Ever wondered what it’s like to run away with the circus? We had a chat with Adrian Porter, national squad gymnast, former head coach at the world renowned Cirque Du Soleil, and current HE year manager at the National Centre for Circus Arts school in London, about his experiences and what he feels it takes to thrive in this increasingly popular art form.
For our readers, can you give us a brief outline of your journey into circus and to Cirque Du Soleil?
I guess I came to circus when I started off at the age of seven. My sports teacher at primary school used to love gymnastics and had a little after school club, which my brother joined first. I joined straight after him, and basically by the time I finished my first year at school I had kind of outstripped all the awards, so my teacher found a school in Catford for me to go to. It was an all girls school so I was the only guy there which was quite odd but I didn’t really think anything of it. It was all about the gymnastics. And then from there I needed to find a boys club because obviously they use different apparatus. So I went to a boys club in Ladywell, then went from Ladywell to Hendon to a gym club which at the time was basically the top club in the country. I excelled there, went on to be a national squad gymnast and then stopped for education.
Once I finished University I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I ended up working in restaurants and in bars. Then I met my old training partner. His mum was a coach at Harrow, and she asked me if I wanted to do it, so that’s how I got into coaching. I didn’t really know I was going to be going in to coaching – I probably wanted to be a lawyer or a scientist or something like that. I didn’t really think about the arts. From there I found Circus Space (now the National Centre for Circus Arts or NCCA for short), which at the time had just opened and I started covering circus classes there. Then I started to perform, with no formal training. So basically it was just a group of people finding gigs and working across the country in different areas, and working in television as well. And that’s when Circus Space started to develop the educational side of the organization. When they started doing that they came out with the Millennium Dome project and from there I met Andrew Watson who at the time was artistic director of several of the shows at cirque Du Soleil. We worked together for about a year on the Millennium Dome project, and then about a year after the project finished he asked me to come and work for Cirque. So actually it wasn’t by my design in the slightest.
How long were you there for?
I was at Cirque Du Soleil for 10 years, having started there in very early 2001.
How did you find it going from working odd jobs to performing with a world-leading Circus company?
Daunting actually. I had an idea that Cirque Du Soleil was as intimate as Circus Space for some reason. I thought that I would be able to speak to these people, and make my voice heard, grow in that way, and collaborate in the way that I normally collaborated. I couldn’t have been more wrong because it’s a machine, one I had never experienced before. It was like being put on top of a mountain without any breathing gear. Like, you can kind of breathe but you know your body’s not functioning properly. It really is quite bizarre and was completely outside my comfort zone.
In the 50s and 60s When America started to expand outside of the cities and people started to populate the new build towns, they used to set up a residents committee so that new residents would be welcomed and taken through the inner workings and dynamics of the particular community. I guess I expected this kind of integration into the company, someone to be there to say ‘ OK Adrian, this is this’.
A bit like a mentor?
Yes, like a mentor, but there was none, apart from the coach that taught Russian swing and wasn’t really there to look after and monitor my progress. So I basically had to learn from listening, and attempting, and emulating, and copying other people in a lot of ways.
So how does the set up work? Using my acting experience as a reference point, do performers get cast for just one show or is it like ‘rep’, something that we used to have 20/30 years ago, where a performer is taken on by the company and as part of an ensemble is cast for each show that they have coming up?
No it doesn’t work like that. Each show is designed as a self-contained unit. That’s not to say that there aren’t artists, or technicians or other people in production that don’t migrate, but the movement of people is not designed from Montreal but facilitated by Montreal, even though they call Montreal the Mother ship, it is not Montreal where they figure out where people go. And I guess that’s because there is so much specialized work going on; there are clowns, there are aerial acrobats, ground acrobats, there are swimmers, there are people that have to work at heights that would make you shit your pants, you know? Everything happens in so many different places, so when you watch a Cirque show like Kà for instance, the actual proscenium arch is something like 50/60 meters across, its nuts how big it is, and the highest point from which an artist is loaded is at about 197 feet. So every show is really different.
The family for the show is created first, and then that is what goes on tour, and it bubbles along and stays as is until there is a requirement. And when a requirement presents itself, whether through injury, disillusionment, discontentment, being fired, whatever, that’s when the gears switch and Montreal gets involved and says ‘OK, what do you need?’ and then the casting department starts to look around, or their production department or their technical department. They have this huge recruitment drive because they are so popular and because they have so many people wanting to work with them, so it kind of works like that. Each show has the ability to plug into Montreal when a need arises but basically they are their own territory and, within reason, behave as such.
