Meeting the Commonwealth Youth Circus performers

Performers at the Commonwealth Circus and Parkour School warm up and train for the 2014 Games. Picture: Robert Perry
Performers at the Commonwealth Circus and Parkour School warm up and train for the 2014 Games. Picture: Robert Perry
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Have you ever wanted to join the circus? A group of youngsters have been given the chance as part of next year’s Commonwealth Games. But how are they shaping up? Ruth Walker went to find out

Govan. The rain is tipping down, it’s barely daylight, and Google Maps has led me to an unprepossessing building shrouded in scaffolding. A faceless sentinel buzzes me through two sets of doors and I start to climb – one flight, two – I lose count of the steps.

When, finally, I arrive, panting, at the top, I enter a bright attic room with bare floorboards. It’s like the kids from Fame in there. Young people are juggling, stretching, doing the splits, handstands. I’m pretty sure I see some legwarmers somewhere.

You want to join the circus? Well right here’s where you start paying. One hundred and fifty young people answered an ad looking for members of the new Commonwealth Youth Circus. The prerequisites? A good basis in dance, gymnastics, acrobatics, circus or parkour were all desirable, but the tutors were also looking for creativity, watchability and willingness to pitch in. That led to 80 formal applications, 45 of whom went through the arduous audition process.

The 18 loose-limbed individuals gathered in Govan tonight are the best of the best, the chosen few who will accompany the Queen’s baton relay in the run-up to next summer’s Commonwealth Games. But before that, they have a lot of hard work to do.

“There is definitely still a public perception that the circus has clowns and custard pies,” says CYC producer Phyllis Martin. “I went to London to apply for a research grant in front of a distinguished panel and the first question they asked me was, ‘Does your circus have tigers in it?’

“But a contemporary circus is all about the human body and movement; it’s much more sophisticated, has much more depth to it, than that perception. So there’s still a lot of education to be done in terms of audiences, but in the cultural sector it’s understood to be an artform. There’s a lot of amazing work being done across the channel. The French circus scene is very well developed; Cirque du Soleil have done a lot in that sense to widen people’s perception of it. Italy, too, has a vibrant circus scene.

“In Russian and Chinese circus culture it’s supreme athleticism and that helps get the message across as well; although the end result may be something playful or fun, the process they have to go through to get there is utterly brutal. Anyone who thinks the circus is silly should try trapeze class.”

Each individual student had to get through a gruelling audition that included holding a handstand for a minute, measuring the perfect box splits, counting pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups. They will be required to complete between 17 and 22 hours of tailored training every week over the next nine months. But, more than that, they will need something extra special that makes them stand out as a performer.

“In their application, rather than a headshot, we asked them to do a full-length photo,” says Martin. “And they were brilliant because you see so much of someone’s character. We had everything from people balancing on top of football goalposts to dressing up as Spider-Man and hanging off a fence. Those photos and what they told us about people and how much they threw themselves into that definitely affected the decision. And how they wrote about it; how important it was to them.

“What makes a good circus performer,” she explains, “is discipline and a LOT of practice. But, to my mind, what makes a great performer is that level of discipline and then someone bringing something of themselves. It’s the difference between gymnastics being a professional sport, where everyone does exactly the same, and circus, where everyone does something different – bringing emotion and character and having that something that gets an audience hooked.

“What I’m really interested to see over the year is where these 18 young people go. There will be extroverts, there will be introverts, there will be amazing emotional characters and there will be the superhuman performers.”

The Commonwealth Youth Circus is the culmination of four years of work and campaigning by three Glasgow companies that are at the forefront of physical training and performance in Scotland: Bright Night International, which combines circus, parkour, dance and acrobatics; Glasgow Parkour Coaching; and Aerial Edge, which specialises in aerial acrobatics. The Commonwealth Games simply gave them a common purpose and, crucially, the funding that had, until now, been impossible to secure.

“Elite talent development,” says Martin, “the bit at the top, is the hardest bit to get money for because you’re not addressing social issues, you’re not doing community work. We have to invest quite a lot of money and quite a lot of time into these 18 young people. They all have existing backgrounds, but only a handful come with a circus skill – others have gymnastics, trampolining, parkour – and we’re turning them into professional-level performers. The Commonwealth Games are the perfect opportunity to do this. They’ll get the same level of professional training you get all over the world, that will get you into a circus degree.”

OK, rewind. There’s a degree in circus?

Absolutely, says Martin. “It’s a really viable career, particularly for gymnasts. They are considered veterans and over the hill in their 20s and they’ll maybe coach but there’s not really another route for them. But in other countries, such as Canada, they have a well-developed circus scene and they see it as a very specific career route. There’s a circus degree course in London, and diploma courses elsewhere down south, but nothing in Scotland because it fell foul of the cuts.”

