Welfare State International

Engineers of the imagination and pioneers of large-scale outdoor work rooted in community participation, Welfare State International create some of the biggest and strangest and most radical theatre of the 1970s and 80s, greatly inspired during the latter stages by their loathing of Thatcherite policies and values. Founded by John Fox and Sue Gill, Roger Coleman and others, WSI thrives through the decades as an ever-changing, multidisciplinary band of artists. Many performers pass through the company, including the acrobats, aerialists and gymnasts used in huge shows like 1969’s Earthrise, and from 1970 to 1972 Welfare State run a group called Cosmic Circus. WSI eventually closes its doors in 2006.


Reg Bolton’s Suitcase Circus

Clown, mime, teacher Reg Bolton (pictured) creates Suitcase Circus to support his work teaching circus skills in Edinburgh’s streets and housing estates. In the next decade Bolton, who worked with Lindsay Kemp Mime Company and trained at Annie Fratellini’s school in Paris, will be instrumental in developing the nascent field of community circus. In 1983 he writes Circus in a Suitcase, an enduring how-to guide on starting a community circus.


Covent Garden Street Circus

The fruit and veg market moves out of Covent Garden and the street artists move in. Alternative Arts, a community organisation and production company founded by Maggie Pinhorn, form the Covent Garden Street Theatre and then in 1981 are invited by the city to develop Covent Garden as a year-round site for street theatre. Many jugglers, stilt walkers, tightrope walkers and acrobats cut their teeth in the square, including The Amazing Mendezies, Cunning Stunts, Pope & Crocker, and Pookiesnackenburger (pictured) (the early incarnation of Stomp). Alternative Arts go on to form Circus UK, and Maggie Pinhorn will later create Circus Senso with the producer and creative director Jenny Harris.


First London International Mime Festival

The London International Mime Festival is founded by Joseph Seelig and Nola Rae to bring the world’s best visual theatre to the UK. Early editions feature the work of circus and theatre clowns such as Jango Edwards, Zippo, and I Colombaioni, then in 1984 the great French clown Annie Fratellini (pictured) starts the influx of new circus. Her company Cirque Fratellini is made up of students from her own school and includes a 16 year-old juggler named Jérôme Thomas who will later rise to fame. The next year, 1985, British company Ra-Ra Zoo make their first of an eventual three appearances and signal the growth of home-grown work. LIMF continues its annual editions to the present day and is immensely influential in exposing artists to new aesthetics.  


Circus Oz

Bold, demotic, colourful, openly and bawdily satirical, Circus Oz make their UK debut at the old Roundhouse, London. Not quite traditional, yet building on traditional skills and a traditional aesthetic, Oz combine performances with live, contemporary music and inject their circus with a strong feminist and libertarian political sensibility. Touring the world they influence many of the companies, large and small, that arise in the ensuing decade, and one of Oz’s original members, Sue Broadway, will play a particular role in UK circus as a founder of Ra-Ra Zoo.


Alternative Comedy, New Variety

As alternative comedy spreads through Thatcherite Britain, a new variety circuit begins to form. Circus artists and street performers play alongside comedians and entertainers in small venues and clubs like Jongleurs and The Comedy store. Roland Muldoon and  Claire Burnley form the CAST New Variety agency to circulate circus and street acts, and later restore and run The Hackney Empire, a dilapidated 1900s music hall. Lumiere & Son Theatre Company create Circus Lumiere (pictured), an exacting parody of traditional circus acts that sees a strongman, with much drama, consume a brillo pad (among other marvels).


The Flying Karamazov Brothers

Hailing from California, the Flying Karamazov Brothers arrive in London to inspire a new generation of jugglers. The Brothers become famous for such acts as The Challenge, where one of the troupe will juggle any three objects provided by the audience (cunning audiences bringing such objects as a snowball, a dead fish, a cheesecake, and a fishnet stocking filled with eggs). During a six-week run at London’s Mayfair Theatre the Brothers also make time to perform an interval set at a Grateful Dead concert at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park.


