Opening Up Pathways for Emerging Talents – Interview with Nadja Berger, Founder of the YOUNG STAGE International Circus Festival - CircusTalk

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Opening Up Pathways for Emerging Talents – Interview with Nadja Berger, Founder of the YOUNG STAGE International Circus Festival

As the YOUNG STAGE International Circus Festival gears up for its 15th edition from May 2-6, 2024, we had the privilege of sitting down with Nadja Berger, the festival’s founder and driving force, who has dedicated almost two decades of her life to opening up pathways for emerging talents in the circus arts. In this exclusive interview, Nadja shares insights into the 2024 festival’s lineup, professional programs, and the application process in general.

Since its inception in 2007, YOUNG STAGE has evolved into Switzerland’s largest circus festival and one of the world’s most significant platforms for showcasing young circus artists.  YOUNG STAGE has remained true to its original mission of promoting contemporary circus arts in Switzerland. Much like theater and dance, the festival aims to ensure recognition and support for this dynamic art form. With a commitment to equity and inclusivity, the festival maintains one of the most transparent application processes in the industry, welcoming artists from around the globe. 

Nadja Berger, the founder and creative force behind YOUNG STAGE, has been instrumental in shaping the festival’s success. A former sports physiotherapist turned event manager and show producer, Berger’s passion for the performing arts led her to establish YOUNG STAGE 17 years ago. Her dedication has earned her international recognition, including prestigious awards and invitations to serve on esteemed juries within the industry. Nadja was awarded the “Basler Stern” for her internationally recognized work, was voted one of the “100 most successful women in business” in Switzerland’s cultural sector and was a jury member at the “CODARTS” Art Academy in Rotterdam and at the world’s largest circus festival, the “Cirque de Demain” in Paris, among others.

 Nadja’s commitment to nurturing young artists is evident through her multifaceted role within the industry. As the director and artistic director of YOUNG STAGE, she has elevated the festival into a premier platform for emerging talent. Annually, hundreds of artists from diverse backgrounds eagerly vie for the chance to showcase their skills on its stage. In addition to performance opportunities, Nadja is dedicated to providing mentorship and professional development programs for participants. Moreover, the organization recently unveiled its ambitious plan to establish a Circus Center in Basel, poised to serve as a focal point for Switzerland’s circus community and an international hub for the circus arts.

Nadja Hauser, Festival Director/Artistic Director at YOUNG STAGE International Circus Festival  © Photo Dominik Plüss

Andrea Honis: Every festival year brings not only new talents, acts, and the opportunity to meet young emerging artists, but also the chance to detect new trends in the art forms, including the creative inspirations behind the acts, new disciplines, and other innovations. What stood out for you throughout the 2024 application process? How many submissions did you receive, and how many artists were selected for the festival?

Nadja Berger:We received a total of 465 application dossiers from 58 nations. And now, after the selection process, we have invited 13 acts with 27 artists from 11 nations to the festival.

 During this year’s application process, we noticed that many circus schools in Europe all teach a similar style, which, to be honest, worries us a little. Showing skills is “out”, standing out from the crowd is also out, incorporating profound political and/or social messages and themes into the artistic performances is extremely important. It is imperative that the audience is encouraged to think. Enjoying and leaning back is no longer an option. It is often relatively “heavy stuff” that you get to see. In our eyes, the performances are increasingly moving away from actual artistry in the direction of “contemporary performance art”, which in most cases only has a small target audience. It is often so small that the artists – despite cultural funding – cannot make a living from their (dream) profession. And this is precisely where we see a major problem.

Because in our role as a support platform for young people at the beginning of their careers, wesee it as our duty to repeatedly draw attention to the need to train artists in such a way that they can later make a living from their job. They need to be made aware of the various performance and income opportunities that exist today. We are not of the opinion that everyone should perform “exclusively” in large, commercially viable productions. However, we strongly advise people to try everything once and to think and work as flexibly as possible in order to be able to make a living from it. Our motto for this year, “Innovative between Modernity and Tradition,” has emerged from all these insights. We want to show that modernity and tradition do not have to be mutually exclusive, but that they can actually inspire each other and that there is a great deal of potential in their intersection.

AH: For those artists who are not familiar with the application process, can you briefly explain who this festival is recommended for and what the criteria are for the applications?

NB: YOUNG STAGE is recommended for professionally working and freshly trained artists from all over the world. The maximum age is 27; for groups, the average age counts.

In the selection process, we pay particular attention to the uniqueness of the performance, surprises, humor, and new or very emotional approaches. And very important in general is the artistic level that someone shows. This is always the base for everything. A festival is also a place where producers are on the lookout for new talent for their shows, so it is very important that the artists who perform at YS are interesting for productions and are flexible and bookable accordingly.

