Making a pitch: Why circus deserves to be recognised as an art form

Making a pitch: Why circus deserves to be recognised as an art form
Vicki Davis and Édaein Samuels in clown mode at the Circus Factory in Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan.

Pitch’d Circus Arts Festival director Cormac Mohally of Lords of Strut tells Ellie O’Byrne why circus deserves to be recognised as an art form in its own right.

Cormac Mohally, AKA Famous Seamus from street performance duo The Lords of Strut, is a founding member of Cork Circus Factory and the director of Pitch’d Circus Arts Festival, now in its third year.

“I was around circus before it was considered an art form in Ireland and I’ve seen it grow. At first it was a lot of college students: hippies doing poi (performance art). A lot of them moved on and some got more seriously into circus and did juggling and acrobatics and some have a career now.

“I learned how to juggle and did a course with Belfast Youth Circus; they were given money in 1999 for a cross-community project and they needed more tutors. The course was to teach more people how to teach circus.

I was 20, and I ended up back in Cork with nothing else to do. I started getting paid and it was like, this is a possibility. In the boom time, I did some amount of shit stilt-walking gigs. Then I met Cian (Kinsella, Lords of Strut partner Seantastic).

"The work had dried up in the recession but that gave us more time to work on our own thing.

“Now, there’s a wider trend of body movement in things like parkour and dance, and a growing awareness of fitness levels; there are some spaces that focus on that, but I don’t really want the circus factory to be a gym.

Cormac Mohally, AKA Famous Seamus from street performance duo The Lords of Strut, is a founding member of Cork Circus Factory.
Cormac Mohally, AKA Famous Seamus from street performance duo The Lords of Strut, is a founding member of Cork Circus Factory.

“Circus, street arts and festivals are all lumped in together: they’re all classed as the same thing by the Arts Council so we’re all asking for the same money, which doesn’t make sense to me.

“Traditional circus isn’t seen as highbrow, but what is the arts for, really? Is it only for the elites?

These people are travelling around all the small towns in Ireland, providing colour and light and entertainment; why not support that? In Ireland right now, people just have to get out and make the shows they can make.

“It’s an emerging artform and everyone is learning together. A show doesn’t have to be highly polished: leave that to Cirque Du Soleil. But it does have to have heart.

“I love the idea of traditional circus where everyone mucks in to put up the tent and the trapeze artist is selling the popcorn at half time: it’s a family vibe.

“Contemporary circus has a lot to draw on from traditional circus,because that tight-knit spirit also applies when it comes to the trust in things like acrobatics and making sure no-one dies. I’d like to think that’s what Pitch’d will become, in time: one big family.

“I like to think the festival is an opportunity for our community to celebrate itself and celebrate its audience.”

Pitch’s Circus Arts Festival takes place from Sept 20 to 29, including a programme of free outdoor events for Culture Night, at Cork city venues and streets.


Here are five of the essential circus skills, as demonstrated by members of Cork Circus Factory:


From novice to competent:

With dedication and a starting point of a reasonable level of fitness, some people find they’re able to master a 10 second free-stand in a matter of weeks, while some take years.

What it involves: Balance is obviously a vital element of the handstand, and good core strength is going to help. Arms and shoulders will get a good workout and getting acclimatised to the rush of blood to the head the pose supplies is also important.

The training: Get proper training from a qualified instructor. They’ll start by getting to practice against a wall before progressing to freestanding.

The “kick-up” is the movement that gets you into the pose.

Balance is key but learning how to “bail” safely when it goes wrong keeps you safe and reduces any fears around injury; the cartwheel or pirouette bail is most common. It’s important to train little and often: five minutes once a day, and then five minutes twice a day, etc.

Aerial silks, hoops, Trapeze

From novice to competent:

Beginners start close to the ground, so you can expect to be working on basic foot locks (methods of wrapping the silk around your foot to anchor you and allow you to climb) and moves from your first class, but between developing the upper body strength to climb, and knowledge of all the intricate variations of tie-ins, these are skills that take years to master.

What it involves: Aerial silks, in particular, has developed a reputation among women as a low-impact workout that generates upper body strength and strong abs.

You will need to work on your flexibility to master many moves, as they often involve the splits; yoga or other disciplines based on stretching compliment aerial skills well. Hoops and trapeze are other forms of aerial work.

The training: Don’t try this one at home. You will need to take classes to learn these skills as the height element obviously introduces a lot of risk.


From novice to competent:

The basics of the three-ball cascade, the simplest juggling pattern, can be learned in 30 minutes, but at least half an hours’ practice a day is recommended.

Competency varies enormously depending on the increasing complexity of patterns learned, acrobatic feats worked into the routine, or what’s being juggled: fire, food, outsize objects or even chainsaws.

What it involves: Juggling requires excellent hand-eye co-ordination and reflexes and a lot of patience. Muscle-groups involved tend to be in the neck, arms and upper body.

The training: Beginners can start with juggling scarves, a good way to get a sense of patterns in “slow motion.”

Regularity of practice – ten minutes daily instead of an hour weekly – seems key. After the three-ball cascade, mastering a more complex pattern like the five-ball cascade can take a lot more time: several months of practice.


From novice to competent:

Very dependent on your pre-existing fitness level and balance; some report being able to walk the length of a wire after one month of persistent training, while a year should see you able to turn, and do basic tricks while on the wire.

What it involves: Posture is vital; the key is lowering your centre of gravity (just above your hips) towards the wire, and this is where your knees will bear the brunt.

Rotational inertia – the physical force that stops the wire spinning underfoot – is achieved by stretching out your arms, or carrying a pole, both of which require upper body strength to maintain. The higher the wire, the better able to combat a fear of heights you’ll have to be.

The training: Anything you can do to increase your all-over strength and fitness is going to help for this deceptively physical skill. Beginners start close to, or even on, the ground.


From novice to competent:

All humans are competent from birth, but sometimes, as Cormac Mohally puts it, you have to develop the confidence to “be your own amadán.”

What it involves: Everybody has an inner fool but combining humour and showmanship with all the skills listed above is the truly awesome power of the clown, with pure entertainment the goal.

Being able to relax in front of an audience, and tapping into your sense of the ridiculous, are vital to acting the eejit effectively, so any theatrical or performance experience is a plus.

The training: although there is formal training -the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College educated around 1,400 US clowns in the “Ringling style” in its 30-year history – the utter ridiculousness of life is a good training ground too.

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