Le Cirque Imaginaire

The first London appearance of the famous Chaplin-Thiérrée family, Cirque Imaginaire (pictured) presents a new circus of dream-like transformations where objects animate and costumes unfold through a series of living designs. The irrepressible Jean-Baptiste delivers quick-fire jokes, while Victoria Chaplin walks the wire and manipulates her costume-creations with a singular and mysterious grace. Their young son James and daughter Aurelia Thiérrée both enjoy walk-on parts disguised as pieces of luggage. Many years later they will return to London with their own creations. The Cirque Imaginaire will also revisit the city in later life, reborn as the Cirque Invisible.


Albert & Friends Instant Circus

Starting as a short-term project, Albert & Friends later develops into London’s largest youth circus. In 2004 they start to produce the biennial London International Youth Circus Festival, inviting youth circus practitioners from around the world to exchange experience and skills and to perform for a public audience. In 2012 the fifth LIYCF is held at London’s Hoxton Hall and recreates a 1930s Berlin cabaret, members of Albert & Friends performing alongside students of Germany’s Circus Cabuwazi and Finland’s Circuitous.


Ra-Ra Zoo

Ra-Ra Zoo become a cult hit on the new variety circuit with their hectic, fast-paced circus – gleefully chaotic, edged with English surrealism, always on the point of collapse. Over the next decade the company make boutique shows for audiences of a hundred at the Diorama squat in Regent’s Park, produce a circus take on traditional Peking opera, and take the tea ceremony – their legendary three-person skit on British tea-drinking – to Africa and South America with the help of the British Council. Founded by Sue Broadway, Stephen Kent, Dave Spathaky and Sue Bradley, Ra-Ra Zoo work with many of the artists who will go on to define a generation of contemporary circus, with alumni including Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala, Lindsey Butcher, Deb Pope, Helen Crocker, and Angela de Castro.


Glastonbury Circus

A Circus Tent appears at Glastonbury for the first time, closely followed in ’87 by a Circus Field, established by Theatre Field organiser Arabella Churchill to accommodate the increasing number of outdoor circus performances and tented cabarets springing up at the festival. In the later 2000s the Field becomes the place for late-night revellers to stumble through the neon-lit, tumultuous world of the infamous Trash City, a Mad Max landscape of wild emboldened performers and flaming vehicles.


Belfast Community Circus

Belfast Community Circus is formed as a centre for community and youth circus. Over the years the school grows to encompass the teaching of professional trainers and performers, and in 1999 moves to a purpose-built building in the centre of Belfast. In 2004 the school organises the first edition of an annual street theatre festival, the Festival of Fools, that takes over the city centre. By 2012 the festival is scheduling 130 performances over five days and the Circus School was a partner in the creation of Land of Giants, Northern Ireland’s biggest ever outdoor arts event and a major production in the London 2012 Festival


Birth of Experimental Circus

The first shoots of a home-grown experimental circus spring up across the UK. On April 1st the country’s first circus school, Fool Time, opens in Bristol. Mummer&Dada (pictured) form to experiment with the interplay of circus and theatre and Circus Senso capture the spirit of the times with an animal-free circus where ‘uncaged human beings perform feats no animal would contemplate’. Five skint friends from Cardiff start NoFit State Circus, little knowing it will survive to become the UK’s largest contemporary circus company.



Lords of chaos and progenitors of new circus, Archaos embrace danger, aggression, iconoclasm, loudness, badness. A circus of stunts and fire, their clattering, anarchic retinue first stun British audiences in the genteel surroundings of the Jubilee Gardens, engulfing terrified spectators in a punk clash of iron, sparks, explosions, smoke, and roaring vehicles as part of The London Festival of New Circus. Founder and head terror Pierrot Bidon goes on to establish two new companies out of social circus projects – Circo da Madrugada in Brazil and Circus Baobab in Guinea  – as well as CREAC, a creation centre for contemporary circus in Marseille.


