A quarter of a century ago, four young graduates and a youth worker took to the streets of Cardiff to entertain shoppers. They subdivided into a twosome called The Dangerous Duo and a trio known as Risky in Pink, while all five also worked as an ensemble.
“We were good jugglers,” recalls Tom Rack. “That was about it. We had a go at everything else and probably did it quite badly but with humour and enthusiasm and got away with it. It wasn’t about being slick. It was about laughing at ourselves.”
The thousands who have seen No Fit State Circus perform all over Europe will have noticed an improvement. Late last year, the company celebrated its 25th birthday and can justly claim to be one of the world’s leading exponents of contemporary circus. More than any troupe in the UK, they have been doggedly reinventing the form, all the while staying as close as possible to the hippy ethos first demonstrated to Cardiff shoppers in 1985.
A No Fit State show will assault all the senses. You can hear the miked-up breath of the performers, smell their sweat, look into their eyes, touch the hem of their raggedy garments. It’s very consciously the opposite of the antiseptic enormo-shows put on by the globe-stomping Cirque du Soleil.
“Cirque de Soleil’s skill level is incredible,” says Ali Williams, who co-runs No Fit State, “and their shows are boring. You see a little Chinese acrobat that could be a robot or a computer-generated image. It doesn’t mean anything to you and it doesn’t touch you. When somebody walks into our tent, they see a real person performing.”
For their next outing No Fit State won’t be in a tent or the open air or at the Eden Project or any of the places where their shows are normally to be found. In 2010 they created their first-ever proscenium theatre piece in collaboration with National Theatre Wales and Théâtre Tattoo of Toulouse. Mundo Paralelo is being revived for this year’s London International Mime Festival. It’s a more contemplative piece than the company’s usual sensory overload.
“I don’t want to say stylised movement because that sounds poncey,” says Rack, “but we made a very conscious decision to put on one side a lot of our own methodology, because circus in a theatre is a completely different context. It is a way to reach new audiences. It is stage one of what we hope is going to be a long and interesting journey.”
Exploring the possibility of indoor circus will enable them to rehearse and perform all the year round. To help them they have the rare advantage – at a time when most companies are having to do without – of core funding from the Arts Councils of both England and Wales. They’ve just taken on their first marketing manager, who “is running around like a headless chicken,” says Williams, “with 25 years’ worth of stuff dumped on him”.
Rack and Williams are the only survivors of the original quintet. They have long since given up actual performing. In 2001, Williams went back to college to do a course in arts management (“Checking how all that stuff should be done properly: we’d been improvising from the start”) and has not juggled since. Rack continues as a more hands-on creative producer.
In 2010, having occupied a small church for the previous four years, they moved into the Welsh National Opera’s roomy old rehearsal premises in Cardiff . Williams first eyed it up in 1993, when the company hung a trapeze in there during a collaboration with the WNO. “At that point I went, 'I’m going to have that building one of these days. It’s perfect.’”
It took them 17 years. The £30,000 rent is paid for by classes for all manner of circus skills, from unicycling to trapeze, tightrope to juggling. Indeed, No Fit State has turned South Wales into an unlikely hub for circus training. Of the 25 apprentices they’ve taken on in the lifetime of the company, 11 are still working in circus and eight are still with the company, if not performing then working behind the scenes. Other performers have gone out and created their own Welsh circus companies. And children continue to flock in their hundreds to hone circus skills.
Williams is eager for circus skills to become part of the curriculum. “There’s loads of benefits: hand-eye coordination, non-competitive physical work, the social benefits of working together, focus on long-term goals and performing, which is good for self-esteem.”
Setting up a circus troupe in 1986 did not seem like a long-term goal at the time , but within a year they had won the Welsh community business of the year award. They acquired their first tent in 1991 and started putting on their own shows when, during a large-scale collaboration with WNO, says Rack, “we got excited about doing that for ourselves without the opera, because we didn’t like the opera bit much”.
The Nineties were an era of experimentation with sound and video technology, with a new promenade format . Their first community show, incorporating 200 non-professional performers, was called Immortal.
“We pretty much bombed everywhere we went,” says Williams, “but the audiences that did come absolutely loved it, and nobody had seen anything like it. Being in Wales and using the community, so you’re not being judged against the professional marker, meant that we could then develop the style of the work and then come out of Wales.”
Immortal ran for four years. “People continually wanted to buy it in. Each year we recreated the show just to make it different. Otherwise we’re bored to tears.”
However impromptu and improvisatory they may like to sound, the operation requires the military precision of a touring rock megalith. Of their shows in 2011, they performed Mundo Paralelo from January to March, the outdoor show Barricade from April to July, Labyrinth at the Eden Project and the big-top park show Parklife simultaneously through to the end of the summer, when Barricade went back out on the road, followed by Mundo Paralelo. “We don’t have enough equipment to put all of those shows out at the same time,” says Williams.
The fact that No Fit State has grown from those engaging street pratfalls 25 years ago is a testament to the enduring appeal of an art form the company has kept relevant.
“Circus creates a sense of escape that you might not get from other art forms,” says Rack. “There is something very romantic about the nature of a touring circus that appears in your park overnight as if by magic and brings with it its illusions, its grandeur, its mystique, and then by the following weekend it’s disappeared and the only sign is a slight yellowing of the grass.”