No Fit State Circus began at Cardiff university 30 years ago as a juggling club and developed into a theatrical style circus company, with the company exploring a fascination in street performance, touring local festivals to discover new techniques.
The formula they honed is to try to offer something different to the slick, polished but often predictable format of traditional circus.
In Bianco, a show performed at the Southbank Centre’s winter festival this January, audiences walk in promenade with the action taking place above their heads, creating an added thrill as acrobats swoop and dive above. This type of experimental and pioneering work is achieved safely by paying attention to what can and can’t be done. Rather like the organic origins of the company, the final performance is the result of a work in progress.
I have come to meet the world class circus company to find out more about how they manage risks in acts including high wires, trapeze, counterweighting acrobatics and rope tricks. It is one thing talking to the troupe about these things however and another thing being invited to try them. Because my task here - as will be later explored - is to partipate in a circus workshop. My thoughts are mainly, not can I do it, but, will I be safe?
A dangerous business
It turns out that these reservations are key to circus performance. A performer has to weigh up the safety concerns of a trick, at the same time as he or she takes the plunge to do it. The line between safety and skill is in a sense unimportant. This is underlined when I meet head rigger and trapeze artist Lyndall Merry, as well as the health and safety officer and production manager of the company. The conversation is fluent and focused and as far from the light hearted world they present to the audiences as you could imagine.
They are not reluctant to talk about the real dangers in circus. In 2013, audiences at a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, watched in stunned horror as acrobat Sarah Guiyard-Guillot fell from her safety harness, dropping nearly 30m off a 360 degree rotating stage to her death. So when I ask the three company members whether circus has got more dangerous with modern innovations, it is reassuring to hear they believe this is not the case.
In No Fit State’s experience, as John Kirk, health and safety officer and the technical production manager says, he thinks it’s the reverse. “We are very conscious of the fact that we are trying to push boundaries and try new things, invent new techniques and things that look more spectacular – the element of risk management and assessment and the controls we put in place to negate them, as much as possible, have become much more stringent and to the fore.”
Merry explains first how the final set is designed safely by degrees: “All the time people come to me and say, ‘wow your rigging is amazing, it’s really beautiful and how did you think that up?’ Really what happens is our director thinks it up, has no technical background or knowledge and ask us [for example] how to make water flow uphill.” He goes on: “We have to think of ways of achieving that safely and in that process quite often [the director] will say ‘why can’t we just do this?’, and immediately there’s an in the moment risk assessment of ‘that’s not possible because it’s unsafe for that reason’. Then rather than that becoming a limiting factor, it’s just part of the process that develops and helps change the work to something else.” In other words, safety is always crucial to the design of the show and what the performers are able to do in it.
A graduate of the respected Circomedia academy in Bristol, and a performer at events like the Winter Olympics, Merry is also clearly well versed and even passionate when it comes to health and safety. When we talk, he chooses moments to look directly at me, such as when punctuating statements with questions like, ‘do you understand?’ Ensuring people understand, such as when they are flying through the air on a trapeze, is clearly fundamental in his role. But it is not just Merry as one of the senior artists of the group who ‘gets’ safety.
Part of Bianco’s unique aesthetic is that performers double up as the technical team, setting the rigging for the moves, acting as counterweights (on abseil-like ropes) for the acrobats to fly and guiding the audience so they can witness the action from positions of safety. Significantly, he talks about the performer and artist as two different kinds of worker: “Some people say that circus performers perform circus, and circus artists have the ability to perform circus skill and understand every single facet to their art form.”
In big budget shows, with special effects (‘traps and lifts and explosions’), performers will not be encouraged to understand the technicalities, which will be managed and worked by a separate production team. “The performers just slot into [those shows],” explains Merry. He is professionally objective when he says: “Neither is worse than the other – they are different risks and managed in different ways.” But you sense that giving performers more responsibility for their safety is close to his heart, in fact what he believes gives this brand of circus its heart.
In No Fit State, as part of the contemporary school, they are very much about encouraging artists’ knowledge and use of equipment. He explains this might be knowing how to use equipment in a variety of circumstances. “I think circus performers who don’t have a broad technical knowledge but have had some training in what they do, they have a very strong – not paranoia – but they take what they’ve been told as absolute golden, as in, ‘You don’t mess with the rules concerning equipment and safety’, which is something we quite often have to break down when we’re working with circus performers,” he says. He will tell them: “Every example of rules are dependent on their application and the reason you’ve heard this rule is because of this scenario, but in this application it’s not an issue.”
A sense of risk
It is also about having a highly developed sense of risk. Merry talks about great circus artists as natural risk managers and assessors. “All your daily work around becoming a professional is about risk and how to assess and manage risk. Even though that is not what people are told they are doing, that is what they are doing all the time – their personal state of mind, are they going to try a trick or not, how physical their body is, whether they should use extra safety equipment or not, whether they should let other people in the space know what they are doing…”. There is little time for recklessness: “If you’re a circus performer who takes risks for other people’s safety, you just don’t last in the environment, people don’t respect you, people don’t want to work with you.”
There is a tremendous feeling of trust and support in the circus tent, as I discover when I start the workshop. We are put into three groups and I start on the abseil. I am encouraged to climb higher on the scaffold, while my partner is the counterweight – as I go up he goes down, like a see saw and it is fun controlling this pattern. My tutors, who are both from the company, don’t push however and I am allowed to explore within comfort levels and my ability. It hints at a really important part of the community feeling in the company as well as care for individuals. “The stage manager has a [deep] knowledge of the performers’ needs, their limits with physicality. It comes to that sense of trust and community, it’s making sure that everyone is looking after everyone else,” explains health and safety officer John Kirk. He says that each artist is ‘responsible for their own health and safety, as far as their skillset is concerned’, and that the company has an umbrella responsibility to make sure they provide the environment that they can first of all train their skills and, second of all, voice any issues on personal safety: “That’s something that we absolutely have to encourage because they are potentially putting their lives on the line.”
For Merry, the sense of trust is palpable even in the shows. “A lot of the reviews are on the feeling of community and support in among the tent that is there between the performers. And it’s just because it’s purely evident in how people push structures around together and lift heavy objects and manage things, it’s very much part of the magic of this aesthetic.”
A circus is more than just thrills and the sense of danger, although it certainly is that. As Merry says: “It’s ‘absolutely what circus is about, it’s what audiences come to see.” Circus is also all the risks that are encountered in high risk workplaces, primarily working at height, but also lifting and risks to the public’s safety in the course of work. Encountering all these risks on a daily, even on a per second basis, ends up making a celebration and even beauty of safety. In the circus tent, perhaps I found safety in its purest form.
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