Commonwealth Youth Circus

Acrostaff handstandGlasgow could be the setting for an acrostaff revolution thanks to the talented members of the Commonwealth Youth Circus. Click “continue reading” to find out how this group of young gymnasts, dancers, circus artists and free runners got on with a five days of acrostaff workshops and training.

The Commonwealth Youth Circus (CYC) is a project for young, aspiring circus performers designed to develop their skills and equip them with the know-how to become professional circus performers. The project climaxes with a performance at the Commonwealth Games to be held in Glasgow, Scotland in 2014.

The 18 members of the CYC train in Glasgow under the supervision of Rob “Bluecat” Thorburn and JL Cassells of Bright Night International. Ages of the CYC members range from as young as 13 years-old and up to 23, each with a background in dance, gymnastics, martial arts, parkour or modern circus.

The CYC train juggling, aerial, isolation hoop, hula hoop, contact juggling, acro-stilts, hat manipulation, parkour and acro-balance. But acrostaff was chosen as a central prop around which the different backgrounds of the performers could be brought together, enabling them to produce chorus work but also as a prop that each could excel in by transferring their existing skills to the staff.

For those who might be unsure what acrostaff is, it’s a new form of staff/body manipulation where acrobatic movements are performed on, off, around and with a strong staff. Though it’s new in its current manifestation within modern staff spinning, acrostaff does draw a lot of inspiration from far more ancient disciplines such as monkey style kung fu.

I was honoured to be asked to make the journey up to Scotland to teach the basics of acrostaff to the CYC. This opportunity was exciting not only because it was great to be a small part of this fantastic project but also because of the potential development in acrostaff that might come from teaching it to such a talented group of young performers.

First things first though, we needed to make enough acrostaffs for the whole group so our first afternoon together was spent getting to know each other and wrapping tyre inner tubes around lengths of fibreglass.

The quiver of acrostaffs we created included two 2.5m long staffs made from 35mm fibreglass. Yep, you read that right; these were absolute beasts. As you can imagine, these two aren’t meant for spinning at all but are used as kips, or levers/platforms for the performers to perform tricks off or on.

During our free training sessions myself, Rob, JL and the members of the CYC developed ideas that included side, back and tunnel flips off these beasts…

and walk overs along the pair of staffs while the they were supported on the shoulders of two bases…

There is also potential for rail-style parkour moves to be done with these staffs supported in a similar fashion.

Our first workshop involved the slightly more wieldy regular size acrostaffs. The idea was to cover the foundations of the different areas of acrostaff (at least as I see it) to give everyone a similar grounding and shared vocabulary of tricks. This session included foot plants, foot plant pirouettes, a straight perch, a more sideways hip perch, staff pirouettes, staff cartwheels (both with staff in hand and contact cartwheels) and vault cartwheels where the staff is planted on the ground instead of the hands.

As expected, everyone picked these tricks up swiftly and many were on to the next progressions before I’d even covered them.

The next two days involved free sessions where the performers could practise what they learned in the first workshop and we could experiment with ideas more informally as well as working on contact staff and staff spinning techniques. The acrostaff ideas included the big “kip” staffs already mentioned as well as merging tricking/parkour moves like kick the moon with the normal size staffs. Some of the girls with super-solid handstands played with manipulating the staffs with their feet while upside down…

Hannah developing her own acrostaff moves

Hannah developing her own acrostaff moves

and doing wall stand splits with the staff as the support.

The next official teaching session focussed more on contact staff. This included shoulder carries, neck wraps, conveyor belts, half Steves, halos and halo 180s and 360s. The idea was to equip the group with contact skills that could be used with the acrobatic or dance movements already in their repertoire. Excellent progress was made with these techniques despite them being a bit more alien to most of the group in comparison to the more acrobatic elements.

The final day involved one last official workshop, an unofficial workshop and a free session. In the morning’s workshop we covered acrostaff moves involving a wall. We started off with wall stalls where feet and planted on the wall and the staff is used to support your body weight. This progressed into approaching the wall at an angle to stall which then generates a staff pirouette on the exit. We also played with wall rides (running along the wall using the staff as support) and wall stands (handstands on the staff with it and/or your feet on the wall).

In the free session later in the day we did a more unofficial workshop that’s included pistons, flags, hook kicks, Caspar pirouettes and Caspar stalls. This free session also yielded an extremely productive jam with a couple of members of the CYC and Pete, a local parkour specialist who mentors one of the young parkour protégés in the CYC. New tricks (at least to us) that were developed in this jam included new roundhouse, hook and tornado kick variations and, thanks to Pete, super-cool kick the moon and Raiz twist ideas.

My time in Glasgow was finished off with a gymnastics session in the local centre. This was an awesome surprise as the only downside of the trip was missing my usual gym training in Bristol. It was also a chance to hang out with some of the guys and girls outside of the CYC setting.

As I travel back to the other end of the country I’m full of anticipation to see how the CYC develop acrostaff ideas and include them in their performances. I also have a fatter note book of tricks to practise, a slightly sprained wrist, a tired body, new memories and new friends.

All that remains to do is thank JL and Rob for their hospitality and to wish the members of the Commonwealth Youth Circus all the best with their training and performances. These guys are going to make something special and it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re drooling over some of their acrostaff videos in the near future.

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