The youngest of the group has just turned 13 – Robbie Griffith, a parkour prodigy – while they also count a competition trampolinist, a champion sports acrobat and jugglers in their number. Eight are from Glasgow and the surrounding area, some have travelled from England to be part of the group, and one has come as far as New Zealand. While they’re warming up – and this is just week two – I hear talk about one girl giving up smoking; one of the boys is on a diet.

“They’re being guided how to get the best out of themselves,” says Martin, “and you only get out of your body what you put into it. The miserable faces in the audition were not about having to do 100 press-ups or train seven days a week; it was that they weren’t going to be allowed energy drinks and pizza. Our ex-trampolining champion is the one who’s struggling the most with eating green things.”

One of the chosen few is Laura Harrison, 19, from Edinburgh. A contemporary dancer since the age of 13, Harrison has completed a modern apprenticeship in creative industries. “I auditioned for CYC with a friend,” she says. “We walked in and thought, ‘Crap! What are we doing?’ There were people doing flips, splits, they were really flexible and I was just like, ‘I’m a breakdancer.’”

Specialising in acrobatics and parkour, she says the training is “really, really hard”, but adds: “I’m getting some new skills, meeting some new people, enjoying a new challenge. Hopefully, if I find I really enjoy it, I’ll enrol in circus school.”

For juggler Will Borrell, 23, the Commonwealth Youth Circus is a natural home.

“I learned to juggle when I was a kid, but never really thought much of it,” he says. “But I kept at it, joined the juggling society at university, and started going to juggling conventions all over the world. You get to meet lots of amazingly talented people there; not just jugglers but also acrobats and dancers. There’s a real progression of circus arts, a cross-breeding of different influences. Internet and sharing videos has made it so much more accessible.”

Having graduated from Edinburgh University in the summer, he has been involved in fire shows – performing at Beltane and corporate events. But he hasn’t just ditched that business degree.

“Studying business has made me look at the whole community in a different way. There are lots of aspects of juggling where it can come into play, whether as a teacher or a performer, you can have a training space, an agency, a touring company. So I’m trying to decide what kind of aspect of that I want to be involved in. But at the moment I just want to spend a lot of time juggling.”

Sam McFarlane’s love of adrenaline sports started when he was young.

“My dad bought me a garden trampoline, thought I was going to kill myself on it, so entered me into a club,” says McFarlane, 23. This was the beginning of a champion two-and-a-half-year trampolining career. “When I left, that’s when my adrenaline sports started.”

He saw videos about parkour on YouTube and was hooked. “Trampolining was OK, but I was always learning little moves by myself, a bit of breakdancing and stuff like that, so I thought parkour was excellent. It’s movement in its basic form.”

In his pursuit of sporting excellence, he’s broken 15 bones, suffered three concussions, three lacerations, had facial reconstructive surgery, bitten through his tongue and broken a few teeth.

The Glasgow youngster’s circus specialisms are parkour, acrobatics, staff and poi, and he hopes to pursue his official parkour qualifications when he leaves CYC. “I’m so passionate about the sport – it’s what defines me as a person,” he says.

Cathi Sell, 20, from Aberdeenshire, was “always interested in circus things”. Her passion for performance has led to work in physical theatre, but her career choice does occasionally raise eyebrows. “It is a little bit surreal,” she says. “People ask me what I do and I say, ‘I’m in the circus,’ and they always think I’m taking the p***. But it’s really fun. My specialisms are acro and aerial, but I’m also loving learning other skills such as parkour.”

And after the Commonwealth Games? “I want to do more circus training,” she says, “and more physical training, but I’m just exhausted right now. I think all of us are.”

As well as touring with the baton relay, the Commonwealth Youth Circus plans to do workshops, outdoor extravaganzas and indoor shows, many of which will be free.

“We’re showing people this is what circus can be,” says Martin. “It can be contemporary, it can be sophisticated, it can be elegant.

“For the wider project, we hope to demonstrate there’s a need for it, there are amazing young people who are capable of it, and that a project of this type could be an ongoing programme.”

As for the youngsters, when the year is up, what happens to them then? Is there such a thing as the circus scrap heap? “Some of them will apply for degree-level circus skills,” says Martin, “others will go straight into professional employment with touring shows or as solo artists.”

The opportunities are growing for those who want to get involved in circus, and for the rest of us who just want to watch it. She adds: “Archaos are about to start a run on the West End. No Fit State – who performed to full houses during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – are phenomenal and are one of the companies who inspired me when I was working on cabaret in the Fringe as a 23-year-old.”

There may not be much in the way of clowns and custard pies and performing tigers any more, but the circus is changing in a positive, exciting way. “It boils down to a few individuals just having a strong love for it and going out and doing it,” says Martin.