National Institute of Circus Arts

Historically, circus has been a hot commodity in Australia since 1847. In the past, it was horses and exotic foreign acts that brought the crowds out. Nowadays, it is innovation, a contemporary merging of other arts with traditional circus skills, and narrative—the welcome addition of story or themes to unify the action— which is keeping audiences hooked. While traditional circuses such as Circus Royale are touring in big tops around the continent, audiences in the big cities are embracing a variety of options, from Flying Fruit Fly Circus (a polished children’s circus), to Circus Oz, Australia’s long running and wildly popular circus with a mission. Australia is also home to one of the world’s better known circus schools, the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne. With so much circus education and history, it is no wonder that Australia is prone to turn out cutting edge modern circus.

I met with Emma Serjeant, a living example of how the circus climate in Australia keeps growing diverse artists and entrepreneurs, like a many headed hydra. She is just about to launch her new company ESP (Emma Serjeant Productions), after a long stint as executive director of Casus Circus, which she co-founded. Casus is the perfect illustration of how modern circus companies are adapting to the times. These new, mid-sized circus companies; Casus, as well as other international companies; Cirkus Cirkör (Sweden), 7 Fingers (Montreal) and Circa (Brisbane) are wowing audiences worldwide with their new take on circus in a theatrical setting. These companies are smaller and streamlined, with a troupe of typically 3 to 8 performers, all who have often developed the shows (and sometimes the companies) together. They are the start-ups of the circus world, and they are succeeding based not simply on their innovative artistic and technical techniques (which are considerable) but also on their lower production budgets, and the relative simplicity (compared to moving a tent and animals) of travel. Casus Circus is still touring their premiere work, Knee Deep for its 4th year. Other productions include Finding the Silence, Jerk (Emma’s award winning solo show about exploring the edge of ourselves) and Tolu.

Like her country, Emma Serjeant is a powerhouse with a story to tell, but sitting before me dressed in a green wool jumper on the hottest day of the summer, she looked tiny. It was her energy that was big, and if you’ve seen her perform hand balancing and acrobatics, you are aware of her exquisite sense of balance, strength and poise which she seems to carry with her in her every day dealings. She was talking about using a choreographic language to tell a story and beating the structure of circus by cross-pollinating the arts. I was hooked. She had just hopped off of a flight from Thailand, where she went to get inspired for her newest projects, she explained. And now we sat on the patio at Tusk, a café in Melbourne’s hip Prahan neighborhood, just up the road from the National Institute of Circus Arts. The circus school is known by the students, including graduate Emma and my daughter Fiona (who we were in town to visit) as NICA. Besides being a performer and director, Emma is also a choreographer and producer, because working with a small company means you get to wear many hats. Settling in for a long talk, we all ordered smoothies to combat the pre-Christmas heatwave.

Afterwards, we strolled over to the airy structure of the National Circus Center, home to NICA, but they were closed for a staff Christmas party, so Emma snuck us in with her key for a tour. After a year of imagining what my daughter’s school was like, I was there at last, but rather than the bustling environment I’d imagined with aerialists hovering above coveted floor space, there was a slight echo as our words floated up to the impossibly high ceilings of the sunlit rooms.

So Emma brought me up to date on the place, down to describing what it is like when full of the 100 plus students all competing for floor space. The modern cube-like marvel known as National Circus Center was a $10 million venture that was completed in 2005. Before that, students had to train in an old warehouse. But now, thanks to the support of the Australian Government, the Australian Roundtable for Arts Training Excellence and Swinburne University, the students at NICA enjoy a state of the art facility and top notch instructors from around the world. As an American, ‘arts funding’ seems like a magical gift bestowed upon people in other nations by rare forward thinking governments. But when the budget belt has to be tightened, it turns out that the arts get cut in Australia too. The Federal Arts funding will be cut by $100 million in the next 4 years, a prospect which concerns all Australian artists. Emma is grateful that her projects have been a recipients of the grant process but wonders how heavily the cuts will affect her sector.

