Step right up for the Big Top;FE Focus

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Harvey McGavin visits an old power station in east London which has been transformed into a college offering the UK's only circus BTEC.

Teenagers with their eye on the high trapeze or a talent for tumbling don't have to run away with the circus any more - they should head for east London instead.

There they will find Circus Space - the UK's largest centre of learning in the arts of human agility housed in a disused power station in Shoreditch.

The motto over the entrance to the former Shoreditch Electricty Generating Station E Pulvere Lux at Vis (From Dust Comes Light and Power) has proved prophetic 100 years after it was written. Because now the renovated building is buzzing again, staging some dazzling displays from the country's best young circus artistes.

Four years ago, Circus Space established a BTEC in the techniques of the Big Top. It's the only course of its kind in the country and 35 students now follow a two-year National Diploma in Performing Arts (Circus).

The course, which is run in conjunction with East Berkshire College, trains them in all the physical skills of the circus ring and also covers practical aspects such as arts administration and production.

In their second year, students can concentrate on one skill in particular. Chris, an 18-year-old from Romford in Essex, specialises in juggling. He applied straight from school: "There wasn't anything I was interested in on the A-level side of things."

He heard about the course after seeing a cabaret at Circus Space but his parents took some convincing. "First of all they were against it but then they saw me juggling with fire in the garden and they didn't realise how good I was. Now they say they're glad I did it.

"One of my concerns when I first started was whether I would get bored of juggling. But I love it even more. I have learned a great deal and my juggling has improved an enormous amount."

With a fast expanding repertoire of tricks (he can juggle seven balls or five clubs with ease) Chris is hoping to become a freelance performer when he finishes the course next term.

He feels sure the experience and skills he has gained - meeting visiting performers and on his work placement - have turned what was an all-consuming hobby into a job prospect.

Since troupes like Archaos and Cirque du Soleil revived the form with their radical take on traditional skills, the circus has undergone something of a renaissance, and jobs are not as rare as they once were.

Nor, says Circus Space's programme director Charlie Holland, are they confined to the ring. Graduates from last year have found work on trade shows, the West End stage and television.

"People say surely there is no work or money in circus but the reality is different. There's not a huge market but there's no great supply either - so few people have been trained in this country.

"Circus has matured and there are some fabulous companies around. Cirque du Soleil employs more than 1,500 people. The market is global - you can work anywhere in the world. And the range of opportunity goes far beyond the circus."

In other countries, especially eastern Europe, France and Canada, circus schools are well established. The demand for a similar institution in this country was around long before Circus Space opened its doors, says Charlie Holland, the problem was finding a suitable venue.

The power station's high ceilings were ideally suited to aerial acrobatics and the school is in the process of trying to secure funding for the conversion of the old combustion chamber next door into its main theatre.

The current facilities are well used, by everyone from professionals rehearsing new routines to schoolchildren taking courses in their holidays and adults learning to tumble, juggle or unicycle at evening classes.

The BTEC course is heavily oversubscribed and attracts students from all over Europe. But numbers are kept low because classes - often taught by tutors who are professional artistes themselves - have to be kept small. "Group size is important," explains Charlie Holland. "You can't teach the static trapeze to a class of 30."

And applicants have to show more than an aptitude to clown around or the ability to keep three oranges in the air for a few seconds. "We are looking for potential," says Charlie Holland. "But clearly if people have got dance, gymnastic, juggling or another skill then they are at an advantage."

Stagecraft and creative production skills are emphasised and in the Easter term of their second year, students each have to put on a solo performance as preparation for an ensemble show as the grand finale to the course. A bout of tendonitis ("too much juggling!") ruled Goronwy out of last week's show but he took to the role of compere with gusto. He's glad to have found a course which suits his flair for showmanship. "This is absolutely perfect for me," he says.

Originally from Sheffield, he began juggling and unicycling at children's parties when he was at school. Most of his friends still are, but he'd rather be on the stage than behind a desk. "When they ask me what I've been doing today I say 'I went on a flying trapeze, threw some knives about and then did a bit of tumbling."' A festival staged by Circus Space at its premises in Coronet Street, Hoxton, London N1, ends on Sunday, April 19

Dorothy Lepkowska

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