Contemporary circus is making ever-increasing ripples on the surface of the UK performing arts scene and, for three days every other spring, the Canvas showcasing event allows industry professionals to look deeper into the swell of current circus creation to access a range of productions that mainstream attention otherwise misses.
The event is hosted by the City Circ network, a consortium of London-based organisations dedicated to the promotion and development of circus activity. This year, from 18-20th April, four of the core venues played host to 54 different companies, presenting more than 70 projects in various stages of development. Some are ready to tour and looking for bookings, others are in the final stages of creation and require residencies and production support, while still more are looking for commissioning partners or hosts for early research and development on new ideas.
The Canvas website provides a directory giving details of each company formally pitching work at the event, complete with technical requirements and current progress. Other work is introduced via informal networking, or a series of ‘arts market’ stalls where companies can display their promotional material.
The delegates attending number over 100 this year. The usual crowd of circus insiders is overrun with festival programmers, bookers for venues and independent producers on a wider scale. At one point I am chatting to a writer researching a CBeebies pitch; over lunch I find myself talking to the organiser for the European Juggling Convention, which will take place in Britain in 2019. Even those who spend all their working days inside the circus bubble are able to discover new artists whose work aligns with their own, or differs in surprising ways.
Previously the showcase has been primarily for work produced in the UK. This year, however, Canvas is partnered with delegations from Catalonia and Finland to build on international relationships and broaden touring opportunities for local and incoming artists. Through the work presented we get a sense of the dark-edged experimental Finnish style and the accomplished, warm Catalan clowning that give each region their national character. We hear about festivals Trapezi (bring your sunglasses) and Cirko (bring your coat), and notice – not for the first time – that the UK is behind the times with no national advocacy organisation to match other countries’ efforts.
Once upon a time, there was an independent Circus Development Agency in the UK, but they have long since been offline, with only an all-but-abandoned Facebook group left to share information on jobs and training opportunities, which I moderate in a voluntary capacity with stage manager Louise Waters. The old CDA website has a holding page suggesting a new Circus Arts Network is ‘coming soon’, but that ‘soon’ has so far been over three years. My hope – and intention – is that next year’s #Circus250 celebrations commemorating Philip Astley’s first modern circus in 1768 will be able to generate a legacy that includes a revitalised national advocacy centre to bring the UK circus sector into line with other countries, championing classical, post-classical, experimental and social circus activity all under one banner.
During Canvas, we were introduced to opportunities and support schemes to benefit circus artists, including the Up & Out Network and Lab:Time creation residencies, the new TelepART fund for mobility between Finland and the UK/Ireland, and the forthcoming #Amplitude2018 events for ethnically diverse circus and visual performance artists. A full run down of all the pitches and presentations is included in the Storify below, including the evening trips out to full-length shows being presented at three of the host venues.
On Tuesday we saw the Finnish Cie Nuua present their second show, Taival, at Jacksons Lane, re-contextualising fetish-based practices as loving and philosophical explorations of life. Wednesday offered a choice between the exciting new-wave British company Fauna, at the same venue with a preview of their self-titled debut production, or a visit to the Roundhouse for the extraordinary acrobatics ensemble Cie XY with It’s Not Yet Midnight/Il N’est Pas Encore Minuit. The final evening was a second chance to see Cie XY, or to catch Kin, Barely Methodical Troupe’s follow up to their hugely successful debut, Bromance.
It’s rare for so many circus-focused heads to get together in one place, and Canvas is a great chance to encounter new ideas and people to inform future projects, as well as to get a refreshed picture of the current state of the industry. I’m certain I was not the only one leaving feeling revitalised and driven, and keen to see how things move forward between now and the next Canvas two years down the line.
I was especially interested to hear about three separate projects working towards creative description for visually impaired audiences, projects working with interactive digital technologies, and autobiographical projects from racially diverse artists. The future’s bright: the future’s circus.