Rose English

Visual artist, theatre-maker and abstract vaudevillian Rose English heads a company of 28 for Walks on Water, a love poem to the Hackney Empire. Teresa Blake from Circus Oz plays English’s (indestructible) stunt double; Ra-Ra Zoo’s Sue Broadway advises on the stunts themselves. Walks on Water (pictured) marks the start of a fascination with circus that will carry through English’s later works The Double Wedding and Tantamount Esperance (both presented on the main stage of London’s Royal Court Theatre) and culminate in current project Lost in Music, a piece in circus and song made with performers from Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe.


Circus Space

A collection of individuals with a stake in the future of circus establish Circus Space in an old timber yard in Islington. A school, a devising space, a venue, the yard hosts adult and youth classes, practicing artists, and regular Circus Space cabarets. In 1994 Circus Space moves in order to take up residence in an old Victorian power station in Hoxton (pictured), and from there quickly launch the first ever BTEC diploma course for circus. Circus Space goes on to offer the country’s first BA in circus skills in 1999, the alumni of which form or join many of the UK’s most significant contemporary circus companies.


Gandini Juggling

Gandini Juggling are founded, and over the next twenty five years will be tireless travellers and collaborators, touring the world. They choreograph intricate passing patterns to the music of barcodes, soak one another in paint as they pay tribute to fashion designer Alexander McQueen, make work inspired by Pina Bausch (Smashed, pictured) Merce Cunningham and Steve Reich, and juggle balls, clubs, baguettes, CDs, apples, oranges, maltesers, inflatable chairs, stuffed animals, and, once, a Pygmy pig. In 2012 they celebrated their 20th anniversary with the show twenty/twenty, a piece that meditates on the intersection of art and science in human endeavour by choreographing no less than twenty performers. They have since created 8 Songs, Water on Mars (with Plastic Boom) and 4 x 4 Ephemeral Architectures 



Bristol’s Fool Time (pictured) closes and a new school, Circomedia, opens in its place. Founded by Bim Mason and Helen Crocker, the school’s curriculum combines circus, street arts, physical theatre, Lecoq mime, and mask work. In 2005 Circomedia complete a major redevelopment of Bristol’s St Paul’s Church and open it as a training centre and venue, and in 2008 they launch a two-year Foundation Degree course. Over the years the school’s stream of graduates will form companies including Ockham’s Razor and Green Eyed Zero.



Seminal French company Cirque Plume pitch their tent on Highbury Fields to perform the whimsical Toiles as part of the London International Festival of Theatre. To coincide with the visit, LIFT also work with Circus Space (pictured) to create Cirk Uzay, The Celestial Circus (‘the greatest show in the universe’), made in collaboration with school students from Hackney and Islington. Again in 1997 LIFT are instrumental in exposing UK audiences to the best of French contemporary circus when they programme the strange, shamanistic Johann Le Guillerm with his Cirque Ici.

London's Circus Space


James Thierrée

The Junebug Symphony, the first production of James Thierrée’s Compagnie du Hanneton, combines the transforming set designs and technical ingenuity of James’ mother Victoria Thierrée Chaplin with a new physical virtuosity and poetic sensibility, winning four of France’s prestigious Molière Awards. The piece, which features James as a man who ‘loses his head, his legs and his arms, but not his temper’ as he falls into a world between dreams and waking, takes London by storm and over the next decade is followed by five further exceptional works: La Veillée des Abysses (pictured), Au Revoir ParapluieRaoul, Tabac Rouge and The Toad Knew.


Millennium Dome Show

More than 80 artists are trained intensively for over a year to take part in the Millennium Dome Show (pictured). Ambitious, spectacular, logistically immense, the show runs for one year and 999 performances, then is quickly forgotten. Many of the Dome artists go on to form The Generating Company, who work in the UK before moving their operations to France in 2008.


