All Things Circus by Steve Cowton – Head of Programming

(By Steve Cowton, Head of Programming)

I’m sure I’m not the only one missing live performances in these strange and difficult times. I know that live streaming and digital art are very popular and exciting – but for me there’s nothing that comes close to the collective experience of being part of a live theatre audience when the lights go down…

I wanted to take a few moments to remember some of the great shows of the past – and look forward to future productions that have yet to be made. Although i programme a broad range of shows at The Lowry – and love all theatre and dance – i thought i’d focus in this instance on my love of Circus – or Contemporary Circus as we sometimes refer to it.

“Contemporary” Circus is a contentious term – even among the circus community itself! I always use the analogy with Dance – Contemporary Dance is more abstract, less narrative based uses a different movement vocabulary – and so it is with Circus. At the end of the day its all still Circus – and it relies on an audience to bring it alive.

I’ve been working in Theatre for a long time – and way back in the 90’s I was The Director of Alnwick Playhouse and had the pleasure of promoting some of the very early pioneers of modern circus – Ra Ra Zoo, Jean Paul Zaccirini and the first ever UK tour of an Australian company called Circa who remain one of my favourite companies. I also promoted Gandini Juggling – one of THE great UK circus companies – founded by Sean Gandini and still touring all over the World. We’ve presented them at The Lowry and Smashed remains one of my favourite shows.

Juggling remains a unique strand within Circus and people continue to find new ways of throwing and catching. In January of this year we presented a show called Zebra from a brilliant American juggler called Wes Peden – who now lives in Sweden. He literally travels the World on his own with all of his set and props in a single suitcase – and spends literally five hours a day practising – and the results are spectacular..

One of the reasons I love Circus is because of the unique and singular people who make it. We’ve worked with German  handstand artist Natalie Reckert who can stay in a handstand for hours – she has to pretend she’s about to fall over so that audiences appreciate how difficult it is! We’re currently working with an amazing Australian performer called Charmaine Childs on her new show Power – she has spent years touring as a “base” for acrobatic troupes and now tours as a Strong Woman – she told me once that she has a favourite coffee shop in 35 cities around the World so wherever she goes she always feels at home – and later this year we’re working with Fran Hyde who is a professional “hair-hanger”. One of my favourite circus people however is the truly amazing Chris Bullzini who is the country’s leading Funambulist – or tight rope walker to you and I! Chris is an amazing bloke who specialises in huge and dramatic walks – a practising Buddhist who writes a letter to his family before every performance – just in case. We had the pleasure of presenting him in Salford last year when Quays Culture engaged him to walk from the Lowry to the top of Media City. The gusting wind was terrifying – but Chris went ahead anyway…

Over the last few years we’ve commissioned and co-commissioned a number of Circus shows. Everything I See I Swallow was commissioned as part of WEEK 53 in 2018 and featured two female aerialists – Tamsin Shasha and Maisy Taylor. This controversial show has toured all over the country and won a Fringe First Award at last year’s Edinburgh Festival – it was touring to Berlin and Hong Kong this Summer before plans had to change. We’ve also been co-commissioners of the last three productions from Ockham’s Razor – probably my favourite Circus company of all. They produce technically challenging but emotionally engaging performances that work on a number of levels. They use their extraordinary skills – and physical strength and courage – to explore complicated themes. Their latest show  – This Time – explored familial relationships and included performers aged from 13 to 63 – uniquely for a circus show i think – and i was incredibly proud of The Lowry’s involvement in it.

Circus has done much to embrace diversity in all its forms over recent years. One of the highlights of WEEK 53 – had we been able to present it – would have been performances by Extraordinary Bodies. They are the world’s first fully integrated circus company of disabled and non-disabled performers and i’m very pleased to say that we’ve secured ACE funding which will see us present four new productions form the Company over the next four years.

We’re also working with all-female Mimbre who will be premiering their new show in the Quays next January. Their productions are beautifully staged and immaculately designed. They really push the lyrical boundaries of Circus with a lot of dance influences in their work – and i cant wait to see their new show. This beautiful film is a great introduction to their work.

As I write this i’m reminded of lots of other shows and performers that i should have mentioned – but I’ve already gone way over my word count so please forgive me. We have so much to look forward in the years ahead – Circus has a unique ability to entertain people of all ages – and The Lowry will continue to champion this emerging new art-form – presenting the very best work from the UK and abroad. Please do contact me through The Lowry if you’d like to know more about circus – or any of the companies I’ve mentioned. My last short clip is a French Canadian Company – Machine de Cirque who will be with us in September.