Though she graduated in 2006, Emma isn’t done with NICA. Since her return to Melbourne, from Brisbane (where she was based with Casus Circus and Circa before that) Emma has been brought on to co-direct the student showcase with director Hayden Spencer. She reeled off some of her projects as we crammed ourselves in to her car full of belongings. “I might relocate here and rent an apartment. Melbourne is wide open for circus. The environment is so perfect. But I may not rent, because I travel so much,” Emma explained. She is producing Kaput, a solo show in Hong Kong starring Tom Flanagan, and co-directing Love, Lost and Lattes (which will head the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2016). In February in Liverpool, and at the Brighton Fringe in spring, she will be directing an all-woman show called R.E.D. She’s got residencies booked in between shows, and is slated to collaborate with the director of her solo show Jerk to develop it further. There’s even a collaborative cross-continental project in the works for 2016/2017 between her and Winifred Haun & Dancers, an American dance company.

Still, while starting her production business, Emma isn’t sure if she will create another performance company. She might stay focused on directing and producing for a while after a difficult transition away from Casus Circus. Emma and Casus parted due largely to creative differences, but she worked so closely with them for so many years that there is a hole in her that she can’t picture filling back up just yet. She concedes she will miss the creativity that can arise from a close community of friends like the one she crafted with Casus co-founders Natano Faanana, Lachlan McAulay and Jesse Scott. I asked her if she missed performing. Since she has recently gotten the go ahead to start training after recovering from shoulder surgery she says is ready to delve back in to her training regimen and performing as well.

Circus Oz

When we pulled in to the back lot at Circus Oz, a huge mural by Keith Harring on a neighboring building caught my eye. It showed tumbling, flipping, and falling bodies that looked like they were being ejected from a giant millipede. I found it appropriate for a building that had a whole circus tucked behind it. The mural had been painted 30 years ago but was recently restored. Emma apologized as I dragged her over to observe the mural, “I just pass by that all the time and forgot it was even there.” She told us how the building, formerly a technical school, was scheduled to be demolished, but recently the city decided to turn it in to the Collingswood Contemporary Arts Precinct, making it a perfect fit for a growing compound of creative exchange.

Another fascinating building on the lot is the Melba Speigel tent, a sturdy, intricate structure of mirrors, canvas and wood. It is a popular venue for circus shows and residencies. We tried the doors but they were locked too. All of the circus world had rolled up their carpets and gone surfing. So we scooted over to the modern facility next door, the new headquarters of Circus Oz.

“You just missed our ensemble! They had to leave yesterday to go to Sydney,” explained Antonella Casella, former Circus Oz acrobat turned senior artistic associate. Antonella was the founder of Vulcana Women’s Circus in Brisbane, and a founding member of Rock-N-Roll Circus (which dates back to the 70’s before everyone knew circus was cool). She described her work with Rock-N-roll circus as a way to help change the nature of theater at the time in order to open it up to other arts. Rock-N-roll Circus eventually became Circa. Antonella knew Emma because after Emma graduated from NICA, she joined the Circa ensemble for 3 years and became the head trainer of Circa Zoo, the youth circus.

After we had the circus talk (who you know in common, your circus mantra, where you had been and are going and what your projects are), Antonella squeezed Fiona’s arm, ropey from hours of handstands, and launched straight in to a little background info about Circus Oz. For 33 years they have considered themselves counter-culture. Antonella described their shows as cabaret-style, full of anarchic action, parody and comedy--with a lively band. The current show is called But Wait…There’s More! I went straight home afterwards and watched the trailer, searching carefully for elements of anarchy. Wedged in between the more classis acts, this year’s production features an acrobat who leaps through smoke rings, a chanteuse for a ringmistress and a wardrobe that looks like it came straight out of BeetleJuice. Their mission statement focuses on issues of social justice and eco consciousness, and their shows reflect it. Take for example their sponsor, ‘Stuff’, and the ensuing commercial break; “Do you ever lie awake at night wondering ‘What’s it all about?’ Is there a hole deep inside you? Hmm? Well, say goodbye to that messy existential crisis forever and fill that hole with stuff!” I was sad to have missed them, but Antonella assured me that I would soon have another chance as they tour America frequently.