And how does it work creatively?
They create an enclave, a collective of people who drive the generation of the show, but the people that drive the generation of the show are not the people that will leave with the show. So there is this core artistic team, and their job is to cast the show, come up with the equipment that they are going to use for the show, to come up with the story of the show, and obviously that is the director. Their job is to take the story of the show and translate it into acrobatic content. Their job is to write the music, to design the costumes and props. None of these people leave Montreal, and if they do it is only to check up. There’s a satellite group of people who will pick up where the core set of people left off. So that is the artistic director, the head of wardrobe, the head coaching, head of props, head of tech, and these are normally the people that are involved while the show is being developed to go on tour.
We have seen the landscape of circus change over the last five to ten years, becoming more popular in a similar way to opera, theatre and dance, considered cool and sexy even. What role would you say Cirque has played in the growing popularity of circus?
I think there are a couple of things that I want to say. You mentioned circus in the same context as opera, or contemporary dance, or ballet because they are art forms, but my impression of circus is that it is the bastard cousin of the performing arts industry. It’s where contemporary dance was forty to fifty years ago. So when contemporary dance first came out, there was ballet, there was opera, there was classical music, there was ballroom dancing. Contemporary dance? The consensus was largely, ‘You bunch of hippy, crazy people, rolling around of the floor. What the f*** are you expressing?! This is bulls***.’ It took Contemporary dance decades to get traction where it could actually hold itself up as an art form that is valuable, not equal to, but as valuable as ballet. I see circus in that context right now, and I hear Cirque Du Soleil being trashed left, right, and centre for being this machine, and I call it a machine because it is a machine.
Which is not necessarily as a negative thing…
Yeah, it’s just a thing, it just is what it is, but they’re getting slammed all the time because they’re “diluting circus”. People say ‘They’ve done this, they’ve done that’ or ‘They’re destroying circus’. But I truly believe without Cirque Du Soleil happening at the time that it happened, we wouldn’t have companies like 7 Fingers, or Cirque Eloise, or we wouldn’t have circus coming to the National Theatre, or to the Lyceum, or we wouldn’t see circus in adverts, or wouldn’t have clubs all around London and around the country, or festivals that celebrate and want circus to be part of what they’re doing. You wouldn’t have dance companies wanting to work with circus performers. So for me whatever, however you want to call it, Cirque Du Soleil was a catalyst for exposure, and yes it has gone a little bit far in some areas, but without it circus wouldn’t be what it is right now, in anyway shape or form.
In theatre there are certain notions that if an actor has worked at the National Theatre or the RSC they have somehow reached the pinnacle. Does a circus artist have to work for Cirque to be seen as having reached the top of their game?
Well I think it depends on how you define the game. Because if you define the game in terms of a human who is capable of being on stage and doing the most stunning, amazing, technical feats of acrobatics, that’s one thing. But if you have a different definition, and think of success as the ability to take the simplest technical elements and weave a story and make people cry, or laugh, with the simplicity and purity of what you do, then that is a different game. And I think that Cirque Du Soleil is in a way behind the curve on that, because for the longest time they relied on the format; the technical excellence and wow factor and only now they are beginning to realise that, actually, maintaining that technical level for such a long time while a show’s on tour, and even the resident shows, is actually quite difficult. And also nurturing your artists to be able to find an artist as opposed to a performer inside them and really nurture that, is something they really need to embrace.
In the past we were only really exposed to Circus of Horrors, Cirque Du Soleil, and the odd video that got passed around on a crappy VHS tape. Now that you’ve got YouTube, yes people watch Cirque Du Soleil, but they also watch these artists in France, or they watch the students at DOCH train, and they are completely inspired in the same way. Or they watch video’s of Butoh, people performing Butoh, and they are asking ‘Wow, where does this energy come from? Where does this stillness come from?’. So I think we are exposed to a much broader diet at a much earlier age. Consequently at the National Centre, we only have 10 per cent, two students out of 26 in our foundation first year, who have categorically stated they want to go to Cirque. Whether they get there or not is irrelevant. They hold Cirque Du Soleil as the pinnacle but nobody else does. Some people want to work for No Fit State. Other people want to create their own work. Some want to work for 7 Fingers, and others just want to gig in clubs because they know that’s what they want to do. So I think people’s tastes are broader now and they are not so hung up on the pinnacle, if that’s what people want to call Cirque.
