From the International Education Special Report, Tuesday, February 11, 1997, page 18

How to Get Into the Act

When Clowning Around Is Taken Seriously

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - When the nine teenagers of the Shenyang troupe took turns doing back-flips five meters above the ground from one vertical pole to another last month at a festival in the Cirque d'Hiver, they were demonstrating more than just a circus act.

They were showing the fruits of nearly a decade of their educational careers. But if China has the oldest tradition of circus schools - schools existed there thousands of years ago - it is no longer alone in using a highly structured educational system to train circus artists.

In the last half century, circus schools have spread throughout the world, and the World Circus Festival of the Future is the place where the performers come to display their skills.

''The Moscow circus school,'' said Dominique Mauclair, one of the organizers of the 20-year-old festival, ''was the first modern school. The Soviets were cut off from the rest of the world, so they started the school to get acts for their circuses.''

It began 70 years ago and became the model for almost all circus schools in Soviet-bloc countries.

Not until the mid-1970s did circus schools bloom in the West. France was among the first, and today counts more than 100 official schools.

''We noticed in the late '70s,'' said Mr. Mauclair, ''that talented students were graduating from these schools, but they were not getting work. Circus producers just weren't interested.''

So he and his wife, Isabelle, created the festival in 1977. It immediately became an international success.

The Shenyang troupe, which won a gold medal this year, is representative of acts produced by Chinese schools: highly disciplined and technically impeccable.

''Children start circus school in China at age 8,'' said Pu Tong, the official from the Chinese Ministry of Culture who selected the troupe for the festival. ''They have parallel studies covering traditional subjects - art, language, mathematics, music, geography - and the circus arts. After they finish, they immediately start working in a circus.''

In contrast, the other gold medal winners this year represented a country with practically no circus tradition. Mark and Benji are graduates of the private Brussels Circus School. Their comic juggling act turns the traditional discipline upside down, as when they juggle one club between them while mimicking the movements of juggling six.

''What was good about the Brussels school,'' said Mark Dehoux, 23, ''was that unlike many schools where they produce people who are machine-like technical wonders, ours helped us open our minds to see things differently. It helped spawn our creativity.''

''The course lasted only two years,'' Mr. Dehoux added, ''It isn't really enough time to create an act. So we've been working on that for three years since leaving the school.''

Mr. Mauclair says their learning experience is not unique. ''It was in the early 1970s,'' he said, ''that the Russians noticed that circus school is where you learn the basic skills, but it isn't the place to create an act. That's when the studio phenomenon came into being.''

Specialist studios were created in Russia and elsewhere to create acts. The Canadian studio of Andre Simard, ''Les gens d'R,'' in Montreal, for example, creates trapeze acts.

Caroline Blanc-Brude, 24, a French trapeze artist who studied under Mr. Simard, said schools really teach three basic disciplines - acting, dance and flexibility - in addition to skills like juggling, acrobatics and unicycling. Like many students, she picked her school according to her chosen discipline.

''I wanted to do trapeze,'' she said, ''and I wanted to work under the best trapeze teacher in the world.''

She sought out Mr. Simard, a 1972 Olympics gymnastics champion, at the National Circus School in Montreal. The school, founded in 1981, offers a four-year course and a college diploma.

Students from another Canadian school formed one of the more popular acts at the festival. ''Les Tourisks,'' four jugglers, unicyclists and acrobats, are from the small Ecole de Cirque de Quebec.

Michel Rousseau, who started the school in 1988, says it aims to ''dust things off. I really like the traditional circus. But we look for ways to make an old act younger.''

Canada's recent involvement with one of the most tradition-bound performance arts was spurred by the success of its Cirque du Soleil, the world's best-known avant-garde circus. Mr. Simard said that a lack of tradition has permitted Canadians to innovate, and therefore attract the best international talent.

He said that students have come from around the world to Canada and from many disciplines. ''Sports have brought a lot to the techniques of the circus. Sports are recognized in university curriculums. So the teaching of biomechanics, psychology, coaching, the whole sports system is really very well organized.''

Melding disparate disciplines is another role of the circus artist's education. Oxana Tarasyuk, 25, a Ukrainian clown, attended the Kiev Circus School before going to drama school in Moscow.

''I think it's more interesting,'' she said, ''to see a clown who can act a role than one who only knows how to do a few tricks.''

Back to Samples Index