Circus sector shocked as Swinburne freezes 2024 NICA intake

Swinburne’s decision to freeze the 2024 student intake for Australia’s only accredited Bachelor of Circus Arts course at NICA has the sector deeply alarmed.

Student enrolments for the Bachelor of Circus Arts course at Australia’s only accredited tertiary circus school, the National Institute for Circus Arts (NICA) have been placed on hold while its parent body, Swinburne University, assesses ‘NICA’s alignment with their [Swinburne’s] strategic priorities’.

The move has shocked circus students around the country who were planning to audition for NICA’s 2024 intake, and dismayed the Australian circus sector.

As Rachel Phillips, a final year student at the Flying Fruit Fly Circus (FFFC) explains, ‘NICA is such an amazing opportunity – there is nothing comparable, especially not in Australia. It seemed like such a direct pathway that’s now [apparently] gone. It will be almost impossible to find an equivalent, especially  locally.’

Auditions for the Bachelor of Circus Arts course were due to be held this month.

ArtsHub is already aware of circus students who are now enrolling at tertiary-level circus schools overseas instead of staying in Australia, a concerning sign for the future of our internationally-renowned circus sector.

James Wilson, aged 17, has been at the FFFC for three years and will be graduating at the end of the year. He tells ArtsHub: ‘I moved to Albury to pursue circus as my career. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go after graduating, but I knew that I wanted to continue training. NICA was going to be that next step into the industry after I left FFFC, but after hearing about the [potential] split from Swinburne I’m unsure of where life will take me.

‘I hope that NICA will continue to accept new students in some fashion as it’s the only place like it in Australia. If I wanted to do a similar course, I would have to travel to Europe. I love the circus community and I know that I will stay here for a while longer – I just hope that NICA remains a centre for contemporary Australian circus,’ Wilson says.

ArtsHub‘s sources also suggest that morale among the current crop of NICA students, staff and trainers is extremely low given the uncertainty around the institution’s future.

The official announcement

The decision to pause 2024 Bachelor of Circus Arts enrolments was announced last week, in an email from NICA Director Simona Jobbagy sent to an array of Australian circus stakeholders.

‘As you may know, NICA is a subsidiary of Swinburne University of Technology. Swinburne has begun the process of assessing NICA’s alignment with its strategic priorities,’ Jobbagy wrote in an email sent at 12:29pm on Monday 26 June 2023.

‘As a result, Swinburne has made the decision to pause enrolments in NICA’s Bachelor of Circus Arts for 2024. This decision was not made lightly.

‘This means auditions for NICA’s Bachelor program for 2024 will not proceed,’ the email continued. ‘However, Audition Masterclasses and auditions for the Certificate IV in Circus Arts will continue as planned.

‘We know this decision will be disappointing. We are working with the Victorian and Federal Governments to ensure the long-term sustainability of NICA and will keep you updated as appropriate,’ Jobbagy’s email read.

NICA’s June 2023 production ‘Oneiric’ directed by Edgar Zendejas. Photo: Rob Blackburn.

A formal statement from a Swinburne spokesperson supplied to ArtsHub added: ‘Swinburne is proudly a university defined and inspired by technology and innovation, and the courses we offer need to match that.

‘Swinburne has taken the decision to pause enrolments in NICA’s Bachelor of Circus Arts for 2024, while we assess its future viability and strategic alignment with Swinburne’s priorities.

‘There is no change for current students, who will continue their studies at NICA, including the 22 students who commenced their Bachelor this year. Enrolments continue for NICA’s vocational education offerings,’ the statement concluded.

Federal Government remains committed to NICA’s ongoing success

NICA is part of the ARTS8 group, eight national elite training organisations in the performing arts funded by the Federal Government. They also include The Australian Ballet School, the Australian National Academy of Music, the National Institute of Dramatic Art and NAISDA (National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association) Dance College.

A spokesperson from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts told ArtsHub: ‘The Australian Government has made a long-term investment in the National Institute of Circus Arts and remains committed to its ongoing success.

‘This was reinforced when the Prime Minister and Minister for the Arts announced Revive, the Government’s National Cultural Policy, and additional funding was committed to the organisation in the May budget.

‘As the primary funding body of the National Institute of Circus Arts, the Australian Government is working with Swinburne University to find a solution,’ the statement concluded.

Leading Australian philanthropist Carrillo Gantner used stronger language, telling ABC Radio Melbourne that should the current situation result in NICA’s loss, Australia’s ‘international reputation in this area would be down the drain’.

Gantner added: ‘We would go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was young and the top international artists in any field – in theatre and dance and opera – they all had to go overseas to get their training and, therefore, a large majority of them stayed overseas and built their careers there. And that’s a tragedy for this country that prides itself on being a clever country. This is really stupid.’

NICA’s June 2023 production ‘Oneiric’ directed by Edgar Zendejas. Photo: Rob Blackburn.

