I am directed to the entrance by an amiable man on a unicycle, who wheels along beside me to show me the way. Through glass-fronted walls, I can see tattooed youth doing handstands and whirling juggling batons. This is NICA – the National Institute of Circus Arts, Australia’s only dedicated circus training institution – and I have to admit that coming here is a little exciting, wakening buried childhood memories of going to the Big Top.
The final year students are currently in rehearsal for their graduation showcase, which opens this week. Every year, this is a unique kind of spectacle. Each student at NICA, over their three years of training, comes to specialise in a particular circus discipline, be that highwire, clowning, hula hooping, teeterboard or any of a host of others the institute trains in. The showcase is a chance for each graduate to create and perform their own unique act.
Showcase director Megan Jones, who I meet up with in a room overlooking a warehouse-sized training space festooned with trapeze and aerial equipment, says that this year’s show promises to demonstrate both the physical prowess and the theatricality of this year’s class. Jones emphasises that a modern circus act isn’t just about performing tricks.
“An act isn’t a series of skills, an act is a concept of something that you want to say and you need to be able to integrate what your skills are into something that's a performance,” she says. From this year’s class she promises a range of moods, from humorous to tragedic, and a liberal dose of quirkiness in addition to well honed technical skills and a grand whole-class finale.
Two of the class are here too. There’s Jennifer Simon, 27, a gymnast and qualified physiotherapist who specialises in hand balancing on tables. Next to her is Julian White, 25, who trained in classical dance at WAAPA and whose star trick is bottle juggling, a specialty he devised himself to bring something unique to his repertoire.
“You can’t just be a trickster anymore,” White says. “Just as in business you need to have a point of difference so too do you need one with a performer these days. “
Students at NICA are encouraged to develop their interests with individualised attention from a team of specialist trainers who often have high power international circus careers behind them. All students share core performance and physical movement training, including styles such as ballet and contemporary dance, as well as courses in anatomy and business skills but beyond that, their training regimens can differ greatly.
One universally important skill is avoiding and managing injuries, says Simon, as students need to be able to train every day and find ways to work around the inevitable strain on their bodies. “So if you hurt one wrist,” she gives by example, “you’ll work on one arm handstands on the other one for a while.”
Circus is as much an elite sport as an artform and NICA certainly treats it as such, with medical staff and a sports psychologist onsite. Like sport, it is also, as NICA’s marketing executive Maria Rizzo describes it, “a young person’s career.”
“By 35,” Rizzo says, “most of them will need to move on to choreography or directing or other aspects of performance.” Another reason why NICA training goes beyond the tricks themselves. In the active performance years though, the opportunities are good, with Rizzo citing an 88% employment rate. Work with big companies like Cirque du Soleil or Circus Oz is an attainable goal for graduates and there is plenty of call for circus performers at festivals, corporate gigs and on cruise ships. Others may simply break out on their own, as Simon and some of her classmates have already done, putting on the successful indy circus act Eager to Please at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival.
The acts White and Simon are planning for the showcase sound much more sophisticated than anything I saw under circus marquees as a child. Old stereotypes persist though and I have to ask – running away to the circus, is it still the ultimate expression of youth rebellion?
White laughs that off, “I think that wears off after a couple of months to be honest, all the jokes get cracked. My mother’s a priest and she’s fine with it.”
Simon says she had a harder time making people understand her career shift from physiotherapy but that the call of the circus was irresistible. She recounts how years after quitting gymnastics she would find herself dreaming at night of doing flips. “It was an urge. It wasn’t like a conscious decision, ‘oh I want to go and do circus’; my body wanted to do it.”
Out in the training room, other improbably fit bodies are twirling, springing through the air with outrageous vitality, hanging from ropes or balancing with perfect poise on bars. There is a sense of something building, something spectacular, that old Big Top thrill.
NICA Showcase 2011 is now playing until December 3, 2011. Details – www.nica.com.au