Gravity-defying acrobatics, traditional vintage sideshows and multi-sensory experiences are all on the agenda for the Roundhouse’s upcoming festival celebrating the very best of contemporary circus performers. Bringing together an array of established international acts and exciting new commissions, CircusFest 2012 promises to “amaze, astound and capture the imagination of all ages” for more than a month of high-octane fun. It’s easy to see the appeal of watching a trapeze artist fling themselves 50 feet through the air, but why does the Roundhouse dedicate a full five weeks to this most spectacular of art forms?

There are, of course, the logistics of it. As Circus Producer Leila Jones comments, the Roundhouse is an “amazing space” unlike any other London venue, and “it would be a terrible shame to not use it to its full potential”. Apart from the theatre’s conical roof shape that seems ready-made to house flying acrobats, circus is an exciting art form that is constantly evading definition. “There’s traditional circus that a lot of people understand, but contemporary circus only started developing in the 1960s,” Jones explains. “It’s really exciting to be part of a group of people who are defining and redefining the boundaries of an art form which is still happening.”

It’s not only those on the inside who appreciate the ever-changing nature of circus, but also the theatregoers who are drawn into the mysterious world of trickery and illusion. Jones believes that the public find the circus so appealing because of its inclusiveness: “There’s very little text in circus, which is an exciting prospect in a multi-cultural city like London where not everyone has English as a first language, so they’re not going to be excluded from the experience. It’s not an elitist art from, it’s very accessible. Circus is quite fashionable at the moment – there’s been a resurgence in cabaret and burlesque and people are getting an idea about what an amazing, challenging thing it is to be a circus performer.” Guinean circus troupe and festival headliners Cirque Mandingue agree, with leader of the company Yamoussa ‘Junior’ Camara naming the “real sense of sharing” that can be found in the circus as one of the most positive aspects of the art form: “Joining the circus allows performers to participate in the show and its music, sharing their skills and meeting the audience.” So if CircusFest really does have something for everyone, how does this inclusiveness extend to the young community?

“From the very starting point of programming the festival we were thinking about how we could offer meaningful opportunities to emerging young artists,” Jones says, a claim that is unsurprising given the Roundhouse’s dedication to nurturing the talents of young theatre makers with its‘Take Part: 11-25’ scheme. Running classes in Camden to produce a troupe of talented young people to work with Cirque Mandingue, forming new circus company Square Peg to perform in the festival as Roundhouse graduates from the 2009 creative programme, and putting on special exhibits over the Easter holidays to encourage families to attend are just some of the ways in which CircusFest is supporting up and coming talent. As Jones acknowledges: “It’s really exciting that companies that are formed as projects here are going off and being recognised as companies in their own right.”

And it’s not only the Roundhouse which is extending a helping hand to the young population, but also festival headliners Cirque Mandingue. The company invests the funds generated by its show back into its Guinean school, providing a safe environment for the young community to live, train and learn new skills. “I created the school so that the children wouldn’t stay on the streets,” Camara explains. “The circus is a way to get them out of the misery, to escape drugs, and, as it’s an art form related to the principle of well-being, we practice physical exercise and pay attention to what we eat. The circus is a refuge for us.”

By introducing fresh talent to celebrated artists, CircusFest guarantees an eclectic range of entertainment, mixing circus with music, dance, photography, film, puppetry, cabaret and comedy. Does combining so many different art forms serve in challenging established ideas of what the circus is all about? “Some of the shows will really challenge preconceptions, but some of them are quite traditional in their structure,” says Jones. “What we really want to do is present the whole gamut of what it means to be in circus is at the moment. If you see more than one show at the festival it’s very likely that you’ll have your preconceptions pretty much turned on their heads, but there’s also stuff that’s just simple, fun high-octane circus acrobats.” Questioning such preconceptions is not on the cards for Cirque Mandingue, however: “There is no distinction between tradition and contemporary circus in Africa – it’s a debate that only exists in Europe. We just want to make a spectacle of African circus with what we do.” Distinction or not, the extensive range of acts that will be performing at CircusFest will undoubtedly provide a platform for any traditional ideas about the circus to be reworked in contemporary theatrical settings.

CircusFest promises to present its audiences with five weeks of captivating circus acts, merging recognised performers with talented youngsters, international acts with homegrown artists, and traditional circus skills with a diverse range of other art forms. With all this on offer, is there any one act that we should be looking out for? “They’re all so amazing in different ways, it would be like choosing one of my kids!” Jones laughs. Whether it’s a contemporary take on traditional circus sideshows with the world premiere of Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow, the intimate Undermän by Swedish company Cirkus Cirkör, the interactive theatrical experience by Il Pixel Rosso, or the headliner’s enthralling mix of acrobatics and street dance, it seems that CircusFest has something to satisfy all theatrical tastes. As Jones assures me, “You’re going to love everything!” What could be better than that?

CircusFest 2012 will be running at the Roundhouse for five weeks from 28 March to 29 April. For more information, see the Roundhouse’s website.

Image credit: Matilda Temperley