Let’s talk about circus education.
Access to becoming a professional circus artist has grown exponentially. In the 1970s the first circus programs began to educate students who weren’t born into circus families. We are now in an era with a plethora of recreational programs for participants of all ages and abilities. Circus schools in many countries offer bachelor’s degree programs, with a few even offering (and developing) master’s or doctoral work in circus arts performance. The European Federation of Professional Circus Schools (FEDEC) has conducted a variety of downloadable studies into circus education, ranging from training manuals to an assessment of key skills needed for new artists. They find that many (even most) of the people entering the circus profession are coming from circus schools (Herman, 2009). With so many circus programs claiming to train students to become professional artists, this seems like an excellent time to look at the different types of pathways that lead to a profession in circus arts, their benefits and drawbacks, and what the educational experience might be like for students. Hopefully, after this exploration, we will have a better idea of what purpose a degree in circus arts might serve.
But first, in order to talk about circus education, we need to talk about educational objectives–those goals laid forth by any educational program. A good evaluation of any program is testing to see if the student is on track to accomplish the objectives of that program or course. At the end of your first language course, for instance, you might be expected to write the alphabet and conjugate simple present, past and future verbs. Following, those would be evaluated through written, reading and spoken testing, to find out if the student has mastered that knowledge across the domains of interaction. (For more information from the source, see Ralph Tyler, What educational purposes should the school seek to attain (Tyler, 1949)). Of course, these are not the same course objectives applied to students pursuing careers in translation or poetry. Just as the level of those different programs require a different learning objective, the objectives of the program can be used to understand the level of coursework a student is expected to undertake.
When it comes to circus arts, understanding the program objective is essential when determining what kind of content should be offered and evaluated. A clear objective helps teachers and students to achieve their best, and to modify content or implementation if needed.
Broadly, circus programming can be categorized according to its overall objectives. Recreational circus, whether for youth or adults, teaches circus techniques with the goal of personal development, physical fitness, and cooperative learning. Social circus is differentiated from recreational circus because it specifically addresses a high-risk population (economic, developmental, survivors, etc.) and uses circus as a means of discovering empowerment and self-knowledge. Pre-professional and professional training schools have a primary objective of preparing students for professional work in circus arts, and the variety of knowledge that entails. The boundaries between these domains are often permeable; for instance, a student may begin in recreational circus and later pursue professional training, a professional artist may combine performance contracts with social circus field work. Many of the techniques may even be the same. The dominant difference will be what kind of objectives are being evaluated.
In this article, I will specifically discuss programs with the objective of preparing professional artists. While personal growth, self-knowledge and community development are inherent components, these are not the ultimate objectivesof professional training programs. Students are not usually evaluated on criteria such as enhanced self-knowledge (even if that is one of the consequences of their education). Rather they are evaluated with regard to their ability to navigate the professional world and how their performance will be received by an audience, because that is the specific objective of professional training.
Preparation for a professional career follows three general pathways. Like the three domains mentioned above, these are not mutually exclusive and are also permeable, with students switching between methods as needed or available.
Informal Training: Apprenticeship
The first and most unique pathway is through individual apprenticeship. In the traditional circus, performers were born into a family or joined a circus troupe by leaving their previous life and responsibilities – both are forms of apprenticeship. Today, there are still people brought up to perform in circus families from very young ages. Another form of apprenticeship happens when artists from annexed disciplines, like dance or theatre, learn a specific act for a show and begin their circus performance career while working. Additionally, a student who trains with an individual coach and does not participate in an immersive program is effectively learning through apprenticeship. Those following an apprenticeship pathway have a rare opportunity — to develop a professional career without formal education. Depending upon the context of the apprenticeship, the experience can be very rich or very narrow. For instance, those who learn while participating in a performance discover how a career in circus may actually feel. They experience the rhythm of rehearsals, rest and performance, they are aware of all the associated skills — organization, lighting, marketing, costuming, etc. The drawbacks of training directly with a coach can be difficult; finding a coach that can mentor, train, and prepare you for performing in the current industry can be complicated and expensive. It requires an intensive relationship and mutual commitment to the same goals. However, the apprenticeship pathway benefits are that, once found, the relationship between student and coach provides a deep individual knowledge that can motivate and accelerate the learning process.