What is the difference between being on tour and being in a resident show?
I was in a resident show in Las Vegas and to tell you the truth, f*** me, the city was so terrible. I mean Las Vegas as a city, it’s like a group of oddly distracted human beings. And that is putting it so mildly. There is no focus there, so it is really easy to get lost in the city. I didn’t necessarily get lost because what I ended up doing was spending a lot time at home cooking, although there was a period of time just after we opened the show where we were just like kings of the city. I mean Kà was the most technologically advanced theatre show. It was the most expensive show, and it has some of the most innovative equipment so it was an amazing and a very heady experience. So yeah, there was this period of time where we were like ‘yeah our show is the BEST!’ And then, for me, that really wore off very quickly. Other people maintained that party atmosphere, but that was when and where I really honed my cooking skills. It’s really boring I know! And my winter months I spent the weekends snow boarding. And that was it. Work, cook, snowboard.
But touring is a little bit different. They always put you up in really nice apartments, so you always feel quite executive. When we were living in Chicago we were there two months and they had us on the 35th floor in the corner apartment on Wabash. Wabash is literally a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. It’s right in the centre of it all and we used to watch these violent electric storms come down the main strip and out over the lake, it was surreal. And then in New York we were on 43rd and Lexington, I can’t quite remember…
For people who don’t know New York City, that’s amazing!
… And that was a stone’s throw from Central Park, and the Guggenheim, and the natural history museum, and the science museum. So being on tour you get to visit these cities. And while the technicians are busy putting the tent together, you’re like ‘dobedo, where shall we go?!’, so you have a much better chance to see and visit places. And because you aren’t living there permanently, if you don’t like a city you aren’t going to be there very long. Each city had a premiere, so we would do the premier in the first week and everyone would be all buzzed, and then you get into the routine, and then by the end you would be like ‘OK, these are some of the last shows, need to do some good ones for sure, but ready to go to the next city. Let’s pack up, get bags on trailers.’ Bags go to the hotel or apartment in the next city. You fly to the next city, or fly to Cuba or Hawaii for a week’s holiday. And then go ‘OK, it’s time to go back to work’.
It is almost like Super-stardom. How did it feel to live like that?
It’s kind of weird. So they paid for your apartment, paid for your travel, unless you wanted to do a detour, in which case they would give you the equivalent of the travel and you could put that into wherever your detour needed to take you so you didn’t even pay for the entire thing. They gave you per diem rates, and they had a restaurant on site. So you would finish work, have your supper, and then you’re done. So you’re not spending money unless you want to. You’re getting invited to clubs and bars because you’re new in town – it’s just nuts! Free entry into bars, free bottles of Champagne. Where as living in Las Vegas, for me anyway – don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who love Las Vegas – but it just wasn’t for me. I loved the experience of working on that show. Loved the fact I could get in my car and drive to Utah in three hours, or to California in four hours and snowboard for the weekend and then drive back for work. Or get on a plane and fly for three hours and go in to the centre of America, into Wyoming and see some of the most amazing landscapes and spend time there. Geographically it is an amazing country, I’ve got issues with some of its people. Even more so now. Just had to put that in there. Trump you got a mention baby.
I’m sure that’s exactly what he wanted and I am certain he will be reading this! So, before we go, what advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into circus?
Something that I think is really, really, really important is having an insatiable curiosity for anything and everything. You kind of have to have the mind of a scientist and the heart of an artist. It is those two things put together that actually allow you to have your own ideas and to be able to express them. To be able to translate other people’s ideas or your own ideas for other people, and for you to be able to engage. For me it’s about engagement. I remember when I was working with Andrew Watson when we were doing the Millennium Dome project before I went to work with Cirque. We got drunk one night at Circus Space, and we were having this discussion about beating technique on a trapeze. I don’t do trapeze, but he does, and I’ll never forget it, the conversation was so intense. We went up into the middle studio, switched on the lights, got down to our underpants and started practising the technique. It was the most bizarre thing ever. And I think it was me being like that, and asking ‘OK, you have given me this thing, and this is what I think based on Newton’s laws of motion and my understanding of my own body, but what do you think?’ Having that interaction, not being afraid to be challenged but also to stand by your convictions is really important. This is not even about circus, it can be about anything, but in respect to circus, you have to be passionate, and how you apply that is what’s really important.