they've sort of dropped out, but they might not see it as working in politics. Circus can bring in issues of gender politics through its performativity, and self-presentation, and the way relationships are presented on stage. We struggle to develop awareness of that with the students and even with some of the staff. People have takes on things, and sometimes there is awareness, but sometimes there isn't. Circus is a great home for people who don't necessarily fit in elsewhere, too, and my model is all about empowering people who would be rather powerless otherwise. Circus does literally empower – you gain confidence through success, you help people discover themselves and value their identity whatever that is. Rather than have them saying, I'm not good at this, that, or the other – which is what they have been taught – they say, well, I am good at this, and these are my values. It provides an alternative structure where there is a huge degree of acceptance. I've come out of discussions where circus schools are saying we need to train people to do a profession which will last ten years, but education is much bigger than that. You've got to train them for life. You've got to train them to think and how to be independent, how to explore and research. They might stop doing the skills after a few years, they might not get a job, and that doesn't matter. Even if they aren't the world's greatest aerialist, it doesn't mean they can't be a fantastic creative person, or just a fantastic person in other ways.