The Guinea Pig Effect
I’m sure a lot of the circus-involved readers out there have been wondering what Circadium is like. For those of you who are not as “in the know”, there has been a lot of chatter in the circus community about Circadium being the first vocational degree program in the United States. These kind of degree-awarding circus programs exist elsewhere around the world (most of them located in Europe and one of the most prominent ones in Canada), but the most that the United States has had to offer were 1-2 year professional training programs. Well...until now. Circadium students will leave the 3 year program with a Diploma of Circus Arts. It is the first of its kind in the US, and the third in North America.
There are numerous paths to becoming a circus artist, and a full-time program is by far not the only one. Although I made the decision to pursue a circus career through a full time professional program, learning about the stories of my extended “circus family” has truly outlined how unique each performer’s path has been. Until I’ve spent a bit more time in the circus world and know more, I won’t speak to the various tracks to becoming a circus artist, but Alisan Funk, a Montreal circus coach, does a beautiful job breaking down the various pathways and speaking on behalf of the value of a degree-based circus education in her post; What's the Point of a Degree in Circus Arts?
Back to Circadium. Regardless of everything else, Circadium is a completely new program. That in and of itself has a lot of positives and negatives. On the negative side, it’s not truly established yet, which means the first class becomes the guinea pigs of the program. We are the pilot run to see how things do and do not work, which is both incredibly exciting and extremely terrifying. It was a huge risk coming to Philadelphia; Circadium had no reputation yet, teachers were still being decided upon, and I had no idea if their academic class structure would end up being a benefit or just take away from the time I could be devotedly training (Alisan Funk speaks more to this end in her post in CircusTalk.News). I also knew there would be bumps along the way, as the kinks of the program were worked out step by step. It would take awhile to feel settled because not only were the students getting acclimated to the program, the entire staff was learning how to work with each other and communicate effectively to us. Not exactly an ideal formula for the first day of school, but I believed it would be worth the risks.
As for the positive and exciting side of things, being a fledgling program meant we had somewhat of a say in the way the program was designed. New teachers and guest coaches would be determined by our interests and circus goals. We would also get an incredible amount of one-on-one attention as there were only 11 of us. I knew the relationships I formed with my teachers would be very special because we’d be the pioneering class, and I also knew my peers and I would become close because we would bond over the bumpy ride.
But I think the most positive thing that the newness Circadium brought was the excitement of the potential for something great. When designing the curriculum and schedule, our executive director Shana Kennedy took what she believed were the most successful aspects from various professional schools in Europe and North America, and developed her own unique program. This is why I came to Circadium, because I had faith in this program and believed it would set me up to reach my goals.
As it is still only the third week of classes, we're all still settling in, and this past week, I really started to notice some of those “bumps” I knew were to come. As I mentioned last week, one of the unique aspects of Circadium is weekly Friday afternoon performances to give students an opportunity to act creatively and apply what we had most recently learned. Each week we are given an assignment that is created and performed the following week. This past week, we jumped from a group performance to something a bit more challenging - a solo act. We were given a few parameters (the title "When The Rain Falls," a 2-3 minute time limit, a no recorded sound/music rule, and a few other concepts relating to what we'd been working on during the week in other classes), as well as a partner to help be a sounding board for ideas. Though we were nervous at the start, by Friday we were all pretty excited to see each other’s creations. I wish I could say that we left that showcase feeling empowered and inspired by one another, but many of us left feeling dejected. The critiques the instructors gave us failed to express how pleased they were with our acts overall (which we only found out later in the day in smaller conversations with one coach). Without understanding what aspects of our acts were done correctly, many of us were lost as to how to accomplish the next week's performance goal of revising the act with the feedback we'd received.
Here comes more honesty: I love/hate these Friday performance. Thought I truly believe these performances will make us much better artists, it’s a difficult challenge to create a good act with specific parameters in such a short period of time, and definitely not something I'm used to yet. This challenge is something we will have to do over and over in our careers as we eventually design acts with specific intents in mind, and starting now is crucial to expand our creative horizon. It would be easy to follow the guidelines of “create a piece to whatever music you want, with whatever emotion or story,” but I think many of our pieces would wind up being similar to past works, and that isn't a good way to grow as an artist. So for now, we'll struggle through these performances until we improve our act creation skills. As for me specifically, I'll keep calling my girlfriend and probing her brain for ideas on how to fix my act for Friday, because though I might be the one at circus school, she is one of the most creatively brilliant people I know.
Overall, for being a school that began building renovations a month before students came, moved in just days before classes started, and is starting their first year of a completely new program, Circadium’s start has been impressively smooth. It’s been a transition for all of us, and slowly but surely, we’ll begin to get settled. Having a class of 10 other students to talk through everything has been so valuable. We truly are in this together, and I look forward to seeing the little circus family grown as the year progresses.
Sincerely, Circus Girl