The Millennium Dome has spawned bitter controversy, grandiose ideas and an unlikely offspring - a BA (hons) in contemporary circus. Anne Sebba reports.
When the idea was first mooted for a spectacular Millennium Show, combining circus, ballet and music, to be the centrepiece of the dome experience it was almost immediately rejected. Two years ago Britain had only a handful of qualified aerialists.
Undeterred, however, the show's creative director, Mark Fisher, decided there was just enough time to train the 100 or so he thought he would need. He approached The Circus Space, a small, innovative training organisation that has been a major catalyst behind the reinvention of circus, or physical theatre, and that now offers the first British circus degree.
"We had less than six weeks to tell the dome team how we thought we could help," said a spokesperson for The Circus Space. "I think it was a very brave decision to say yes because being part of such a major undertaking could have capsized a young evolving company. But we teamed up with the Central School of Speech and Drama (in London) and we've gone forward together ever since."
In September l998, after a nationwide search to find young people with the necessary skills, stamina, commitment and, most important, head for heights, the first 45 students were chosen to prepare for the Millennium Show. Those selected included gymnasts, trampolinists, divers, dancers, rock climbers and athletes, most of whom had never worked on a trapeze or at height before. "Training these young people was a huge commitment and we felt they should come away after a year with a piece of paper - something broader than just having worked extremely hard for this show - and so they have all earned a specially created certificate of higher education."
From this evolved the idea of a degree. This autumn the first 22 men and women aged between 18 and 25 began an intensive two-year course that will earn them a BA (hons) in theatre practice - contemporary circus.
The course lasts 90 weeks - roughly equivalent to a traditional three-year degree course, but with shorter holidays necessitated by the importance of its participants keeping in peak physical fitness throughout. It is a strongly vocational course, with emphasis on artistic exploration to foster the creation of new forms of circus and on the historical and business aspects of circus to help those who want to set up on their own.
Any of the original 45 aerialists who want to pursue a degree after the one-year Millennium Show is over will be exempted from the first level of the course. As the show requires two casts of 81 members each (the others are mostly ground-based dancers), last summer a second batch of 45 aerialists was taken on and given an accelerated six months' training. Although this second group will not be eligible for a certificate of higher education, they will be able to offset their time in the show against some credit towards a degree.
Several performers from both groups have already expressed an intention to complete the degree course in 2001.
The 28-minute Millennium Show will be performed throughout 2000 in a central arena the size of Trafalgar Square, using the full 50m height of the dome. There will be up to five performances a day in front of audiences of 12,000 at a time with the first performance on January 1, 2000. Jointly conceived by Fisher, an architect who has staged concerts for U2, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, and rock musician Peter Gabriel, who has written the music, the show is a visual spectacle without dialogue. The dramatic love story of a boy of dreams and a girl of action who are driven apart by a family feud, it is an allegory of social and political upheaval based on the relationships between humankind, nature and technology and will, according to a spokesperson from the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), literally take physical theatre to new heights.
Rehearsals are still at fever pitch and no one has yet seen a completed version of the show, set around a revolving central stage from which a giant "Tower of Babel" emerges for act two. It uses trapeze, high wire and vast lightweight mobiles that will appear as swooping, darting dragonflies and flying machines - enabling the cast to move around above the heads of the audience so they appear to inhabit the air as they perform a stomach-wrenching combination of sky-diving, dance, abseiling and bungee jumping onto stilts.
Fisher says he has drawn on many influences in devising the story -from William Blake to hippy culture. "We are all pushing the boundaries of what has been done before and that's exciting," he says.
According to Abigail Yeates, a soloist who plays Sophia, the girl, the UK has until now seriously lagged behind other countries in offering proper training in contemporary circus at an affordable price. She trained first as a dancer in the 1980s, before discovering trapeze and acrobatics at The Circus Space, but then undertook courses in France at the Thetre National Arts du Cirque in Chalon, where she mastered a range of skills, including her speciality, corde-lisse (rope work). At 30, she is the oldest and one of the most experienced performers, having worked with a range of companies including Scarabeus, No Fit State and Archaos. "What I've learnt from circus schools is not just how to work with other people, but how to work on my own, to create my own piece of work," she says.
There seems little doubt that the Millennium Show will raise the profile of contemporary, circus-based performance in the UK and, long after the dome has ceased to exist as an exhibition space, will leave a legacy of talented, highly trained, home-grown UK performers to rival those in China, Russia, France and Canada. The current cult status and popularity of innovative companies such as de la Guarda - the South American troupe resident at the Round House in Camden, North London for the past year - Archaos, with their anarchic mix of motorbikes and chainsaws, and the sublime athleticism of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil, whose phenomenally successful recent season at the Albert Hall was a sell-out, indicates the huge audience for physical theatre.
As a spokesman for The Circus Space explains: "The Central School, which has been offering a degree in performance theatre for some years, deserves real praise for working with us on this and recognising the potential of a degree in circus. It is a new art form, based on a cross-fertilisation of many talents. And we're able to offer students, most of whom do not come from a traditional academic background, something worthwhile, unique and useful."
"This is the best thing I've ever done with my time," says Lee-Anne Telford, 22. After leaving school at 16, she went to sixth-form college to take an A- level in sports studies, while training in sports acrobatics.
Lee-Anne represented England in sports acrobatics, but gave up competition when she was too old at 18. She taught gymnastics in the United States, then at her local school, coaching six children to become British schools champions two years running.
"Then I saw the ad in The Stage for the Millennium Show. I can always go back to teaching, but I must do this now while I can. I might do the degree after the show, but I haven't decided yet. It's all too exciting."
Graeme Clint, 22, a dancer from South Shields, had just finished a dance degree at Middlesex University and was about to start a dance company with a friend when he saw the ad.
"Tumbling is the most difficult thing for dancers to learn but the trapeze, bungee jumping with somersaults and walking on metre-high stilts were difficult too.
"After this, I might go into stunting. Although I never would have considered a circus degree before this show, I might now - it would really help broaden my skills".
Graeme says the training has taught him self-discipline, self-motivation and reliance on inner strength. "The most exciting thing will be performing to 12,000 people per show."
Maria Hippolyte, 22, has been dancing since she was three. She graduated with a degree in dance from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds in July 1998. She had always done gymnastics alongside her ballet, so was well qualified for the Millennium Show.
"The auditions were tough - four full days testing your strength, seeing how many chin-ups and press-ups we could do and how much stamina we had. The most difficult was the height acclimatisation test, when you go up in a cherry-picker and lean over to unclip a strap to some railings. You are harnessed, but there are only cobbles below."
Maria says she will never go back to being just a dancer. "This has opened a door to being an all-round performer in the air. Doing a degree in circus will give me other skills."