The second and third pathways are very similar to each other: Non-academically accredited circus schools and, of course, academically accredited circus schools. In this essay, I am using ‘accredited’ to refer to academically accredited programs. However, in some countries, there are accrediting bodies for circus programs themselves. Think, for instance, of accredited yoga instructors, or accredited rock climbing gyms. In France, the French Federation of Circus Schools (Fédération française des écoles de cirque, FFEC) accredits circus programs that do not have academic components. Because few countries have accrediting bodies for circus school, I will use ‘accredited’ as shorthand for ‘degree programs with an academic component.’
Both accredited and non-accredited programs ostensibly prepare circus artists for professional work, offering a range of courses from diverse circus disciplines, to complementary performing arts like dance and theatre, to career management techniques for acquiring and negotiating contracts. In many countries, both types of programs exist side-by-side. Both provide immersive experiences in circus arts and associated skill sets, but depending upon the size of the program the student may not feel the individual connection that having a personal coach provides. Conversely, formally organized circus programs provides students with a community and networks for personal and professional support, which can be very useful when pursuing a circus career.
Accredited Circus Programs
In many countries there are one or two circus schools that offer a post-secondary degree in circus arts. Depending upon the educational structure of the country, this could be the equivalent of a vocational degree (2-year, college, like Montreal’s national circus school ENC) or a bachelor’s degree (3 or 4 year, university, like NICA in Australia). Most of these programs began as professionalizing circus training programs and then either sought accreditation for their own program or collaborated with an existing college or university to develop the degree. Accredited programs offer students an intensive training experience in circus arts and also include academic requirements that are recognized within the academic framework and also transferable to other academic pursuits. Depending upon the program, an accredited circus school may be more or less expensive, intensive, or comprehensive than a non-accredited circus school. At the very least, the curriculum developers in the accredited schools have more hoops to jump through because they are beholden to government educational criteria.
Non-Academically Accredited Programs
In non-academically accredited circus programs, the curriculum developers have much more liberty when deciding the program, which can benefit the students. Because these programs are easier to launch from an administrative standpoint, requiring little to no outside approval for the content, it is up to the student to research the program, teachers, graduates, content and reputation in order to discover if the program provides what the student is seeking. Furthermore, while committing to a three-year accredited degree program makes sense for many students, non-accredited professionalizing programs have a diversity of timelines. This can be disillusioning for students who wish to be ready for professional work in a matter of months (which is unlikely). However the variable timelines provide flexibility to students who cannot commit to a three-year program immediately, who may be transitioning from another career or who may be navigating possible career options. Students may take a 9-month program, and then pursue individual training with a coach they developed a strong connection to, or change locations to expand their network and training styles.
Ultimately, however, the significant difference between the two above tracks is that the former provides some kind of degree in circus arts, with requisite core academic subjects, while the latter does not.
Or is that the only difference? Can two versions of the same program, one accredited and one vocational, both aim for the same goal? How can two programs with different curricula claim that they are aiming for the exact same learning objectives? Put another way, what’s the point of a degree in circus arts?
To investigate this question, I began the research for my masters degree at Concordia University, where I studied both post-secondary circus institutions in Quebec: the National Circus School in Montreal (ENC) and the Ecole de Cirque de Québec in Quebec City. Both schools offer two intertwined professionalizing programs. The academically accredited program is called the Diplôme d’études collégiales en arts du cirque (DEC; Diploma of Collegial Studies in Circus Arts), and the professionalizing program which does not include academic requirements is the Diplôme d’études de l’école (DEE; Diploma of School Studies). While students from both tracks participate together in physical, technical, artistic and professional courses, the DEC students also take several academic courses over their three years, including Philosophy, Literature, Ethics, History and Language courses.