Emma walked us through the big practice and performance spaces. Circus Oz moved in to the building last year, but you wouldn’t know it. The place was stamped with character; a jumble of props and white boards carefully mapping out their production plans. A composer worked on his notes in the music room as we strolled through, and a huge white board of unfamiliar looking words caught my eye. Emma saw me looking and explained, “That’s an indigenous language. Circus Oz works with indigenous Australians. You may have heard of Dale Woodbridge? He works with them.” Americans know next to nothing about Australia, I thought for perhaps the 100th time that trip, and stared in awe at the strange words, “Womraka moses yenyen walla” the first line read. It turns out it was an Aboriginal Christian hymn called Ngaraa Burra Ferra in the Yorta Yorta language. The language is considered extinct-with only an estimated 21 speakers left based on the 2006 census, but the song gained some popularity in 2012 with the release of a movie about 4 Aboriginal musicians in the 1960’s called the Sapphires. Clearly, Circus Oz is committed to following their mission statement, and the effort to help keep indigenous culture alive is part of that.

On the way back, I noticed Emma seemed at home in Melbourne, jetting us across the many roundabouts that made the city a maze to outsiders. Describing a residency where she will invite choreographers to explore flow, repetitive actions, breath and conscious movement, she said “I want to grow the culture of telling stories with bodies, because the body is an artistic tool, not just a set of skills.” This is why I call the woman a powerhouse, because she digs deep in to the motivation and intuition of artists while exploring technique. She is an example of the type of innovator Australia continues to produce in its ground-breaking exploration of contemporary circus. Best of all, as an artist she wasn’t just concerned with producing her own show, she was also collaborating, innovating and facilitating new artists.

Fiona asked Emma her opinion on the current and future trends in Australian circus. Emma thought about it while shifting gears and leaned in to another roundabout, “The circus and dance fusion that Circa started maybe eight years ago was so new and edgy—that stripping down of circus— it’s still hanging in there. And a mix of theater and circus is happening, although some of that stuff can be cringe-worthy, it has become almost its own art form. I think when you blend in circus it lifts the other genre,” she explained. And why not? Mixing circus with other art forms adds the physical dimension to stories. Won’t adding the physical feat to music, art, dance and theater, help complete the story that we tell ourselves to explain our existence? And why not circus bodies? Aren’t those the bodies that show us that it is possible to defy logic, nature and gravity with sheer willpower? And isn’t that freedom what humans are striving for?

Women’s Circus

There was one circus still in town in December. It was the Women’s Circus, a ‘feminist organization dedicated to the individual well-being of women and connectedness within and across their communities.’ Just our luck, it was located in the highly populated immigrant territory of Footscray, right where we were staying, and there was a student showcase. So on another hot day, my family and I found ourselves crammed in to a busy gym in a small circus school, sitting on the floor to see a show. It was just like home, except this tight-knit community of women of all ages and abilities had Australian accents. Watching the performances and the love the community had for the performers was fabulous. I saw an act involving women my mother’s and daughter’s ages interacting in a presumed race against time. They struggled and collided with each other and crossed paths in a blur. Sometimes they got stuck, and when one person halted, the others slowed down for a minute, pausing in their frantic efforts just long enough to reconnect and help the other out. Like Emma, they were barreling through space and time on their individual missions, but reconfiguring when necessary and when other bodies crossed their paths. That was the choreographic language of bodies telling its story and it solidified my impression of circus in Australia. They were groups of individuals all striving in their own way to tell a story and make an impact not just on the arts but on other humans, and taking the time to stop and assist each other when things got a little rocky.

At Circus Promoters, we are committed to increasing your access to happenings and trends in the worldwide circus community. We also aim to provide access to exclusive interviews with inspiring people in the industry.

If you are not a member of Circus Promoters yet, registration is free and all levels of performer are welcome. Visit to create your profile and learn about employment opportunities.

Bio & links:

Kim Campbell is a circus and theatre critic and writer. She has written for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Talk and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review , where she writes about arts and culture. You can follow her frequent musings on circus via Twitter , Instagram or at Kimzyn Chronicles .

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Circus Promoters and Kim Campbell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Circus Oz


Casus Circus