Swinburne University of Technology: NICA celebrates 21 years of spectacular circus

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From the traditional travelling big-top to modern theatre-style productions, the Australian circus industry is thriving.

Our performers are highly revered at home and overseas, and the presence of Australian talent is embedded throughout the global industry.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

As we celebrate 21 years of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA), we also celebrate the innovative, established Australian circus industry developed from the ground up by the trailblazers who grew NICA into the powerhouse it is today.

An instructor smiles at the camera while training an acrobat who is performing a one-arm handstand
Nanjing acrobat Lu Guang Rong (left) would go on to be one of the founders of the National Insitute of Circus Arts (NICA) and the Head of Circus Studies for 15 years.

Birthplace of contemporary Australian circus
The origins of NICA can be traced back to the 1980s when the Sidney Myer Fund sponsored an Australia tour of the Nanjing Acrobats, and brought them back multiple times to conduct training with local troupes in Albury-Wodonga.

This was largely seen as the birthplace of contemporary Australian circus.

Nanjing acrobat Lu Guang Rong, who would go on to be one of NICA’s founders and the Head of Circus Studies for 15 years, discovered circus in Australia was markedly different to his native China.

“In my professional view, lots of people in circus were wasting their time,” he said.

“They just did not have the physical conditioning. They were not going to get a job.

“When you are teaching in China or Russia, the body condition has to fit into the box of ‘circus’, but here you need to reverse it – you need to make a box accommodating different people, different shapes, different creative ideas. You need to expand your ideas and explore.”

One of the troupes who trained with the Nanjing Acrobats in the 1980s was the Flying Fruit Fly Circus.

Head of training, Jane Mullett, was among a growing number of circus leaders who saw a place for that kind of disciplined practice to continue formally in Australia.

Two men watch on as an acrobat hand balances on another acrobat’s head
(From left) Former Swinburne Chancellor Richard Pratt, NICA alum and Head of Circus Studies James Brown, and alum Peter Booth show off NICA’s talents to former Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Unique educational experience
When Swinburne TAFE Prahran Head of Performance and Showbiz, Pamela Creed, hired Ms Mullett in 1993 to run after hours circus classes, she got right behind the idea of a national circus school.

Ms Creed would go on to become NICA’s founding director and chief executive.

Having just gained university status a year earlier, Swinburne University of Technology then Vice Chancellor and chief executive Iain Wallace said the innovative concept of a circus school fit well with Swinburne’s ethos of offering a unique educational experience.

“We were looking for areas which were possible to develop, but not already in the purview of other universities,” he said.

“We quickly decided with the professional circus community that our medium-term goal was to get NICA in the same position as NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art), umbrella-ed by the university, but independent.”

With the backing of both Mr Wallace and Swinburne’s then Chancellor Richard Pratt, the wheels were in motion.

Circus performers practise in a warehouse
The first intake of students training in the Docklands in 2000.

Building relationships and attracting support
In 1999, Ms Creed secured a grant from the Sidney Myer Foundation for a 20-week training pilot program.

It was hosted in an old shed in the Docklands which they fitted out with circus apparatus and demountable offices.

“It was a difficult project,” Mr Lu said.

“It was winter time and very cold in the shed. Every day at 7am we lit up the gas heaters for two hours. At 9am the participants came for the workshops. After 4pm we had to check the rigging every day.

“We had very limited staff or funding, so we needed to do everything ourselves.”

That’s where former Premier of Victoria Sir Rupert Hamer came in.

He was chair of the board, using his extensive knowledge and contacts to build relationships and attract support from potential donors.

Sir Rupert forged links with Cirque du Soleil and other touring companies, which brought the added benefit of securing key staff for NICA.

Each Wednesday, politicians and other community leaders were invited to have breakfast on the office balcony and watch the students perform.

“It was make or break time,” Ms Creed said.

“Every week, Sir Rupert Hamer, Professor Margaret Manion and I would talk and talk and talk with the invited groups about the future possibilities of a circus school.

“Happily, guests were amazed by what they saw, and many became long term supporters.”

At the end of the 20-week program, the Sidney Myer Fund provided $500,000 to develop NICA’s training facility at Swinburne Prahran, and then Federal Arts Minister, the Hon. Peter McGauran MHR, committed to recurrent annual funding.

A slow shutterspeed capture of a performer diving through hoops
A performer hoop dives in NICA’s Wild Things performance in 2001.

NICA begins
In 2001, NICA moved into its newly fitted out facility in Prahran – so new, in fact, that it was still being completed.

“We entered the building by the skin of our teeth, with some staff working behind cardboard partitions in the corner of the Sidney Myer Studio, while we waited for the mezzanine level to be fitted out,” Ms Creed said.