Ockham’s Razor

Formed by three graduates of Circomedia, Ockham’s Razor begin working with custom aerial equipment. Every Action… uses a rope threaded over two pulleys to play a series of games with balance and counterbalance; the duet Memento Mori weaves around and through a spare metal frame as a woman is danced to the grave; and Arc places four shipwrecked survivors on a precarious aerial raft. Their next show, The Mill  (pictured) is followed by Not Until We Are Lost and then premiering in 2015 Tipping Point.


Circus Baobab

Formed in 1998 when Archaos’ Pierrot Bidon travelled to Guinea to create sub-Saharan Africa’s first aerial acrobatics troupe with the filmmaker Laurent Chevalier, Circus Baobab arrive in London in 2003 to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. With performers recruited from Guinean ground acrobatics troupes and the country’s National Ballet, Circus Baobab run acrobatics up to the frenetic pace of live African drumming.


Invisible Circus

The Invisibles, a group of creative squatters, work with a huge team of local designers, costume-makers, musicians and artists to create Road to Nowhere, an ambitious, angry, many-voiced piece about urban dereliction and the disenfranchised staged in the Invisible’s Bristol squat – an abandoned Audi garage. Members of the Invisibles later go on to form Artspace Lifespace, an organisation that transforms disused buildings into arts venues.


Shunt Lounge

A venue is founded for experimental performance in the vaults beneath London Bridge. Visitors walked through a nondescript steel door and passed from the clamour of rush hour traffic into Victorian bricked gloominess. Circus joins the good company of live art, dramatic installation, experimental and strange performance, immersive adventures, and heavy late-night drinking.


Circus Front Festival

Circus Front (pictured) appears as a major circus festival at London’s Roundhouse. The French ensemble Collectif AOC cut circus and dance with an industrialist edge, the Collectif Acrobatique de Tangier conjure the Moroccan skyline in Taoub and the Australian company Acrobat strips itself bare (all the way bare) in smaller, poorer, cheaper. Circus Front is succeeded in 2010 by the Roundhouse’s biennial CircusFest.


Arts Council Funding

In an important further step toward institutional recognition, Arts Council England includes circus companies for the first time in its portfolio of Regularly Funded Organisations. Company FZ, Mimbre, Ockham’s Razor and Upswing are all selected for three years funding.

City Circ Network

A network of venues (pictured) is drawn across London with the goal of putting more contemporary circus in (and outside) theatres. Production house Crying Out Loud coordinate the project, and in 2009 help to draw together the first City Circ season, with work shown across the capital throughout the summer. A second City Circ season takes place in 2010 before the network refocuses its activities.


Crying Out Loud helps to establish PASS Circus Channel, a European cross channel contemporary circus programme grouping eight organisations from north western France to southern England.

Its first phase, Cross Spring was a pilot collaboration focusing on contemporary circus on both sides of the Channel. During a week dedicated to British work at Cherbourg’s creation centre La brèche, six companies were given rehearsal time in its extraordinary facilities. Their residencies concluded in a mini series of UK work within La brèche’s larger Spring season. The UK companies that presented work were Layla Rosa, Upswing, Sugar Beast Circus, Acrojou, Genius Sweatshop and Ockham’s Razor.

In the UK, the PASS organisations are SeaChange Arts, Activate Performing Arts, Lighthouse Poole and Farnham Maltings. In France they are: La brèche, Cirque Jules Verne, La Rennaissance and Conseille Général-50 Villes en Scenes.

In 2013 we begin to see the benefits to the UK artists who have been involved in PASS, with 18 UK based companies visiting La brèche and Normandy for residencies, training and opportunities to present their work in Europe.

