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Leadership and reflections on independent creation 

I’m a circus human, multidisciplinary artist and creator, focusing on independent creation within the arts. When I jumped into this NHLP-EU program, the more I thought about leadership the more diluted it became; is it creating space, opportunity, guidance, driving change, leading by example…? Trying to understand what type of leader is authentic to me has been the first step in being able to dive into this program with intention. I’m inspired by the brains and hungry art makers and facilitators in this program and all their different areas of expertise and push. I want to begin by sharing my reflections on independent creation.

Circus, hard to define ‘a combustion of art forms oxidised by a circus practice, in which all artistic or theoretical inputs tangle, occupy and enhance one another. Trends emerge, evolve, get trod on, destroyed and re-invented. Some circus shines and glitters whilst other circus is naked and exposed but it’s malleable because the point is that it should change and surprise us’. 

I use the word circus as it’s usually where my work falls, and as humans, we tend to have this innate desire to categorise everything we do. I do however believe that if we can open a creative process without labelling what genre of work we are making, we have a lot more room for experimental freedom. Deciding from the beginning puts a certain pressure on the outcome, my piece needs to land in a certain way. It needs to fit into people's current perception of what circus is - following the rules of existing expectations, and not expanding outside of this. Maybe in the end the outcome is circus, and the process has been transdisciplinary, or maybe for some people it’s circus and for others it’s performance art, installation art etc. 

What does independent creation even mean? I see it as creating work independently from larger institutions and establishments and being independent of influences from other works and processes. If one allows it to be, it can be a way of having licence and agency over what you do. No need to adhere to a system, to large company reputations or to common expectations of saleability, and therefore the work can be rather unfiltered. Unlike media, art is still a place where actions and ideas that go against the grain can exist, but this has become diluted by larger art-making companies needing to adhere to certain codes to meet expectations and demands. 

I witness and experience smaller companies having the liberty to be less outcome orientated as fewer people are affected and the work’s reputation is not already decorated by projected ideas. As creators I believe it’s important we give space for things to function in new ways, this is one of the ways art evolves and creative risk is a tool for this. In circus, I find it strange how we separate physical and creative risk taking. Training circus and overcoming physical limits will always be a risk, on the body and mind. Creative risk-taking is less of a focus. Maybe the double risk, creating work which isn’t yet reinforced by mainstream expectations is too much of a leap? 

I am not ignoring the real consequence of risk, it can equal money and survival - how often do these off-the-cusp smaller works make big dollars? Maybe the world isn’t ready for sculpting a fantastic new idea of circus yet! But having said that, what is 'fantastic'? That’s a matter of taste. It’s art,  there is no 'truth' to speak of, like in craft - ‘They’re a high-level hand-balancer’. Not everyone needs to like it, art will hit people differently, and maybe it’s that which is more interesting to consider. Who do I want to hit, who do I want to stroke, who needs backing up? That way there is no audience or client in mind, rather our values directing our work.

I realised a little too late that the best question to ask myself was, what makes me excited to go on stage? For me, it wasn’t the circus technique which my body performs in almost autopilot, it was moments that were comical, big emotional journeys, using voice.. etc. The stage feels like a different kind of playground when you know the things you love most, and I think it can also counter the nervousness that comes with trying to perfect physical skills, especially in disciplines as mind-orientated as handstands. Outside of the skills, that’s when the audience gets to see the human side of circus/ when we get to be the human in circus, and I love being surprised by the collage of on-stage possibilities. We are multifaceted, and reflecting that through our work holds space for other obsessions, ideas and questions. In an art form where we try to achieve physical perfection on stage, I think we need to be careful that we don’t take the soul out of what we do. There is so much depth behind the process of getting to this perfected state, it's an interesting part of who we are, I believe circus has room for all of these contradicting states.

I came from gymnastics, it took years to shake off and discover other ways of moving and I think this is the same with creating work, perhaps we are constricted by our educational training, what we’ve seen, what people think circus should be.. Slowly, if we recognise that, we can shed more layers and find out what’s underneath. I see creation as a process that we get better at, each new project holds the learning from the previous one, and the journey of the mind and body can be united in this. 

I’ve seen shows that really stay with me, ones that are emotional, informative, empowering, confrontational, surprising, you name it, something about them sneaks into the unconscious and reaches a place of lasting impact! And for the most part, I see this happening in the smaller-scale circus bubble, from small passionate art makers following something they believe in fully, willing to pay the cost of whether it finds its place or not. 

I am not advocating for diving head first into personal projects and not looking in any other direction, I think jumping around the scene will help us discover other parts of ourselves, even if that discovery is ‘I never want to do this again’ that’s affirming too! We are all trying to get by financially, it makes sense that we follow the tide in the direction most needed in our present lives, be that money, creative agency, stability, community etc. In an ideal situation, all or at least a couple of these needs can be reached simultaneously. 

There are a lot of challenges with small-scale independent productions. As artists, it’s not always our forte to generate money, write applications, organise a team, self-promote, or work in communications.. The list is ongoing. 

But here are a few tips I would give myself, and others in the creation of independent work:

  • Try not getting too caught up on perfection when writing a grant application, it doesn’t correlate to success, rather try to be efficient. Talk to someone good at applications immediately and take notes.  

  • Establish boundaries and working hours, otherwise, there's no line separating you and working you. There is some beauty in this, in the devotion to the art and blurred lines of life and work, but many tasks aligning to independent creation are non-creative and require efficiency and structure.

  • Understand why you do what you do so you have a hard shell and open approach to the mean world of critique. Being able to back your work with integrity is a sign of a thoughtful approach. 

  • Art is a matter of taste, let's try to taste more than just our work and see if we can be surprised. 

  • Embrace the process ups and downs. How amazing when work turns a corner and ends up completely different from what you’d initially imagined, it means there is enough space and freedom for that to happen. 

  • As long as we are not confronted with problematic work ethically, it’s good to give the benefit of the doubt and listen to what others have to say about their work. 

  • Expending energy complaining about the scene (yes, so much to complain about) rather than finding solutions and acting isn’t going to help you out.

  • I believe the quality of the work reflects the space and atmosphere which is created during the process. Yes, this can and has been disproved, but I don't think art should have to be made at the expense of someone's health.

  • Let's manifest things in the real, it’s one writing, reading, talking, debating, but the real step is implementing. 

Thank you for bearing with my thoughts and reflections. On a personal level, I am not interested nor cut out to make the next biggest thing, I want to be allowed to make art uncompromisingly and question conventionalist beliefs that I believe are narrow, discriminating unkind or limiting. I hope to create space for myself and others to do this and be involved in leading different ideas of what circus can be.



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