1. Re-establishing Circus with a Brand New Professional Circus Training Facility
The earthquakes ruined everything: my city, my profession, my life — but I am the proverbial Phoenix, and I am not alone, as there are thousands now rising from the rubble. The violence of the earthquakes in 2010 & 2011 shut down the only professional circus-training programme and community hub in Aotearoa/New Zealand — Circo Arts, leaving a well established circus community homeless. Still, circus people are the epitome of resilience and our story is but an echo of the transformative power that the circus arts can have on people’s lives around the world.
After the earthquakes decimated the city and surrounding regions, a few part-time shared circus spaces popped up, but were inevitably shut-down too, as all the city’s buildings went through engineering risk assessments and were deemed unfit for use. Without a ‘permanent’ training facility, the community had nowhere to gather. In time, it became imperative that we needed our very own full-time venue to rebuild our community, ourselves, and to provide a social-hub. Most of the community had left the city to earn a living, and fair enough, those left were getting by temporarily practicing in parks, beaches, rigging in trees, or any warehouse beam that would support us.
Upon deciding to stay in the disaster-torn city, my wife Mim and I decided to approach the Christchurch City Council for the start-up capital funding required to secure a safe warehouse space and establish a circus school. Initial funding was granted at $74,945 NZD and we set about designing the space to be ready for use by World Circus Day on April 16th, 2016. The amount of funding granted was an unprecedented action within the circus community of Christchurch and New Zealand. Never before had such an amount been allocated to the circus community, which has been received as a huge boost in our confidence and validation. The city council is working hard to bring life back to the central city and we’re a part of that initiative. Recently, we’ve been granted a further $74,000 NZD to keep our doors open and get to the sustainability mark. The vast bulk of the funding was allocated to assist us in paying the lease on our building over three years. The rest of it has gone to installing rigging/trussing, mats, juggling gear, and other various circus apparatus so we can run classes and gain an income.
2. Circus Education as Self-empowerment
At Circotica, our teaching and learning hinge on holistic self-empowerment. The destruction of our city and infrastructure has left many traumatised–our teachers and students included. Empowerment is a great thing in general, but having Circotica enables us to work through our trauma’s in the fun, supportive and challenging framework of circus education. We encourage our teachers and students to be critical and creative thinkers in their training. We instruct them in technical specifics of good form, function and safety (with aerials, acrobatics, etc.) but try not to spoon-feed them too much on how it’s always been done. There’s the tried and true techniques of circus training as a solid foundation, but once that’s in place, we encourage the student to explore their innate potential. This method has wondrous healing properties. At its simplest form, a general teaching example might be for us to give a student three moves to work on. The students puts them together and in whatever order interests them. We might suggest try doing it in reverse to get started, but we emphasize that we expect them to trust themselves and value what they come up with. If they get stuck, we are always there to help and guide them of course. We challenge them to figure things out for themselves, especially with regards to transitions between moves and with expressing their own dispositions in character work. That way we don’t get a whole bunch of copycats. Rather, their own unique idiosyncrasies get a chance to surface. While I’ve seen this phenomenon a little bit in dance, acting and music – only in circus – have I found that people’s personal idiosyncrasies are gold, and the more they can manifest them, the more amazing their performance can be.
We acknowledge our students different body types and abilities, so they can discover ways in which things work best for them. They then get a sense of learning that they’ll never forget and it builds their confidence to generate their own creative content for acts and to not depend on the teachers for motivation. This of course can be quite daunting for students, especially newbies, when they realise that they won’t just be made to go through the motions of a dry-rigid curriculum. The post-lesson buzz of achievement is always noticeable because of this, though it requires a lot more brain-power to think for oneself. Still, we believe it ultimately creates a more agile and resilient performer and person.
