Most cities of the world have one or two buildings which epitomise the city. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Barcelona has Gaudi, London has the Tower and Big Ben, Sydney has the Opera House. By contrast, Melbourne doesn’t have an unmistakable landmark. It has several charming buildings that residents revere, but no great statement monument.
In a way, this is in keeping with a certain lovely modesty the city possesses, and a feel for genre, so to speak. Yet I recently discovered a building, an institution, that if Melbourne were to stoop to easy knowability it would qualify as the emblem of the city par excellence. It is the National Institute of Circus Arts, or NICA, a huge purpose-built structure of corporate blue glass hiding in a residential side street in the suburb of Prahran.
There is so much here that is characteristic of the city: unlikeliness, the quixotic, the dedication to the arts in all their forms, the blessing of old-moneyed philanthropy. So when the planners in the Federal Government were thinking of building a National Institute dedicated to the circus – to the circus! – they must have realised there was only one place for it: the city known throughout the British Empire of the 1880s as the most wondrous in the realm — Marvellous Melbourne.
NICA offers a huge range of courses to both professional circus artists and curious members of the public, including children, teenagers and adults. There are short courses throughout the year, and special holiday programs. Secondary school students can combine circus training with their studies; older students can do full-blown Bachelor degrees in Circus Arts. In fact, auditions for the Bachelor of Circus Arts begin this week across the country. Auditions are at NICA tomorrow and Thursday, at Adelaide’s Cirkidz on Friday, in Brisbane on Monday, Sydney on Tuesday and Perth on Wednesday.
It also set me wondering what kind of person takes on a Bachelor degree in the circus. The answers are fascinating. There is, for example, the young Iranian-born man, Hossein Baghalan Aval, who formerly travelled the world as one half of an act called The Persian Brothers and who recently set a Guinness World Record for an act in which he
balances on top of [his partner] supported only by the tip of a dagger on a dagger below.
There is Adam Davis, a graduate of NICA who now performs for Cirque Du Soleil in Tokyo as a Chinese Poles artist. Adam says of his unusual life,
Circus is alive. Accidents happen. Sometimes people sleep in and your six man act turns into a five man act… but of course one of the guys is still injured so you’ll be performing a four man act instead. For me this means that I’ll be doing … some of the other guys’ tricks as well as my own …my blood begins to tingle, it’s very exciting …
And then there’s Kyle Raftery, a “specialist in clown, unicycle and flying trapeze” who, since he graduated from NICA in 2005, has established himself as a “versatile multi-disciplinary artist, gifted at falling over for the amusement of others.”
Kyle’s story is one of those beauties in which a human being commits to an idea, an intuition, without the least thought of “how”.
I had very little circus experience or training, I grew up in rural NSW and always thought I’d become a musician. Circus was … something I’d dreamed about doing so when I stumbled across the NICA website I decided to give it a go. The night before the audition I was directing a school musical in a tiny town called Nundle. I managed to get four hours sleep before driving six hours to Sydney to arrive at the audition with two minutes to spare.
Just the list of teaching disciplines that NICA offers is intriguing. For example, there is:
- Manipulation & Magic
- Handstands & Tightwire
- Verticals, Rope, Tissu, Swinging, Static, Dance and Double Trapeze
- Russian Bar, Russian Swing, Adagio, Teeter Board
- Cloudswing, Trapeze, Web & Death Wheel
- Contortion, Foot Juggling & Acrobatics
- and many more.
If you too are intrigued, NICA runs “Come and Try Days” several times a year, and there’s one this very Saturday, 2 October. All sessions are 2 hours and cost $40. Children’s (aged 7+) sessions are from 10am to 12, and teen and adult sessions from 12:30 to 2:30pm or 3:00 to 5:00pm.
For more information, contact NICA.
Images: From the NICA performance, Veritas, March 2010, photographed by David Wyatt of Capturing Images (second from top); Hossein Baghalan Aval by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images AsiaPac, courtesy of Zimbio (second from bottom).