Watch a video featuring Stopgap Dance Company in residency with Collectif Prêt-à-Porter at Farnham Maltings



Postcards Festival

Jacksons Lane, a London venue used by many young circus companies as a test-bed for original work, launches its Postcards Festival. Dedicated to new work and emerging artists, the festival programmes short pieces from Gisele Edwards, Zu Aerial (pictured), Collectif and then…, Stefano Di Renzo, Frederike, Francesca Martello, Tumble Circus, Lost In Translation Circus and others – giving a bustling snapshot of contemporary circus at a moment of eclectic, multi-directional growth. Their Associate Artists are Silver Lining and Alula. Since 2014 they have sponsored the Jacksons Lane Total Theatre Award for Circus at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As well as being part of the judging panel for productions, they then offer a residency to the winning company.


Piccadilly Circus Circus

For one day only, on Sunday 2 September, Crying Out Loud transformed central London into a pedestrianised paradise full of surprises and spectacle as the streets were brought to life and iconic landmarks become the playground of the world’s most exciting contemporary circus performers.

Over the course of one incredible afternoon, 143 performances of 48 different acts by 33 companies took place across 15 spaces, with 247 performers!

Crying Out Loud’s Artistic Director Rachel Clare introduces the day  “the elements of the architecture on Regent Street are absolutely fantastic, they’re really suitable for the way we want to animate and bring to life contemporary circus artists”  watch here

Read Lyn Gardner’s 4* Guardian review here

La Place des Anges - Matthew Andrews image


An Explosion of Activity

History isn’t done yet with the present as, in the five years between 2007 and 2012, LIMF celebrates a 30th anniversary and NoFit State and Circomedia reach a 25th, Ockham’s Razor scale up to their big show The Mill, Rose English works with members of Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe, Gandini Juggling continue their extraordinary creative fertility, and the various members of the Chaplin-Thiérrée family proliferate. Increasing numbers of companies come in from overseas – Groupe Acrobatique de Tangier & Zimmermann and de Perrot (pictured), Race Horse Company, The 7 Fingers, Compagnie XY, Circa, Compagnie 111 – and UK circus schools take on ever more students. Within this conflux of influences, new artists are born.



Groupe Acrobatique de Tangier - Zimmermann and de Perrot


Circus has a banner year at the Edinburgh Fringe with a huge lift in performances and the participation of international heavyweights like Phia Ménard and Jeanne Mordoj. A whopping 12 circus shows are nominated for The Total Theatre Awards including all three Crying Out Loud presentations; La Poème (Jeanne Mordoj), Flown  (Pirates of the Carabina) and L’Après-midi d’un Foehn – Version 1  (Company Non Nova) with the latter two winning in the Physical/Visual Theatre catagory. Back in London, Circus Now, a new UK showcase organised by City Circ, spans three days and connects venue programmers with the best of British artists. Building on increased activity, Crying Out Loud begins Circus Evolution, a three-year project to boost contemporary circus touring throughout the UK, and Jacksons Lane launches a mini-residency programme, Transmission. Circus Space meanwhile nets a cool million dollars in a donation from American philanthropist Aileen Getty, and NoFit State open Four Elms, a renovation of a former Methodist church which lay derelict in central Cardiff for more than decade.


In 2013 we begin to see the benefits to the UK artists who have been involved in PASS, the Cross Channel Circus Alliance, after 3 years with 18 UK based companies visiting La brèche and Normandy for residencies, training and opportunities to present their work in Europe.

Circus Mayhem


In a hostile environment of disinvestment, circus comes out strong after ACE rearranges its National Portfolio, with companies mostly keeping their funding and some securing new investment (Ockhams Razor, Mimbre, Upswing, Crying Out Loud and NoFit State). As another sign of the sector’s rapid development, Circus Space renames itself the National Centre for Circus Arts and takes on a new role as a national advocate. In Bristol, Circomedia opens a BA course (expanding on its foundation degree). In Edinburgh a new award is launched for circus, the Jacksons Lane Total Theatre Award. The 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Centre opens as Corn Exchange Newbury’s dedicated space for large-scale outdoor arts projects. Meanwhile in Cardiff, the Network of International Circus Exchange (NICE) brings some 100 delegates to a youth and social circus sharing hosted by NoFit State and CircusWorks.


