Source: Bertil Nilsson
Picking up a degree is normally a straightforward procedure: graduates slowly shuffle up to the stage and shake the vice-chancellor’s hand before they rejoin their proud families.
Things are different on graduation day at the National Centre for Circus Arts, where newly minted graduates are asked to perform one additional task – leaping through a pair of flaming poles.
Fortunately, those making the spectacular vaults are accomplished acrobats, having just completed three years of intensive training at the centre, which is located in a converted former power station in Hoxton, East London.
The centre, whose bachelor’s degrees are accredited by the University of Kent, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.
The venture began in the Pleasance Theatre in Islington, but space there was limited – trapeze artists had to open the theatre’s doors to avoid crashing into them. The move to Hoxton in 1994, just ahead of the area’s transformation into a trend-setting hot spot, allowed the centre to flourish.
As the centre has changed over the years, so has the type of student entering its courses (it offers a two-year diploma programme as well as the BA in circus arts), explains Philip Nichols, the centre’s head of marketing and communications.
“It used to be people who were 25 and had already done a degree but wanted to do something different,” he says.
Nowadays, a large number of those signing up are school-leavers, many of whom are already proficient because they have progressed through the centre’s youth programmes, which offer classes for children from the age of two, Nichols says.
The interest is understandable. “We are starting to see our students picked up by Cirque de Soleil and other big companies – that didn’t happen before,” he says.
Each year, competition for the 20 undergraduate places is intense. About 125 applicants vied for places last year, says Jane Rice-Bowen, the centre’s joint chief executive.
Students are selected after a two-day audition process, in which they are tested on strength, balance, dexterity and flexibility, as well as their ability to learn a choreographed routine.
“People do not apply if they can’t commit to doing the very physical stuff we ask of them,” says Rice-Bowen, who adds that the trainee circus performers will have to put in at least a 35-hour week. “This is something you cannot fake – you need amazing drive to do this.”
In addition to the physical commitment required – many students have the physique of a professional athlete after months of gymnastic exercises – there is also a significant financial one.
Students are charged tuition fees of £9,000 a year, but that covers only about half of the £17,000 cost of training a performer, owing to the high number of contact hours given one on one or in small groups in a state-of-the-art training centre.
To reflect these extra costs, the centre receives an additional £4,000 grant per student from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but it still must raise another £4,000 per student through commercial activity to break even.
Each week, about 350 young people and 700 adults attend circus skills classes at the centre, which also advises the television and film industry on demanding acrobatic scenes.
X-Men star James McAvoy recently learned to ride a unicycle at the centre – a skill required for his current West End role in the comedy The Ruling Class.
The centre’s graduates themselves have featured in high-profile events: more than two dozen appeared in the spectacular opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and, more recently, others were seen on the BBC show Tumble, advising celebrities on the finer points of gymnastics.
Figures show that, three years after completing their course, 93 per cent of the centre’s graduates are working with one of the 30 circus companies that tour the UK, with an international troupe or in their own business. Some perform into their forties or fifties before moving into production, design, teaching or the business side of the multibillion-pound global industry – all of which are taught as part of the degree course.
But convincing parents that a circus skills degree is a good investment for their children is one of the centre’s trickier tasks despite its strong employment record, Rice-Bowen admits. “It is difficult for a young person to go home and say they want to join the circus. But we provide robust information for parents that shows that graduates here go on to have good careers.”
125 applicants vied for 20 undergraduate places last year
University of Salford
A lecturer has appeared on a top 10 album, drumming on a track by the Charlatans. David Tolan, lecturer in audio production at the University of Salford, who has also worked with artists such as Johnny Marr, provided the drums for the song Keep Enough from the band’s latest album Modern Nature.
University of Manchester
An Anglo-Australian health sciences partnership has announced the first projects to be funded. The universities of Manchester and Monash have set up a £50,000 fund to pump-prime fledgling health sciences projects that would be strengthened by collaboration. The three successful bidders will each receive £15,000 over 12 months. The projects will focus on the health of pregnant women, early detection of hearing problems and preventing falls by older people in hospital.
A university in Wales has announced a scholarship to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the establishment of a Welsh community in Patagonia. The scholarship celebrates the relationship between Aberystwyth University and the town of Esquel in the Chubut province of southern Argentina. It will be offered to one Welsh learner from Patagonia, who will attend a Welsh language course held at Aberystwyth University in August.
University of Bristol
Actor Simon Pegg has opened a students’ union theatre at his alma mater. The theatre in the University of Bristol’s refurbished students’ union building is named after Mr Pegg, who studied theatre, film and television at the institution before going on to star in the films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. The building that houses the theatre has had a £30 million revamp and now includes 200 study spaces, two theatres, two cafe bars, a digital media suite, dance and music studios and a refurbished gig venue.
University of Huddersfield
A post-92 university has officially opened what it has dubbed one of the world’s leading research facilities in accelerator science. The University of Huddersfield acquired the Medium Energy Ion Scattering Accelerator – one of fewer than 10 in the world – from the Science and Technology Facilities Council in 2012 after its funding ran out. It has taken three years to restore to full operation, but it has already led to nascent collaborations with nine of the world’s top-ranked universities.
University of Nottingham
A computer science professor has designed a “neurological thrill ride” that adapts to the rider’s brain activity. Brendan Walker, of the University of Nottingham, drew on his research into biosensors to design “Neurosis”, in which riders sit in a motion simulator and wear a virtual-reality headset that immerses them in a “psychedelic landscape” that is altered by external operators based on neurological responses to music, motion and “visible wonders”.
University of Warwick
The foundation stone of the £150 million National Automotive Innovation Centre has been laid. The University of Warwick facility, which will be the largest automotive research centre of its kind in Europe, is funded by Jaguar Land Rover, Tata Motors, Warwick and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It is scheduled to open in 2017 and will include an Advanced Propulsion Research Laboratory.
University of Southampton
Outbreaks of measles are expected to surge in West African countries affected by the Ebola virus, according to research. A study involving Andy Tatem, an associate professor in the department of geography and environment at the University of Southampton, predicts that the number of measles cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone could rise by 100,000 because of disruptions to those countries’ health services.