Bringing the best and brightest from far flung areas of the globe, representing everything from juggling to trapeze gave NICA students a broad range of skills and expertise to learn from.

But in the early days, these differences sometimes made it tough to develop consensus on the teaching approach.

“Many passionate debates arose, from different techniques for doing handstands, depending on the trainer’s country of origin, to whether performance was necessary or whether it disrupted training,” Ms Creed said.

Current Head of Circus Studies James Brown was part of the inaugural intake of students in 2001, and a beneficiary of the breadth of experience among NICA’s teaching staff.

He recalls comments he received when working oversees after graduating.

“We got stopped so many times by circus professionals saying, ‘Where are you guys from? Australia? It’s amazing, you’ve got Chinese technique with Russian skills’,” he said.

NICA’s Prahran facility was opened in 2001, with a studio named the Sidney Myer Fund, which in 1999 contributed $20,000 to a pilot program and the following year announced $500,000 to build Prahran.

Broadening NICA’s reach
In 2003, the Social Circus program began in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil, sharing the supportive environment of circus to empower survivors of assault, people living with disability, youth at risk, and First Nations communities.

“Essentially, social circus and outreach is team building – and that is what circus is, team building,” Social Circus lead Andrea Ousley said.

“All over the world, in the back of people’s minds, is that image of pulling up the tent. We cannot do it unless we do it together.”

In 2005, Swinburne contributed $1.2 million to purchase land on the NICA site to build the National Circus Centre (NCC), giving students a place to train as well as perform.

The Federal Government provided a further $13 million to fortify NICA’s future as one of Australia’s National Centres of Excellence.

The NCC was opened two years later, just in time to host the sixth meeting of the prestigious International Network for Social Circus Training.

With event partner Cirque Du Soleil, NICA hosted participants from South Africa, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Canada and Mexico for a week in its new facilities.

A student suspended upside down reaches down to join hands with a man reaching up from the floor
NICA co-founder and Head of Circus Studies for 15 years Lu Guang Rong coaches a student on straps

The skills to fly
Even two decades on, NICA is home to Australia’s only Bachelor of Circus Arts, a three-year higher education degree, and the only Certificate IV in Circus Arts, a one-year vocational education course.

In 2010 a partnership with the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary College provided young people with an opportunity to complete VCE and Certificate III in Circus Arts.

From the outset, there was a conscious effort to ensure NICA courses were brought into the mainstream education system so students can benefit from formalised education.

“Circus families were traditionally stuck in the travelling tent for generations. After forty-five, what are they going to do?” Mr Lu said.

“I straight away realised the fundamental hole in the circus training.

“Now, with a formal education you have a capacity to learn other things, you can jump into a new profession. It is quite extraordinary.”

As Ms Mullett put it, NICA’s structure is “giving people the skills to fly and giving them the safety net when they are beyond the point of flying”.

Beyond teaching the skill of circus performance, NICA established opportunities to develop students as professionals and ensure they graduated with strong industry links.

Since 2001, NICA Rec (formally Short Courses) have given students and alumni the opportunity to work as trainers, while 2004 saw the launch of NICA Represents (formerly CircaNICA) as a talent agency to represent NICA students and alumni.

“It’s wonderful that at NICA there are people who started at Fruit Flies, studied at NICA, went out on the road as performers, and are now back at NICA as teachers,” Ms Mullett said.


A melting pot of interdisciplinary collaborations
Today, dozens of new students join NICA’s ranks each year to develop foundation, ensemble and specialty skills.
The courses incorporate fitness training, movement and dance, performance studies, anatomy and physiology, business studies and circus history.

Training is targeted at achieving and maintaining the level of fitness, conditioning, strength and technical expertise needed to meet world standards of excellence as circus artists.

NICA graduates have been quickly picked up by Cirque du Soleil, Circus Oz, Circa, Ashton’s Circus, Tokyo Disney, The Famous Spiegeltent, La Clique, Silvers Circus, Franco Dragone Entertainment Group, La Soiree, Strange Fruit, Stalker, Carnival Australia, Universal Studios Japan, NoFit State Circus, Gravity and Other Myths and many more.

Current NICA director Simona Jobbagy said while the COVID years have forced NICA to reinvent the way it engages with students, there were also positives.

She took it as time to reflect, take stock and devise a plan to move forward, including a new brand identity, website and strategic plan.

“My vision for the future is for NICA to be the place where circus and other performing arts disciplines come together to experiment, fail and try again – a melting pot of interdisciplinary collaborations, where performers and creatives are supported to feel courageous and to be brave story tellers,” she said.

“Looking to the future, in a post-COVID environment, we hope to engage again at an international level, in festivals, competitions and other activities that provide our students with industry immersion opportunities.”


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