As the UK circus field becomes increasingly mature, industry showcase Canvas (formerly Circus Now) draws fresh connections to the European mainland, attracting a flock of international delegates to its second edition. Also expanding, Bristol Circus Festival becomes Bristol Circus City, establishing itself as a biennial event; and after many years presenting circus at the Edinburgh Fringe, Underbelly Productions launches the Circus Hub, a dedicated venue on the Meadows. In new work, emerging collective Circumference pull off an impressive debut with Shelter Me, a large-scale site-specific project that draws audiences through the abandoned offices of the Guardian’s former headquarters on Farringdon Road. At Brighton Festival, Raphaëlle Boitel has her own (directorial) debut with L’oubliée – a piece informed by a stellar artistic career that began some fifteen years earlier when Boitel, then a teenager, appeared in James Thierrée’s The Junebug Symphony.


In Great Yarmouth, SeaChange Arts completes a major upgrade of its Drill Hall HQ, opening the doors to a new 9000 square foot creation space. Not so far away, company Lost in Translation transform a former parish church in the centre of Norwich into Oak Circus Centre, and Upswing launch the two-year strategic touring project Building Stories Pushing Boundaries to boost audiences in the Midlands. In London, young company Barely Methodical Troupe remain ascendant, headlining the Roundhouse’s CircusFest with Kin (only their second production), and the dictum that circus is everywhere is underscored by Depart, a new Circa show that takes place in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. On the international level, James Thierrée plays the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival with The Toad Knew, and Circostrada hosts its AGM in the UK for the first time, courtesy of Greenwich+Docklands Festival.


In 2017, UK circus sets out its stall as the Canvas showcase returns for a three-day programme of performances and presentations, complimented by a directory that lists over 60 projects, from ideas stage work to tour-ready productions. Meanwhile, launched in the final months of 2016 by Crying Out Loud and NoFit State Circus, the Spotlight UK Circus initiative kicks into gear with presentations of work at CIRCa Festival in France and Subcase in Sweden (and a visit to the OFF Festival, Avignon in 2018). Education opportunities are also developing as Circomedia opens a new MA in Directing for Circus, led by Bim Mason and Charlotte Mooney, and designed to fill what has been to-date a conspicuous gap in training.


In 1768, Philip and Patty Astley opened their first circus on the banks of the Thames. 250 years later, this historic debut is variously celebrated across the country – and often in projects that keep an eye on the future. In Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Astley’s hometown, the New Vic Theatre distinguishes itself with activities that include a season of performances, a national conference (The State of the Art, hosted in NoFit State’s Circus Village) and Circus 50:50, which joins circus artists and theatre-makers in a year of creative change. At Somerset House in London, the Circus Sampler programme brings newly commissioned performances to the venue’s famous courtyard while a new exhibition, Circus Originals, bridges circus past and present. In Manchester, Circus House collaborates with the Royal Northern College of Music to create a youth-led performance; Sheffield’s Greentop opens a Social Circus Lab; and in Rochester, Skylight Circus Arts develops new intergenerational work. In Scotland, rising activity powers the creation of Glasgow’s Braw Circus Festival.


Contemporary circus has more history than you might think.

Click on the the dates below to find out…


Contemporary circus has more history than you might think.

Use the arrows on the side of the screen to scroll through the years…

Contemporary circus has more history than you might think. Click on the the dates below to find out...

  • 1968
  • 1975
  • 1976
  • 1977
  • 1980
  • 1981
  • 1982
  • 1983
  • 1984
  • 1985
  • 1986
  • 1988
  • 1989
  • 1992
  • 1995
  • 1998
  • 2000
  • 2002
  • 2003
  • 2006
  • 2007
  • 2010
  • 2011
  • 2012
  • 2013
  • 2014
  • 2015
  • 2016
  • 2017
  • 2018