Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Step Right Up

Rachel Barnes talks to National Institute of Circus Arts trainer Andrea Ousley about the institution that creates circus stars

Most office workers have views of plain white walls, and those lucky enough to have a window or two may even get a view of some nice architecture, but no one’s office views can quite compare to Andrea Ousley’s, trainer at Australia’s own National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne.
“My office looks out onto the floor, and it’s interesting to watch people's bodies' change as they develop into performers,” Ousley says. “It’s like when you go and see a ballet, you just marvel at these beautiful bodies on stage. You see people at the peak of their physical fitness, people who work themselves crazy, so they have these amazing bodies that can do these amazing things.”
Ousley has been working with NICA for over six years, but has been in the circus community for much longer, starting at the Woman’s Circus. She is now the community services coordinator at NICA and her job takes her from introducing circus to disenfranchised kids, people in the juvenile justices system, or even kids who have less access to the arts; to helping students at the institute teach circus as well.
“I use circus as a tool for social change," she says. "Basically it’s just developing self- esteem, a sense of community, trust, and belonging, through circus."
While Ousley identifies as a lesbian and is aware of the significant number of circus practitioners who are queer, her sexual orientation did not inform her decision to join the circus – although she can definitely see the attraction.
“You can be who you are in circus,” she says. “The circus has traditionally been the place where you are ‘other’. People ran away from ‘normal’ society, to join the circus.”
Circus has been on the fringes of society for some time, host to a variety of characters, clowns, acrobats – even the bearded lady. Although these individuals may have felt like outcasts from society at the time, they were all able to find a sense of belonging in the circus, where all were ‘welcomed and loved and part of a community’.
“If you feel like you are a bit different, well different is good in circus. There is a place for everyone in circus,” Ousley says.
With NICA celebrating its tenth anniversary, Ousley has definitely had a lot of distractions happening outside her office window. Directed by Steven Burton (ex-Circus Oz), the weeklong festivities include several NICA graduates returning to Melbourne from all over the world to perform.
The festival, which begins at the end of September, will have programs for everyone. From whole day programs for school kids, to more of a ‘PG’ feel after 5pm, and then adult entertainment later in the evening with a more cabaret style of circus. Of course, staying true to the tradition of circus, everyone at NICA – both students and staff – will be pitching in, whether they are working in the box office, performing, ushering or teaching school children about circus arts.
Ousley is most excited to see the institute’s graduates come back to perform. NICA graduates have gone on to find jobs in circus all over the world.
“Not only do I personally find that exciting in terms of the circus community in Melbourne, in Victoria, or Australia, but also for our students at the moment. It’s such a great thing for them to see our graduates,” she explains. “You don’t always get to see what people are doing, so if you’re doing a degree and you get to see people who did the same degree as you and they’re doing these amazing things, it’s incredibly inspiring.”
NICA's aptly named auditions, ‘Turning Dreams into Reality’, are scheduled for their Bachelor of Circus Arts, Certificate I, II, and III, through September and October this year. The auditions will be held at different locations across the country and you can also audition by video. Although it can get quite competitive, Andrea stresses that it’s not just about circus skills.
“People come in with all sorts of backgrounds. We have gymnasts, we have dancers, we have people coming in who might want to do clowning. So it’s not just about physical skills. It’s about performance as well. You might have great physical skills, but how do you present that? What is unique about you?”
Ousley has plans to travel with NICA in the near future to teach people in other countries not only how to use their circus skills in the community, but also how social workers, youth workers, and community workers can utilise circus skills as a tool with their groups. She believes circus can continue to be used as a “fantastic tool” in communities.
“You can't built a pyramid unless everyone works together. It’s just innately about working as a team and being a community.”
The NICA Melbourne Circus Festival runs from September 26 through to October 1, 2011.
More information on the NICA or the Melbourne Circus Festival can be found atnica.com.au


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