It’s been announced that Circus Space, one of the leading facilities in the UK for learning traditional Circus skills, has been recognised as the UK centre for excellence by the government and will be renamed, The National Centre for Circus Arts. It’s the only institution in the UK where one can earn a degree in Circus Arts. The move has come in an effort to keep home grown talent here in the UK, where Circus has taken a dive in the past decades, often considered as the black sheep of the performing arts family.
Before I start treading on thin ice and risk upsetting anyone with my supercilious tone, I personally believe contemporary Circus arts to be nothing short of incredible. At their best, these people are well rounded athletes, comparable to Olympic gymnasts but with the charisma and stage presence to be an entertainer. In the case of companies like Cirque Du Soleil and Limbo, they are jacks of all trades and masters of each one. Far from The Simpsons episode where Homer goes to Clown College, this is serious shit.
That being said, as much as I wouldn’t want to endure a more “stereotypical” circus performance of clowns throwing buckets of shredded paper at each other with painted tears on their white powdered faces, symbolic of the inner anguish and existential nausea that echoes in their mind saying “why didn’t I become a doctor like my mother told me”, I know there are many people out there that consider this an art form too.
Ever since I started Unicycling, and I know I’m no stranger in saying this, I often hear the never ending mockery, mantra like in it’s frequency “Are you going to join the Circus?” “I suppose you’re going to become a clown then?”. All synonyms for “We don’t take you seriously” and “Get a real hobby/job”. Consequently, my developing disdain and dislike for this cliché assumption and the condescending way I’m often addressed has meant that my life’s mission and that of Voodoo Unicycles, has been to forge a path for our sport as just that, an urban athletic activity and not a performance. To condemn that stereotype as old fashioned, ill-informed and totally not cool. However, it’s also impossible to ignore where we come from and it would perhaps be disrespectful to do so. An unfavourable history is still a history and until we reinvent one wheel into Street, Trials, Muni and Flat, we will always be linked with the Circus.
So what does this mean for Unicycling? And when I say that, I mean Unicycling as a comprehensive activity, not just it’s modern, urban subsidiaries?
Again, let me be clear, reading one of the only journalistic articles about the subject on the Guardian website (you can read it too here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/mar/08/circus-school-arts-national-centre-east-london ), It’s clear that Circus Space is not going to be overrun with crusty folk using the “Jason Auld Shopping Trolley Technique” to get their balance. This is a training facility for serious, ripped up, toned, stacked, agile, flexible performance athletes but as I’ve stated, the rise of Circus has got to be tied to the rise in awareness and enthusiasm for Unicycling, I’m sure almost all would agree. The steep learning curve, often cited as the primary reason for Unicycling never being as popular as Skating or BMXing, would obviously still exist but with more people getting on Unicycles and perhaps learning the basics, we would have a pool of talent to pick from, like an arcade claw game, with the foundation to build Street, Trials, Flat and Muni skills upon.
With the rise of the internet, it would be quite logical to suggest that more people are riding than ever before but to isolate the UK scene, I’m not so sure I’d jump to that conclusion. When I ended my first few events, there were a group of riders, you knew would be at national and international events, you saw posting regularly in the forums and that you knew were learning tricks and techniques daily that would have them showcasing a new arsenal of spins and twists every time you saw them. Edd and Leo Hawkes, Lucas Wintercrane, Joe Baxter, Joe Hodges, AJ Harris, Dale Entwistle, Mike Swarbrick and later on, our very own Mike Taylor and Simon Berry. Mike Swarbrick was the first guy to land a triple backflip god damnit! And his backflip variations, although not exclusive to his repertoire, were relatively ground-breaking at the time. Casual rides were more frequent, The famous Northern Unicycle Trials Sessions (NUTS for short and shits and giggles), the legendary London rides, often mentioned like myths amongst younger riders, sometimes with the addition of a Unicorn or a quest for the Holy Grail. Fast forward to 2014, BUC (British Unicycling Convention) has been cancelled for the 3rd time in 4 years, the UK forums have shut down and the UUU (our “governing body”) is on the verge of collapse. Your average London ride will attract the nearest locals and long gone are the days where foreign riders would travel to the UK to ride with the best of British.
Of course I’ll listen to arguments that there are far more Flat riders than once upon a time and it’s almost impossible to monitor the number of people picking the Unicycle up for fun, who don’t engage the community via social networking, so I can accept that I may be glorifying the past but I doubt anyone would argue that there is growth in the scene.
Can this announcement about a BA in Circus Arts be a boost for our sport or are the two so far removed that they are no longer relevant? Is the alternative Unicycling scene growing in your area? Worldwide? Or are we in decline? Let us know what you think.