Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Towards a Cultural History of Community Circus in Australia

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Towards a Cultural History of Community Circus in Australia

Article excerpt

Community circus comprises an integral part of the contemporary Australian circus ecology - a field that includes high-profile professional companies, traditional family-based circuses, as well as contemporary circus-infused physical theatre, neo-burlesque, and street performance. The overlapping practices of contemporary 'youth' and 'social' circus are direct descendants of the community arts movement that was prevalent in Australia - as in some other developed Western nations - during the 1970s and 1980s. Governments at Australia's federal and state levels enacted fundamental shifts in attitude to the role of the arts in society during those decades, in turn provoking changes in the ways that cultural practices were stimulated and participated in by the new and diverse audiences whom they targeted. The creative opportunities opened up by the community arts funding initiatives of the 1970s -80s attracted young and enthusiastic arts workers whose alternative approaches to art and performance-making were infused with energetic idealism for social change at the grassroots strata of society. Re-imagined paradigms of circus and variety appeared in Australian community arts performances during the 1970s, seeding the establishment of enduring organisations such as Circus Oz and the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Despite four decades of activity, the persistent phenomenon of community circus has to date received very little attention within cultural or performance histories. The author recognises, for the first time in Australian performance scholarship, that there have been three distinct 'waves' of community circus activity. Briefly adumbrating the development of community circus since its early stirrings during the 1970s, this article lays the groundwork for future scholarly enquiry concerning Australia's dynamic community circus sector.

INTRODUCTION

Since the early 1990s, the youth-oriented performance forms of both 'social' and 'youth' circus have established a considerable global presence, both in developed and developing nations. 'Youth' circus activity emerged as a discernible component of grassroots engagement with the arts in the developed nations of Europe, North America, and Australia during the 1970s through to the 1990s. The closely associated processes of'social circus' first appeared in numerous sites around the globe in the early 1990s, and both of these expressions of circus, collectively referred to as 'community circus' in this article, indicate a re-imagining and a re-purposing of the circus arts within a social situation other than the professional/commercial entertainment arena. Australia has been a leader in both 'youth' and 'social' circus, yet despite nearly four decades of evolution, the phenomenon of community circus has received very little scholarly attention in histories of Australian culture and performance.2

Throughout the almost forty years since its nascent stirrings as a result of the community arts of the 1970s, community circus has maintained some of the strong beliefs that informed the movements for social change from which it sprang. A primary focus on young people, and those who are disenfranchised either physically or socially, continues to guide the sector, in tandem with the utopian belief that creative engagement can be co-opted for positive change in people's lives. Just a small sample of activity indicates the diversity of creative engagement currently offered by Australia's community circus organisations: the Women's Circus, established in 1991 to develop and maintain a sustainable women's circus community in Melbourne; the Performing Older Women's Circus, founded in 1995 to offer skills development and performance opportunities to women in the over-40 age range; Blackrobats, established in 1994 in the town of Kuranda, north Queensland, continues to provide Indigenous young people with circus arts participation; the many 'youth circus' organisations across Australia, of which the longest running are the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, established in 1979 in Albury-Wodonga, and Cirkidz, established in 1986 in Adelaide; and Unthink the Impossible, a 2013 Queensland Government-sponsored initiative with Brisbane's Flipside Circus that has trialled circus skills therapy to aid development of physical and social skills with disabled youngsters. …

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