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Chch Polytech breaks the mould with circus arts

Christchurch Polytech breaks the mould with circus arts

Christchurch Polytech Institute of Technology has broken the mould of traditional career courses by running a circus programme.

They have 21 students this year – nine from New Zealand, four from Australia, three from Switzerland, two from the Netherlands, one from Germany, one from the United States and one from Canada.

Circuses have been around for centuries offering fun for families but the people who run the Christchurch course couldn’t be more serious about their diploma course.

Faculty dean Margaret Pierson says the circus arts diploma adds a fresh an important dimension to the polytech’s image.

``This course gives us great opportunities for a wide range of people.

``We receive excellent feedback and want to maintain a very high level of competency in this challenging course,’’ she says.

Tutor Godfrey Sim says the modern circus of performing arts is becoming extremely popular. Australia led the way with the new-age circus 25 years ago and Canada’s Cirque du Soliel has taken live entertainment to a new level, he says.

``There is a huge range of employment opportunity in this field. There has been an explosion worldwide in festivals in all continents.

``Performers can get on the festival circuit, they can be street performers where they do the hard yards for hat money, they get into circuses, do corporate work, such as special events, or perform at opening of major new sites.

Sim says one of the Christchurch graduates went on to become ringmaster for Webber Bros touring circus in South Africa.

Australia broke new ground for the modern circus and they showed Europe how to successfully stage a new-age circus. Canada has since popularised it making it spectacular and marketable.

``Kiwis need to realise a circus is not sawdust, clown noses and elephants any more. It is a huge growing market. We have many inquiries now about our course through word of mouth and our website on the internet,’’ Sim says.

One of the first year students this year is Corey Moir from Gore. Corey has already graduated with a BSc – with honours in bio-chemistry. But he says he could not resist the lure and fascination of the Christchurch course. Another is Christy Flaws from Dunedin. She did stilt-walking and learned about the course at a Fringe Festival in Dunedin two years ago.

Corey says he saw a bit about the course on television and found more details on the internet.

``It is better than I ever imagined,’’ he says. ``It is amazing, exhausting and it’s great. There’s also quite a special close knit bond in the group.

``Our days are long with juggling, ballet, circus history, aerials and yoga. There’s so much to learn. We see the second and third years students and they are so advanced compared to what I can do.’’

Christy says the course takes a lot out on them but they all encourage each other.

``I just love the team ethos. It’s quite scary how much we know about each other already. Everyone is so supportive.

``We have testing endurance sessions doing repetitions and drills. Our first exams are in a few weeks’ time. We have to be tested by performing in front of the public at the new Palms Shopping Centre (in the Christchurch suburb Shirley).

``I love the trapeze and want to have a career in it.’’ Both Corey and Christy would love to join a big circus and they have nine tutors helping them achieve their goals. Graduate Alexandra Sim helps train the students with body toning and strengthening preparation. She is an outstanding performer in her own right having shown aerial skills at Sky Tower in Auckland and at the Wearable Arts in Nelson. She also performed on television’s Showstoppers programme. ``I try and make them become physically stronger but also watch their emotions, their food, their injuries, their tiredness. I help get the 1st year students fitter. They can spend three or four hours doing fitness work a day.

``There are great opportunities out there for graduates in circuses, corporate work, cruise ships, resorts, theatre and teaching.’’

Olivia Ricken, a third year student with masters in circus pedagogy in Germany, now sees a bigger social picture than that.

She has put a proposal to the polytech to run weekend courses for teachers and social workers to pass on circus skills to students.

``I would like to work with the youth in New Zealand. I want to see circus events as a non-competitive activity in schools as an alternative to sport. I want to see that happen. Many people can’t achieve in school but research has shown that circus work helps people achieve and they can apply that to every day life.’’

The Christchurch Polytech circus school started seven years ago. It is houses in a protected heritage building with a flying trapeze rig, tightwire, tumbling floor and dance studio. The are unicycles, juggling gear, a German wheel, aerial hoop, webs, cloud swing, stilts and everything required to train students to the highest level.

The students’ showcase of their endeavours is seen in the annual Circus Under the Stars' in the polytech’s quadrangle in November.

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