[This article was published in CircusMagazine #49 – December 2016]
[Author: Bauke Lievens – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
It wasn’t necessarily his ambition to become the director of a circus academy. Bim Mason studied himself as clown and mime with Jacques Lecoq in Paris. When he returned to Bristol at the end of the eighties, he started to teach at Fool Time, the first circus school in England. Eight years later Fool Time died a quiet death, brought on by a lack of state funding. It was then that Bim Mason decided, together with his former partner Helen Crocker, to start a new circus school themselves. In an old church. That godsend goes by the name of Circomedia, and has been going now since 1993, as a centre for contemporary circus with physical theatre.
Bim rounded off his doctorate at the university of Bristol with the publication of the book Provocation in Popular Culture. Since 2012 Circomedia offers a fully-fledged bachelor’s degree and from September one can also go on to study for a master’s… in circus direction! It seemed to us it was high time to have a talk.
How is it going with the British circus?
Bim Mason: “It’s growing. The quality is improving, both technically and artistically. I believe we have more cabaret work than you have. Artists tend to form duos and trios and there is less artistic ambition. The work here leans toward entertainment, which is a pity. We are trying to change all of that, but at the same time there is not really a subsidy framework here for circus. Not for the theatres, nor for the companies themselves. A few companies like Ockham’s Razor, NoFit State and Upswing form the exception to that rule.”
There seem to be a lot of aerial acrobatics (trapeze, silk, …) coming out of England, certainly from the area around Bristol. Any idea what the reason for that might be?
“Funny you should bring that up. I was just speaking today with the students about the advantages and disadvantages of different techniques, as far as careers are concerned. The aerial acrobats argued that the big advantage with their choice is that you get paid a lot better, just because it’s so spectacular.”
That’s at any rate one way of choosing your discipline during training…
“The British system of higher education encourages students to pay more attention to how they will earn their living after their education, rather than on artistic dreams or compulsion. Money is always an issue. Our students pay 9000 pounds a year for their education, and so we also feel a moral duty to guarantee them the possibility that they can earn that money back, once they have graduated. Our school used to stand much more for the follow your dream principle. But as there is virtually no circuit for artistic work in England, our graduates tended to get totally lost after graduation, wondering how in earth they were going to survive. Now we try to pay attention to both aspects.”
In your opinion, what is it that makes someone a circus artist?
“A playful and enquiring attitude. Curiosity and exploration. The ability to assimilate information coming from different sources and places. Plus the conviction that circus technique is not a goal in itself, but a means to do other things. An important question I have is if the person in question is conscious of issues and dynamics beyond the circus world. In my book I talk about the ‘bubble problem’. Circus is in itself a big bubble. School is a bubble. Your technical specialty is a bubble. That is to my mind a big problem for young circus performers. Circus is the only thing that occupies their mind. That obsession can be good and interesting, but they often have no idea what else is going on in the world. Or even in another art-form. It’s so very specialist.”
Is an artist not then precisely someone who has specialised in something?
“Yes, of course you need the tools with which to say something, but it doesn’t stop there. And this brings us to the big question of content and the difference between craft and art. But it’s your creativity and ingenuity that differentiates you from another. I often hear from teachers and directors of circus schools that young people first have to learn the discipline, and once they can do the flexes and throws, then we can start to make artists of them.”
Do you believe that?
“No, I have a completely different take on it. I think it’s important that students are creatively active from the outset with the techniques that they are learning. At our school we are devoted to that idea from the very first day. That’s how you learn to work together. That’s how you learn to be disrupted by another, to be challenged on all the things you believe to be true. (pauses to think) From conversations with directors of other circus schools I realise that everyone means something else with the term ‘circus artist’. Many say that they educate people to become artists, but what I see are craftsmen and craftswomen. People with big technical skills.”
Doesn’t that also have to do with the amount of stress placed on the process and the amount of stress placed on the result in the schools we have?
“The learning of technique is of course result orientated, you see something before you and you aim for that. It demands a narrow focus. Artistic work asks you to open and widen your perspective. It asks for curiosity without a predetermined goal. And you must let these two go hand in hand throughout an education. The same goes for a career. Often students have a clear image in their heads, they want for example to become a tightrope walker, and to master this or that routine. That is precisely what I try to destabilise. To push them beyond their boundaries, which lands them in territory they would rather have avoided, and teaches them things that they hadn’t expected.”
Is there something you miss in circus today?
“When I started out circus was much more politically aware. It was rebellious. I don’t see much of that today, not in circus, nor in young people in general. The professionalisation of circus has brought a sort of standard along with it, and that standard excludes many other things. But once again, has everything to do with money. In the 70’s it was relatively easy to get by as a circus artist, to experiment and to perform once in a while, without having to worry about how you were going to survive. Now students graduate with a 30,000 pound debt, which more than slightly narrows down your possibilities. Ah, capitalism…”
It’s always capitalism.
“It’s always capitalism. It’s always Margaret Thatcher. (grins) So many young people see themselves in the first place as consumers. And they make products, also for consumption. That’s sad and depressing. I try to remind them about the social dimension of their work, about other measures of value, and about what is going on in the world. Of course that is tricky, because you don’t want to and may not impose a political agenda. But, as an example, the relationship of gender in a lot of young work makes you want to cry. A woman student said to me yesterday: ‘The good thing about acrobatics is that you get a chance to be thrown around by big strong men.’ And I understand that the physicality of that can be very pleasant, but is it really what you want to say on a stage today?”
“That is so strange to me. What you do on stage is always political. Our students often say: ‘But I don’t have a message, I just do my number.’ That’s of course not true. So it’s all about sharpening a consciousness of what is happening, in their work – what they bring to the stage – and in the world.”
Does circus have certain strengths that other podium arts lack, in that quest for a contemporary, potentially political voice?
“I think that circus demands a high degree of entrepreneurship, precisely because it is not yet as structurally developed as the worlds of theatre or dance. That’s healthy. It’s a good remedy for passivity.”
Doesn’t the financial insecurity with which so many circus artists have to contend just lead to more work that fits the norm?
“It’s possible. We encourage our students to do both: on the one hand make work that is commercial enough to allow them to survive and pay off their debts – on the other hand we stimulate them to do what they want to do for themselves. When they graduate, we remind them not to forget their dreams and to continue their search for new things. As far as the art-form is concerned, and I am contradicting myself here a bit, I think that circus is still very fluid. Circus is still on a voyage of exploration, an exploration of all the possible combinations of entertainment and high art. It is a melting pot of different styles and diverse relationships with the audience. There is much more experimentation happening in the circus than in dance or theatre in England today. And even if many students seem conservative to me, they have effected a fault line in their lives: to run away to the circus. They didn’t just go out and get a job. There is certainly the desire to try to be different, to try to think for oneself. What’s more, they are independent. To put it in Marxist terms: they own the means of their production. Circus artists today are still the author and owner of their own work, not just a passive cog in the bigger hierarchical workings of a traditional circus. So there is some degree of freedom, financially and in their work. It’s just encouraging that.”