From a management perspective we believe in the importance of credentials. We’re in the process of trying to re-establish another circus degree programme. From my own experience, people have an ambivalent attitude toward circus qualifications. It has become a well-worn cliché within the industry: “I don’t need a piece of paper to prove…”, “Yeah, I got a circus diploma and nobody has ever asked to see it.” Although you may not currently need qualifications to be a circus performer, Mim and I have found that our own qualifications, degrees, and diplomas have emboldened us to work smart and have played a decisive factor in us gaining the trust of the city council to make good use of our funding — essentially proving to them that we are serious about what we do. It also gave us the required motivation and endurance to wade through the oceans and waves of paper-work: applications, administration, communications and media related discourse that was crucial for us to open this facility. I’m so personally empowered by and passionate about the under-studied subject of circus that I am currently undertaking a Masters in Professional Practice with the hopes of furthering the cause of having circus recognised as an official art form in New Zealand. We believe the reintroduction of a circus specific degree programme in Christchurch will give a massive boost to the status, culture, credibility and professionalism of circus in New Zealand, and further bolster its international reputation as an innovative and creative country.
3. Circotica’s Directors and Teachers as Role Models
From the outset of this project Mim and I pledged to continue being teachers, performers and artists in addition to our new roles as directors, managers, producers, business people, and cleaners. This was important to us because we wanted to ensure that we had direct contact and influence with every one of our 120 current students. From what we’ve experienced in the industry, the greater role models are the ones that stand side-by-side with their people and uplift them. The best leaders are the ones who encourage their people to also be leaders, that are receptive to the changing needs and feedback of their people. The best way to get that feedback quickly is to be on the frontlines. Behind the scenes, Mim and I have had to spearhead a lot of the technical and bureaucratic battles alone — and together we have provided great support and relief to each other through often difficult and intensely frustrating times. There is no way that either of us could have or would have done this on our own!
Having a beginner’s mind is the most potent educational tool that one can have. Circotica teachers represent rebuilding circus arts in the city to the fullest degree. They are agents of change in an often-changing landscape.
Our teachers at Circotica are the backbone of the school. It’s their enthusiastic efforts that at times prevent Mim and I from having nervous breakdowns. They multiply our brain power and are a crucial factor in Circotica’s ability to provide a service to society. When possible, we encourage them to take ownership of the facility and allow them autonomy in how they run their classes, because we fully trust our teachers and their motivations. Additionally, all of our teachers, Mim and myself included, are also students who attend classes to further improve our skills and broaden our repertoires. Having a beginner’s mind is the most potent educational tool that one can have. Circotica teachers represent rebuilding circus arts in the city to the fullest degree. They are agents of change in an often-changing landscape.
I have a student who has battled with society’s expectations their whole life as a transgender and a Muslim, and these traumas have been further compounded by our post-disaster environment. On our recent first-birthday celebration our students put together a large thank-you card filled with their comments. This particular student wrote “Thank you for giving me back my self-confidence.” I had no words –only tears…
4. Scholarship and Charity
We’ve noticed that most of our clientele must be doing okay financially because they happily pay their fees on time, which must be a sign that the Christchurch economy is finally stable. There are a few who need financial relief and we’re open to providing that if we can, especially if the students in particular are really ‘loving circus’, which we often hear as a reason. We’re grateful that we now have the resources and facilities to provide scholarship programmes to promising individuals or to those experiencing hardship to help them further their circus training. We’ve had some sponsors offer up funds formally with the Thom Monckton and Cooper Scholarships for Promise in Circus Arts, and Circotica also absorbs the cost of some youth students who simply cannot afford the ongoing fees, but receive massive psychosocial benefits from the school. Each of our end of term student showcases are a charity event which is really fulfilling and gives us a genuine sense of giving back to society. One of the requirements of our funding was to donate to charity in some way. Although even without this requirement, we would’ve done that because charity is built into our business model. Yes, we need to be sustainable and grow economically, but certainly not beyond our means. We believe we’ve been entrusted with a task to rebuild our beautiful city and in the best way we know how – bringing joy with circus! Some charities we’ve donated to include: Trees for Canterbury – Aviva Families and Circus Kathmandu — a company Mim and I worked with in Nepal in 2014. They provide a social-circus safety net for young people taken out of human-trafficking scenarios. Nepal too was devastated by Earthquakes the year after we left.
As an aside, Mim and I are thankful to be making a living as artists, which is no small feat in New Zealand. The hours we do outweigh the income we make. But we’re paying our bills, have food on the table and occasionally get a blissful holiday, which makes the ‘free work’ way less arduous and anyway, we’re still having great fun doing it.
