National Centre for Circus Arts: where would-be high-fliers learn the ropes

Demand for places is justifiably high because graduates make it on the big stage

March 26, 2015

Source: Bertil Nilsson

Soar spot: the centre also offers specialist skills training to TV and film actors

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.”

In numbers

125 applicants vied for 20 undergraduate places last year

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