In the Spotlight: Dea Birkett, Ringmaster CIRCUS250
250 years ago, on an abandoned patch of land near London’s Waterloo, showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley drew out a 42 foot circle in the ground and filled it with a dazzling combination of jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strong men, and bareback riders… This spectacle was the world’s very first circus. It was 1768, a time of revolutions, and poet William Blake could have been one of Astley’s first customers. But the real revolution Astley created was a whole new art form.
250 years later, circus is a worldwide phenomenon. There’s barely an art form that isn’t touched by it – from Sir Peter Blake’s circus collages to cutting edge performance art. Every schoolchild can tell you what a circus is. Many of us would secretly like to run away and join one.
This year, Circus250 marks the 250th anniversary of this British born art form and is a nationwide celebration of all things Circus. Museums, filmmakers, designers, theatres, orchestras, schools, libraries and circuses will all join in – circus is everywhere and for everyone.
Before we learn more about Circus250, let us read about Dea Birkett, a formidable woman, now ringmaster of Circus250, author journalist and founder of the highly successful charity ‘Kids in Museums.’
Not many of us know that 25 years ago, she ran away to join the circus...
Interview: Dea Birkett, Ringmaster CIRCUS250
PW: How did you become the ‘Ringmaster’ of Circus250?
I’m a former circus performer – I ran away to join the circus 25 years ago. I retired from the ring when I was the oldest female in it, but never left the circus community. So when the significant anniversary of 250 years of circus approached in 2018, I ran back to the circus again to organise the celebrations and events.
PW: Why are circus arts important to us beyond entertainment?
Circus is the most accessible of all the art forms. No one goes to the circus and comes out saying, "I’m not sure I understood that". No one is worried in the interval that everyone around them knows what’s going on and they don’t. Circus is for everyone. No other art form is. But not only for everyone as an audience, but as a participant. Everyone can do a little bit of circus, even something as simple as throwing up a ball.
Circus is also good for you. It is good for your body and mind. It can help in concentration and relies on team work. It is built on trust. In the circus, everyone depends on other people to keep them safe. Those people may come from all over the world. Circus life teaches you to trust in other people wherever they come from, and that they can be and are reliable. It breaks down barriers and encourages understanding.
Circus is the most diverse art form. Throughout history, women have been at its heart and it continues to provide strong role models for young women today. In the 19th century, when women were banned from the London stage, they performed in the circus ring and often headlined. Women performers were more popular so paid more than men, which led some men to disguise themselves as women to boost their fame and income!
PW: Should circus arts be on the school sports/arts curriculum?
Yes! If there were circus skills classes in school, not only physical well-being but learning would improve. Circus is non-competitive – so there wouldn’t be a child who wasn’t good at football standing on the sidelines. Everyone is involved. And the concentration and manipulation required in learning circus skills is proven to improve literacy skills as well. There are also several role models of hugely successful circus performers and proprietors. The most successful circus impresario of the 19th century was Pablo Fanque, a black man from Norwich, England. In the 1870s, Miss La La, a black woman aerialist famously painted by Degas, was the best paid performer of any kind in Europe. Women have always been strong and powerful in the circus. There’s no ‘size zero’ in the ring.
PW: What life skills can be learned through circus arts?
Trust in other people. Tolerance of others. Circus couldn’t exist without both of these things. If only the world were a circus.
PW: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The thought that, if we put on a really good event, a child and family will be able to experience the arts as equal partners, without fear and with wonder. So I get up, put on my top hat, and begin …
PW: What would Circus250 do with £10,000?
We have developed a short circus show for children and families – StrongWomen Science – using circus skills to make science accessible and fun for children and families. We work with two female circus performers- one a former engineer, the other a former environmental scientist. The 30-minute show demonstrates science through circus skills, using the amazing power of these two performers. We want to tour the show to rural audiences who don’t usually get the opportunity to see a science show. We use women performers as they are great role models for young girls, as they’re clever and strong both as scientists and circus performers. £10,000 would enable us to tour to these communities and provide the show for free, so as many children and families as possible could benefit. If girls thought engineering might be for them after seeing this show, what an achievement that would be.
Who are CIRCUS250?
Circus250 is the co-ordinating body for all the activity happening nationwide to celebrate 250 years of circus in 2018.
Circus250 provides the framework and scaffolding within which all activities take place, whether in theatres, rings, outdoors, archives, museums, schools, libraries.
Circus250 is about enabling and supporting pioneering work, forging new partnerships, building new audiences and embedding circus at the heart of our culture – in the ground-breaking spirit of Astley.’
Circus is an art form that has influenced countless artists over the years, but is by no means unchanging and old-fashioned. The director has remarked that people will be surprised ‘about what counts as circus.’ She went on to say that ‘the future of circus is very bright. In 2018, we’re going to celebrate this extraordinary art form that has survived, evolved, changed and thrived for 250 years.’ See here for a video from the Economist about Circus250.
Circus has the power to be enormously socially transformative, to break down cultural norms and social barriers, and has from its beginnings involved those on the margins. You can listen here to a recent Woman’s Hour programme about Women and the Circus.
CELEBRATE 250 years of circus throughout 2018 with performances, exhibitions, and events nationwide. There will be a one-month focus on each of the Six Cities of Circus between April and October.
PROMOTE Circus250 year-round celebrations with branding, website, social media, marketing, press and an explosion of attention on all the different and fabulous forms of circus.
COLLABORATE with a broad range of those who create and innovate in circus, and support collaboration with unexpected partners to enable exciting new work.
EDUCATE, through providing resources to schools and libraries to enable them to celebrate Circus250.
ADVOCATE how circus can be both enjoyed and experienced by everyone, by engaging with decision makers and bringing their attention to the benefits of circus activity and education. High profile Circus Champions will tell the story of the importance and influence of circus.
DEVELOP new audiences for circus, letting people know the many wonderful expressions of circus, cross-marketing contemporary and traditional circuses, so that audiences are introduced to circus wherever and however it appears.
EMBED circus in our artistic and educational experiences, so that everyone in the UK may know the many forms it takes, and the many ways in which they can take part and create.
And most of all ...
SURPRISE. #Circus250 celebrates the past, but looks to the future. It’s a radical celebration. It seeks to astound.
To discover over 400 events happening throughout UK and Ireland for Circus250 go to www.circustalk.com/circus250programme and
To support Circus250 do buy a Circus250 Souvenir Programme, packed with original essays on the history of circus, fabulous circus posters and images, and highlights of the Circus250 year. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org for an order form.