John Ellingsworth tell us about DOCH’s newest course

We were lucky enough to get John’s answers to a few questions about DOCH’s newest course: An Introduction to Contemporary Circus which will be starting in October.


Hi. I’m John Ellingsworth – I run a website called Sideshow. I’m teaching a new course at DOCH, An Introduction to Contemporary Circus, along with my colleague Duncan Wall, author of The Ordinary Acrobat and creative director of the US organisation Circus Now.

Who is this course for?

Broadly, anyone with an interest in contemporary circus creation. The course covers the history and emergence of contemporary circus (touching on the fundamental characteristics of the art and putting forward a working definition); changing approaches to education and training in the field; critical analysis and the ‘reading’ of circus; and the early stages of a creation process, covering the birth of work and the concept of research. You can apply as an artist, as a researcher, as the administrator of a circus company, as a press officer at a performing arts venue… We’ve kept it as open as possible.

Beyond that we’re looking for students who are curious, open-minded, interested in the wider arts, and, ideally, a little argumentative. From an eligibility standpoint, you need to have English at a goodish level and some sort of professional experience in the performing arts (not necessarily as an artist!). You don’t need to have a background in HE studies. So again: it’s really open. This course is for you

Why should anyone take this course?

We think that the course is a good way to get a fundamental grasp of the contemporary circus field. By that I mean a little a bit of information on the context of the art (how it emerged, how it differs from the circus of the past), an idea of some of the artists/companies out there and the ways in which they’re working, a sense of how the aesthetics of circus are evolving and what conditions influence that, etc. So in one sense it’s aiming to be the essential textbook for anyone who wants to understand circus. 

Working in the circus field we’ve also seen that there’s a hunger among many artists – particularly those who are a little older and changing their relationship to technical training – for ways to develop their artistic practice and broaden their creative horizons. Honestly, we’ve also observed that artists with this attitude – i.e. an openness to learning and an active relationship to other artforms – tend to be the ones making the more interesting work and raking in the professional opportunities.

So we’ve tried to build a course that treats the specifics of circus – which is sensitive to its characteristics and special qualities – but that also places circus in the context of dance, visual art, literature, etc. We feel like exposure to other practices and ways of thinking expands the mind, but also that in order to be taken seriously circus needs to be capable of articulating itself in relation to other fields.

Why is this course special?

A few things:

1. I think most courses synthesise existing knowledge. For example; if I wanted to teach a course on art history or Renaissance literature I could decide on the key points and sources and then collect material from other books to cover those points and sources. I might work on some connecting material, and I’d set the overall structure, but in a way I’d be more of a curator or convenor – ordering and presenting the existing debates and theories. What quickly became apparent working on a circus course is that most of the stuff we felt we needed in order to illustrate our key points simply didn’t exist. So we’ve generated a huge amount of original material which is the spine of the course. Part of this has been us writing & trying to unpack specific ideas and concepts; another part has been us gathering interviews and recordings for case studies and talking head soundbites. I’m proud of this – I think we’re going to have some of the best and fullest literature for anyone who wants to explore a circus creation process & see how a company actually builds work. 

2. There’s a certain amount of guesswork with the course – it’s hard to know how people will interact online! – but we’ll be setting some discussion assignments and our hope is that we can build a kind of intellectual community around the work. I think this is something else that’s missing from the circus field… Maybe if you live in a big city with a major school and a lot of programming then you can access discussions around circus art, but a lot of people don’t have many opportunities to learn discursively & to develop and clarify their own thinking. I’d be really happy if the course could help to build up a little network of people invested in thinking about circus.

3. Finally, given that I’m English (and slightly infatuated with Sweden) I think it’s cool and special that the course is free for EU citizens. Resources for professional development are fairly scarce in the circus world, and in some cases are restricted by locality. I like the idea that artists and others who are isolated from existing circus communities or who maybe can’t afford tuition fees can still get some support and input through this course – and that the only cost for that is their time and attention.

For anyone outside of Europe the course is unfortunately very expensive (the school doesn’t have control over this – it’s the same for all Swedish universities), but if there’s a lot of interest then perhaps DOCH can find some alternative channels for distribution in the future.

If anyone wants more info on the course then they should feel free to contact me on john@crko.org

You can enroll on the course which is FREE to EU citizens and run entirely online 


Also you may have noticed that we’ve had a little spruce up of the Ausform website – including some lovely shots down the right hand side of the page. Ausform is now on Instagram! Follow us @ausform_

We love beautiful imagery. Whether that be shots from rehearsals, shapes made in the shadows or even a really excellent bit of latte art (this one is a kitty!) we promise to never bombard you, but just to bring a little bit of Ausform love to you.

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