5. Holistic Health
Christchurch city and the wider Canterbury area has suffered a great deal over the last seven years and mental health has become a palpable concern. Death, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, grief, loss, rage-anger, depression and the specter of suicide, are now our bedfellows. It seems that what was once (pre-quakes) isolated phenomena has now become etched upon all our faces. The local circus community has been effectively shattered and scattered everywhere. Some left to live or work in Wellington (New Zealand’s capital city), Australia, Canada, Finland, and parts of Asia. Most of our performer-peers who stayed in Christchurch are now working at Circotica. Some who left have even been attracted back to the city because, in part, of the work we’re doing. This was included in our funding application and approval: attracting circus artists back to the city to assist in the rebuilding of the arts culture, and slowly but surely it’s working.
Mental health correlates to physical health. The two are never separate, but feed each-other. What may seem to originate in the mind then manifest in the body is illusory, both ‘sides’ generate emotion and pain. This is where the psycho-somatic/socio-spiritual benefits of circus arts come in. Circus skills require wholeness, as in, you must be wholly engaged for your art to look awesome. Circotica provides a place for people to re-strengthen their mind, body, and spirit. Our first and foremost concern when we decided to do this was to create a community space where communion can actually happen. Without a shared and safe physical location, healing could never even begin. We did this by having fairly strict safety guidelines and management policies that enabled our members to trust that when they come in to train they would not be subjected to individual whim, random people or random situations. We have an enrollment PDF that explicitly states our health and safety regulations and anti-discrimination policies.
Once we had the space, we then had to make it safe so that people could feel at ease to work through their issues. We’re not an open gym where people can come to get fit. We’re a community of sensitive and creative creatures who want to safely develop their potential to then share with the world. Fitness and strength is a by-product of circus training. We also encourage our students to take the long view with the motto Circus skills for life, whether you’re a professional performer or a dabbler.
Mim and I learned a great deal from our main teachers at Circo-Arts: Stanislav and Svetlana Shchukin from the Great Moscow Circus. The couple was in their 60’s and 70’s when they were teaching us and they were strong, spritely, funny and gorgeous human beings (and still are no doubt). This is what we hope to embody ourselves, and this is what we personally aim for. Aim high and Bring joy is another of our mottos at Circotica. We feel it is our responsibility to make sure that our students and audiences experience thought-provoking love and laughter with us.
The New Zealand Circus Community and Industry is currently undergoing a revolution — it’s an exciting time to be alive here! There are a few main professional training spaces in the North Island – Wellington: Circus Hub and Whitireia, and also in Auckland: Dust Palace and Flip n Fly now are making great strides in circus education and production. There is the recent establishment of Aotearoa New Zealand Circus Association, and the New Zealand Circus Community facebook page. With the upcoming (in-development) New Zealand Circus Schools Alliance and New Zealand Circus Directory (and many other companies and initiatives forming) there’s a real buzz in the air. The national community is making history by consolidating our powers, communicating effectively, and working together to take our circus to the next level and then to take on the world!
Danny Syme is creative director, performing artist and writer at Circotica in Christchurch, New Zealand. He has written and directing many circus-theatre productions for Circotica and a few externally as a freelancer. Some of his poetic and travel writing has appeared in various blogs and periodicals. He graduated from Circo-Arts in 2005 with a Diploma in Circus-Arts, and from Massey University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies, where he focused on creative writing, digital media and philosophy. Danny is passionate about holistic/alternative teaching methods and encouraging philosophical/poetic understanding in students and audiences alike. He loves to make people laugh and gasp and one day will write a book - about something. Mim Syme is managing director, performing artist and producer at Circotica in Christchurch, New Zealand. Originally from Wagga Wagga, Australia, Mim has been in circus since the age of 11. She studied circus and dance at the Turku Academy of Circus in Finland, and at CircoArts in New Zealand. She performs internationally, and is a highly sought teacher and community circus educator, specialising in: contortion, adagio, hand-balance, aerials, dance and tumbling. She loves being a teacher, performer and choreographer, and has a CPIT Bachelor of Performing Arts in Circus Arts and Physical Theatre.
All photos provided courtesy of Circotica