Philip and Patty Astley invented modern circus 250 years ago. But while the UK has a long history of traditional travelling circus, it has not been at the forefront of contemporary circus practice. That has been left to Europe – most particularly France and Belgium – as well as Canada and Australia.
Sean Gandini, the co-founder of Gandini Juggling, thinks that’s because "in circus we are imprisoned by our skill much more than in other disciplines". But as he has proved, it’s possible to escape that prison and there are some benefits in being "a joyous promiscuous collaborator" looking beyond the big top.
As this year's CircusFest 18 at the Roundhouse shows, there are increasing numbers of young British circus companies – some of them female-led – who are exploring what happens when circus, contemporary theatre and live art mix with each other.
The fact that circus is often seen as an outsider artform brings challenges but also offers opportunities. It can go to places and into communities where other artforms may be less welcome, for example, an economically deprived suburb or a care home, a children's playground or an urban square, an empty shop or a parking lot.
This is not about artists becoming social workers. It's about seeing circus not just as product but as a resource and a process that is endlessly adaptable. Circus doesn't have to lose its "beautiful outsider" status or sacrifice artistic integrity to succeed in a changing world. But it does have to connect more deeply with society.
Photo: Nick Rampling