Circus School: The Show’s in Town

Words by Katie McPherson; Photos by Vladyslav Gutsul
GOOD TO KNOW

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Extra extra! Read all about it! The circus is in town!

In fact, it has been permanently since 1994. Did you know that Turku is home to a university degree-level of circus training? The University of Applied Sciences runs a four year course in which students become officially recognised as performers and teachers.

Now I must admit that when I hear the word ‘circus’, I immediately procure an image in my mind of glittering costumes, lions springing through hoops of fire, and elephants on their hind legs wearing a feather headdress. This, I quickly found out, is known as a traditional circus. However, throughout the world, the traditional circus has been undergoing some major adjustments due to animal welfare and the impossibility of gaining local authority permissions, as well as outrageous insurance premiums.

Fear not though, as the contemporary circus has grown and continues to grow rapidly in popularity around the globe. Unlike the traditional circus, a contemporary circus does not necessarily need to be performed within a tent- nowadays a circus show can be held almost anywhere. The shows themselves usually combine art forms, using tools from the theatre, music or simply story telling.

In the past circus entertainers were born into the job. The shows would be family-run, and the parents would teach their children the routine. The children would eventually take over the routine from their parents and then teach it again to their children, and thus the cycle would continue. It was quite an exclusive field, and hard to break into for those not ‘born’ to it. Things changed when circus schools began to open up around the world to which anyone could apply, and thus, the era of contemporary circus began.

The schools that catered to younger children offered circus performing initially as a hobby. Those that decided to train more seriously ended up at more dedicated schools which often offered public performances. But to be a performer, it is not necessary to start training as a child, or even to have any gymnastics experience. These days, circus training has become a fitness trend and a hobby, and also an experience for those who are looking for something a bit different from your average gym. Due to the improvements in training and techniques, less injuries are occurring and if you take care of your body, you should be able to do anything at any age. Furthermore, the concept of ‘circus’ is no longer so focused on death-defying acts. While accidents are of course inevitable, thankfully they do not tend to occur regularly. The most common injuries are a sprained ankle or a pulled muscle, but there is always a risk of something more serious occurring. The risk increases when the performers are tired, which can certainly happen quickly during back to back shows. Sadly, this has been attributed to the death of performers in the past, and consequently measures have been taken to avoid putting performers in this situation.

It is no longer very common for performers to sign up with just one troupe to travel the country with: more likely they are independent acts who tend to freelance. Due to the international nature of the circus industry, many performers choose to travel abroad during their careers. As with many professions, it is certainly helpful to have a university degree in circus performance. However, if you are really good at something, people will want to learn from you. It’s not uncommon for circus professionals to combine their art with teaching, coaching or with completely unrelated jobs- some find that a balance between these suits them better than constant performing.

The university course in Turku invites students to take acrobatics throughout the entire degree, and then students may choose to major in a particular discipline such as aerial silks, or even more acrobatics! As one could assume, the majority of the course is practical study, and students are expected to practice both teaching and routines in their own time.

The University also expects the students to host shows throughout the year. This is where the general public benefit- the performances are usually free! These shows, which occur five or six times a year, are known as open stage nights. The Finnish name of the shows translates to ‘cockroaches’ in English, although the origin of this curious name is uncertain.

The University’s graduation show nights are fast approaching at the end of Spring. Other year groups will also present various performances this Winter and Spring. Students will perform a mixture of solo pieces and collaborations, and the whole family is welcome to attend the fun. So if you think you might like to run away with the circus, this could be your first stop!

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