CircusFest 2012 preview
Not interested in circus? Then CircusFest might be for you. We preview a boundary-busting month-long event at the Roundhouse
Circus is going from strength to strength as a form of performance on the international stage, yet those who aren't actively involved in the scene often think of it in a limited way. That's why Leila Jones, circus producer at the Roundhouse and coordinator of its five-week CircusFest season, which begins March 28, insists, 'We're interested in people who think they don't like circus.'
Jones continues: 'A lot of people still see it as traditional clowns and unicycles and animals. I think that's an honourable tradition and we're lucky to come from it but circus is constantly evolving - it's a magpie art form, always stealing and borrowing to enrich itself. Or, at the other end [from traditional circus] there are things like Cirque du Soleil, which many people like but can be seen as corporate or hard to relate to. The whole world is in between those poles. Circus performers are just human beings who have taken a different career choice. At the Roundhouse, they're very close to you - you can see the sweat on their forehead, their muscles.'
Those who have seen circus performers like Marawa the Amazing or David O'Mer at shows like 'La Soirée' might understandably come away with the idea that specialist skills are the bottom line. But according to Jones, that's just the start: 'When you're watching circus and not thinking of it in that context, it's a successful show - the performers are flying through the air but they're making you think about life [and] what compels people to do things. Even if you don't do swinging trapeze, you can relate to working really hard for something. Circus is a physical representation of struggle, ambition, perfection.'
Following successful editions in 2007 and 2010, this third CircusFest might be the most exciting yet. The aim has been to celebrate the diversity of the form - 'where circus meets theatre or contemporary dance or cabaret', as Jones puts it - and the variety of work on offer is impressive. The established approach of fusing circus with street dance is represented by the world premiere of Guinean troupe Cirque Mandingue's 'Foté Foré' as well as London's own 'Funk Da Cirque!', developed with the Roundhouse's Street Circus programme. Elsewhere, literature, dance and aerialism collide in 'Lost Post', inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 novel 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close', and in 'Rime', based on Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner'.
CircusFest also offers glimpses into the form's past - 'Professor Vanessa's Wondershow' draws on the National Fairground Archive to transform the Roundhouse into a living sideshow dream (watch this page for more details next month) - and its possible futures. In 'The Great Spavaldos', Il Pixel Rosso take just two audience members at a time on a video-goggle-powered half-hour journey into a flying-trapeze double act's hidden history. 'This is circus meets contemporary performance dealing with ideas around the role of the audience,' Jones says. 'How complicit are you, how involved do you get? And you actually get on a trapeze!'
The crossover with cabaret is represented in shows such as 'Camp', a weekly night in which Scottee rounds up a superb range of performers with the explicit aim of bringing back light entertainment; and Doug Francisco's 'The Invisible Journey', a one-man epic of storytelling, comedy and song. Storytelling is also at the heart of 'Undermän', Swedish company Cirkus Cirkör's show built around the life stories of three performers who lost their partners in both performance and love. 'It's a very sophisticated, very honest story about heartbreak with that unique Scandinavian quality,' Jones says. 'I've seen grown men leave this show in tears. The performers told me about lumberjacks in northern Sweden who came up to them afterwards crying.'
Beyond the Roundhouse, the festival offers work from exciting troupes like So & So Circus and Stumble Dancecircus at Jacksons Lane; beyond performance, there are talks, film screenings, puppetry events and photographic exhibitions. 'It's not a flash in the pan,' Jones insists. 'More and more audiences are turning to circus. London audiences are sophisticated - they're getting it. We want everyone to be involved. Everyone has a bit of that thing of running away to join the circus.' Indeed - and as if to anticipate this, you can also learn trapeze skills in the car park…
CircusFest 2012 is at the Roundhouse, Wed Mar 28-April 29.