AH: Young Stage  is a competition festival. Besides moral appreciation, are there any other tangible assets that come with the award, such as training opportunities, contracts, or monetary awards?

NB: Yes, all our prizes and awards are endowed with money (from 500 to 5000 euros) or are linked to an engagement in a production. In addition, this year each participating artist will receive 500 euros as a kind of pocket money and additional appreciation. This cannot be compared to a fee, but together with the platform, the network and the corresponding career boost that the artists receive and with all the input and tips and tricks from the workshops, a festival participation is a very good overall package. We hear this again and again as feedback from the artists.

AH: Who is on the jury this year, and what was  your jury selection process?

NB: In keeping with our motto, the jury is made up of experts with very different backgrounds. Some have a very traditional background, others a more contemporary one. Controversial discussion within the jury is very important to us. All opinions count, and in the end, the greatest common denominator is found.

NADJA SIEGER, Actress, singer, dancer, presenter, voice actor, writer, director, Switzerland – SANDRA WAWER, Artistic Director @ GOP Varieté, Germany – ADRIAN PORTER, Head of Higher Education @ National Centre for Circus Arts, London Managing Board member FEDEC – URS PILZ Artistic Director @ International Circus Festival, Monte Carlo President of the European Circus Association & Fédération Mondiale du Cirque – DIANA SALLES Artist, Performer & Dancer – LOUIS BOURGAUT Head of Casting @ Collectif «The 7 Fingers», Canada – IRINA NAUMENKO Artist & Casting Advisor @Cirque du Soleil, Canada – IAN JENKINS Casting Director & Project Development – Europa Park Germany Creative Director Blue Banana Entertainment, Germany

AH: In addition to the Festival program, YOUNG STAGE also offers a growing professional/networking program that runs alongside the festival programs. Can you tell us a little bit about wider programming? What will be the highlight this year? And how young artists who are not selected in the program can take advantage of the networking/ workshop programs?

NB: Our workshop program is very close to my heart. Every year it’s very exciting for me and the team to hear where the artists are at and what worries or fears they have.

We have many different workshops to which all people from the performing arts sector are admitted free of charge.

Andréanne Quintal, herself a very experienced artist, will talk a lot about her life, share her own experiences and give lots of important tips and tricks along the way. She will talk about contract negotiations, how much you are actually worth, why you get so many jobs and when you don’t get booked. 

Urs Jäckle, Artistic Director of the Krystallpalast Varieté in Leipzig, will discuss the importance of the “uniqueness” of artistic performances. What can you do to avoid being one of many and to get as many jobs as possible?

I will be holding a workshop myself and taking on the perspective of a show producer with the artists. It’s about questions like “Who is your audience?” “Is art no longer art if you earn money with it?”, “What risks does a producer take?” “How important is fundraising and what is the difference to sponsorship?”

Then there will be a panel discussion on the topic “How can contemporary and traditional circus inspire each other?”

And our famous Circus Speed Dating will conclude the Professional Events.

The registration for the workshops is now open. 

AH: The Open Air Circus weekend precedes the festival. It is a city-wide free street show event. Can you tell us more about it? Who programs this part of the festival, and how can artists apply to be selected to perform in the open air shows?

NB: The open-air programannounces the festival week and is a freely accessible open-air spectacle with many different shows and a circus course for children. It brings young creative circus directly to the people of our city.

The program is put together by our team and anyone interested in taking part can contact me by e-mail.

AH:Thank you, Nadja! As the YOUNG STAGE International Circus Festival celebrates its 15th anniversary under your leadership, it serves as a testament to the power of passion and dedication in nurturing young talent. We encourage our readers to attend the festival this year, or if you are unable to travel to Switzerland, stay tuned to their social media channels for updates on the lineup and competition.


Main Image: Nadja Berger on stage. Courtesy of YOUNG STAGE Festival.
Andrea Honis
Founder and COO -United States
Andrea, Founder of CircusTalk, is a fifth-generation member of the Hungarian Eötvös-Picard circus family. Prior to CircusTalk, she worked in advertising and performing arts management. Before starting the CircusTalk project she was Assistant Producer at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’s family series “Reel to Real” in New York City. Andrea holds a BA in Business Administration and an MFA in Performing Arts Management.
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Andrea Honis

Andrea, Founder of CircusTalk, is a fifth-generation member of the Hungarian Eötvös-Picard circus family. Prior to CircusTalk, she worked in advertising and performing arts management. Before starting the CircusTalk project she was Assistant Producer at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’s family series “Reel to Real” in New York City. Andrea holds a BA in Business Administration and an MFA in Performing Arts Management.