Graduation Day At The Circus School
Tim Roberts, Higher Education Courses Director at Circus Space
Most graduates expect to jump through metaphorical hoops when leaving education and seeking employment in the greater world, but at Circus Space in Hoxton those graduating from the three year course in circus arts have to leap between actual pillars of fire. They call it “the passage through into real life” and it is the climax of the annual leavers’ ceremony overseen by Courses Director Tim Roberts, wearing a black academic gown with an outsize pair of clown shoes, sporting a pointy hat with a red curly wig, and brandishing a flaming wand.
Some might question the wisdom of studying circus arts in preference to a more conventional career option, yet when so many of those in top jobs regularly make clowns of themselves while trying to be taken seriously, learning how to be a professional fool becomes a less unorthodox choice. One would hope that making people laugh should become a growth industry in the recession, and certainly Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne and I were eager to cheer on the latest recruits to this essential work, when we joined the audience of family and friends on graduation day.
The gathering took place in the former combustion chamber of the cavernous red brick building that was originally constructed as the Shoreditch Electric Light Station in 1896 but is now Britain’s largest circus school. First and second year students opened the proceedings with performances, making fun of their seniors, offering some exuberant stunts and demonstrating the distinctive nature of circus art which exists somewhere between comedy, dance and gymnastics. Juggling hats, spinning hoops, and assuming a diverse variety of outrageous personas, the self-satirising students disarmed us by their apparent incompetence before delighting us with their breathtaking skills. And, throughout this performance, I sensed a collective elation that escalated to fill the room with high spirits.
Then, as is customary at a graduation ceremony, the final year students paraded in wearing mortar-boards – but here at the circus school the students had made their own comic hats, drawing woops and cheers from the crowd. Once the soon-to-be-graduates were seated, the audience grew hushed as Tim Roberts lit his wand, only to emit a chorus of “whoo” when he ignited the pillars of fire on either side of the hurdle that the graduates would leap between to land upon the mats placed on the other side, cushioning their landing in the real world.
Some took it at a run, some were measured, some went head-first, some went feet-first, some did nose-dives, some did somersaults, some landed on their faces, some landed on their feet. No two were alike, everyone found their own way to enact the rite of passage. Yet as each arrived on the other side and collected their diplomas, all were surprised to discover they were in another place, somewhere as yet unspecified. The magic of the ritual was that the metaphor of the pillars of flame became real. Exultant now, it was time for the students to share congratulations and take souvenir photographs. It was time for communal celebrations at the completion of three years training, counterbalancing the sadness of farewells prior to separation and the dawning of the future.
You might expect that students facing the current world and burdened with debt from their studies might lack confidence or show trepidation, but I saw none. Several Circus Space students even carried off awards from banks for their personal business plans. I found the graduates of 2012 were as excited and filled with brave anticipation as anyone could be. Leaping through flames had only tempered their resolve.
Jean Danel Brousse
Photographs copyright © Martin Usborne
You may like to take a look at Martin Usborne’s new blog A Year To Help
or read these other circus stories