Running away to join the circus, once an avenue for youngsters looking to avoid responsibility, has gone legit. Now, in addition juggling bowling pins, fireballs and hula hoops, aspiring students can throw in business class or two and actually earn a circus degree.
The Circus Space, an abandoned London power station turned circus school, is the first in the United Kingdom to offer a bachelor's degree in Circus Arts. With accreditation from the University of Kent, the school says circus graduates boast employment numbers of 90 percent.
"In the past eight years, we've seen an enormous growth in the number of artists who want to take part in the degree program," said Philip Nichols, the head of marketing and communication for The Circus Space. "It is an intense and dedicated program, with everything from physical training and specialist skills to business planning."
Once relegated to the tent of tigers and tricks, rise of Cirque du Soleil has spurred increased mainstream popularity, and now circus has spread to classrooms, leadership workshops, and youth programs in the U.S. and abroad.
"Circus is reflecting wider shifts in society," said Leila Jones, the producer and programmer for the Roundhouse CircusFest in London. "There's a move away from traditional circus to become more challenging and sophisticated."
Housed in the same venue that has seen the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, Jones' seven-week festival aims to encourage thousands of people to enjoy the circus' delights.
"At Sadler's Wells we've had a number of outstanding circus shows at our main house and West End venue the Peacock Theatre... In 2009 Traces attracted over 30,000 people to the Peacock Theatre in a five and a half week run, with some sold out performances," said Kingsley Jayasekera, the organization's marketing and communications director.
"I think it's the combination of thrilling storylines, accomplished acrobatics, great music and captivating stage sets which has resulted in such a positive increase in audience numbers. Psy, which opened this week at the Peacock Theatre has had standing ovations every night, evidence that modern audiences still enjoy the agility and skills of traditional circus performers but with an up-to-date edge."
More Young Americans Drawn to the Circus
With a new appetite for contemporary movement, the art form's circus stereotypes of animal acts and children's entertainment are losing ground. Instead, artists are using circus for everything from team-building workshops to youth diversity programs to social commentary.
In Chicago, there is CircEsteem, a circus school intended to unite young people with diverse racial and economic make-ups. Their first youth-directed circus show, Brave New Circus, is an adaptation of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," and "addresses ideas of individuality and subverting the dominant paradigm...taught by a clown who stumbles through a perfectly ordered world and creates chaos, " according to the organization's website.
A few others include Circus Harmony in St. Louis, Xelias Aerial Arts in Minneapolis, New England Center for Circus Arts as well as Circus Smirkus, both in Vermont.
"There is actually a strong youth circus culture in the United States," said Amy Cohen, a 2009 U.K. Fulbright Scholar who is researching contemporary circus arts at The Circus Space.
Cohen co-directed last year's American Youth Circus Organization festival, which organizes a network for youth circus groups to promote youth participation in circus arts.
"More young people in the U.S. are exploring international options because there are not any formal circus performance degree options in the U.S."
One British circus performer and educator is pursuing her Ph.D. at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, while a few others are working toward master's and doctorate degrees in child development and circus at American institutions.
"Circus gives access to a broad range of old and young people with skills that naturally go along with life," said Nichols of The Circus Space.
"From a philosophical view, it is not elitist and something everyone can do, plus it is a metaphor for many things people do in their life. It literally teaches you balance."