I wanted to understand how the objectives for each program were understood by people participating in, and administering, these two parallel tracks for becoming a professional circus artist. To do so, I conducted four focus groups at each school, one with students in the DEC and DEE programs, one with circus coaches, one with academic teachers and one with administrators. Each group answered four questions: What is the objective of the DEC program and is it the same as the objective of the DEE program? What learning experiences are necessary to achieve that objective? Are there any courses that currently exist that are not pertinent to that objective? And finally, what does success look like for graduated students? Many fascinating topics came out during discussions with the focus groups, including discussions of risk, what it means to be an artist, professional anticipations and descriptions of curricular ideology (for further reading, find my thesis on Concordia’s website).
Notably, all of the participants gave essentially the same response to the first question: The objective of both the DEC and the DEE programs is to prepare circus artists. However, the participants struggled with the reasons for including academic courses among the essential knowledge for becoming a circus artist, suggesting rather that a degree in circus arts is most helpful for future career transition or to appease those for whom paperwork is important (Funk, 2017). Otherwise put, the participants described the “circus classes” and “academic classes” as parallel, simultaneous learning objectives. Academic courses were considered a bonus, but separate from the work of becoming a circus artist.
This conversation is happening outside of the communities in Quebec’s circus schools. Many circus students, driven to acquire performance skills, perceive academic course-work as added weight. Furthermore, it seems many professional artists question what purpose a degree could serve. Seasoned performers rarely have degrees in circus arts; most of the available degree programs have only arisen in the last 10-15 years.
Certainly, the physical work and intellectual work of circus can be separated into parallel educational objectives – that model has been proven to function. When most of us imagine a circus school, the first course list we generate involves circus techniques, physical and artistic work, and perhaps knowledge of the industry. It is a viable perspective, one that reflects the history of circus arts and stemming from the apprenticeship pathway and other informal educational channels.
Is it not important for a performing artist to understand their own voice by discovering and reacting to the layers of culture that surround them, the politics, ethics and philosophies?
But if we return to our initial framework of defining a program objective, I feel that the operative word provided by the participants in my study is ‘artist.’ Participants in my research, when describing a circus artist, mentioned words like openness, idea generation, creativity, and interest in the world. As circus educators and circus students, we must ask ourselves where these elements are learned within the circus arts curriculum. Perhaps they are also embedded within the academic fields cohabitating degree programs in circus arts. After all, is it not helpful for a burgeoning artist to be familiar with the work of artists in other fields, or to discover where their practice is situated in history? Is it not important for a performing artist to understand their own voice by discovering and reacting to the layers of culture that surround them, the politics, ethics and philosophies? It is possible that a degree in circus arts compromises the time a developing artist is permitted to spend upon their technical work. But without the elements of core knowledge that are present in essential academic course-work, I ask: can we truly be preparing circus artists who will form and transform the future of circus arts?
The circus community will answer these questions over time, and through the ongoing development of circus programs, circus performance, and even the definition of circus. In the meantime, there remain three viable pathways into the circus profession. These pathways include formal and informal education, they include immersive and à la carte training, they include individual perseverance and the cultivation of social and professional networks. Few professions offer so many access points, and few offer such diverse work tasks and environments.
So, let’s talk about circus education. I look forward to the conversation.
References Funk, A. (2017). Circus Education In Québec: Balancing Academic And Kinaesthetic Learning Objectives Through an Artistic Lens. Concordia University. Herman, Z. (2009). Analysis of key skills of young professional circus artists. Brussels: European Federation of Professional Circus Schools (FEDEC). Retrieved from http://www.fedec.eu/en/ Tyler, R. (1949). What educational purposes should the school seek to attain. In Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (pp. 3–33). Chicago: University of Chicago.
Feature photo courtesy of Sylvie-Ann Paré