The loss of income from the now paused 2024 Bachelor of Circus Arts cohort’s fees will undoubtedly be an economic blow for NICA, which is already paying increased rent on its headquarters in the inner Melbourne suburb of Prahran as a result of Swinburne selling off the circus centre to the State Government for $140 million in November 2022.

Swinburne was previously charging NICA a peppercorn rent.

ArtsHub understands that the Victorian Government is now charging NICA full commercial rates for the Prahran premises.

A devastating blow for the circus sector?

According to Richard Hull, Chief Executive Officer of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Swinburne’s decision to pause 2024 enrolments to NICA’s Bachelor of Circus Arts is potentially devastating for the Australian circus sector.

‘The National Institute of Circus Arts provides the only three-year Bachelor of Circus Arts degree in Australia and, without it, the training and professional circus sector in this country will pedal backwards to before 1999, when NICA was founded. So I think it has the potential to have a profound impact on the sector,’ Hull tells ArtsHub.

The Australian circus sector is thriving but delicate, Hull continues, and a disruption like this could have serious ramifications for the Australian circus industry for years to come.

‘We are blessed in Australia to have both a national youth circus, the Fruities, and a tertiary institution, NICA, so a young person can begin a journey at age eight with us and complete it with a degree qualification at NICA. And all this is supported by a network of youth and recreational circus that feeds into our organisations,’ he says.

‘And we also have world-class circus companies, including CIRCA, Casus, Gravity and Other Myths and others, which thrive on the talent that we all nurture. So it’s a very delicate ecosystem that needs protecting. And Swinburne, I suspect, doesn’t understand that – and probably doesn’t care too much because it doesn’t align with their “strategic priorities”.’

NICA’s June 2023 production ‘Oneiric’ directed by Edgar Zendejas. Photo: Rob Blackburn.

Similarly, Jo Smith, Artistic Director of Circus WA, describes the potential loss of NICA as a training intuition as ‘a palpable pain, which has surprised us all’.

‘I guess we’ve taken for granted NICA is there if and when needed – a beacon of high ambition and skill in circus and physical theatre training. While we’re always careful to tell our students that NICA is not the only way to grow as an artist, it is nonetheless the most well-crafted, structured and delivered skills training program available to emerging circus artists in Australia… Its existence makes a statement to us all – circus and physical theatre is important, is relevant, is an art form, and can be a dream fulfilled,’ she tells ArtsHub.

‘Youth circus training and development centres can only go so far with ambition. We can set the hearth and start a fire, but we cannot take someone to high ambitions if there is no place to aim for. It’s hard to fathom how a university and an organisation such as NICA can in such a short time have its very existence laid at risk.

‘A whole generation of young people sit in training centres such as ours, around Australia. Hundreds of them strengthening their resolve and resilience to prepare for a future at some place like NICA. Not so long ago these young students lived through the story of the [abortive] Circus Oz closure. Today they see their society push NICA, their steadfast goal, to teeter on the edge. I had to think hard about announcing that NICA was at risk to them. I wanted to hide it from them. I love feeling the radiance of that light of hope that is so special to young people who know their purpose. I knew that for some it would be enough to turn down that radiance. Now I cry as our announcement lands, and I feel them shrug their shoulders. It’s in this weakness they start to let in the insidious noise of mainstream society, “Go do a proper degree at university”.

‘We as trainers and directors of youth circus become a small voice when news such as this emerges. And while we call to them not to worry, that we know NICA will live on, the statement they hear louder is “Circus is not a proper job”,’ Smith says.

Read: Circus Oz announces new General Manager

Joshua Hoare, Artistic Director of the South Australian Circus Centre and himself a NICA graduate, is taking a more sanguine approach.

‘Let’s see what happens,’ Hoare tells ArtsHub. ‘Our art form is built on the practice of getting over and around obstacles, and circus people are anti-fragile. These kinds of disruptions can cut a community off at the knees, but I don’t think it will do that to Australian circus. Institutionalisation of circus training is a very new thing in the world; we thrived and evolved for a very long time before we got a piece of paper with a university seal on it. But that’s not to say the Bachelor program isn’t valuable and a significant node in the Australian circus landscape.

‘It is, however, a part within an ecosystem that has strong youth development organisations right across the country. We have 18-year-olds graduating high school with skills and artistry to compete on international stages. So the institutional path isn’t for everyone, but it can be for a lot of people. There’s an opportunity for another tertiary RTO (registered training organisation) player to come in and catch the ball, to pivot and play a huge role in the future of Australian circus,’ he continues.

‘These kinds of decisions are based on viability and Swinburne is deciding that circus training is not viable. This is not uncommon as we zoom into digital worlds, rather than into a space together. My time at NICA gave me some of the people I value most in the world; it gave me a structure to switch off the outside world and dream, through my body and through my community. As the world launches off into exponential acceleration, I’m quite sure the most important thing over the next 100 years will be the things we’ve been doing for the last hundred thousand years: gathering in space together, to excite, inspire and terrify through the human body,’ Hoare concludes.

Students suffering

Regardless of the long-term impact of the current situation, Hull says Swinburne’s recent decision was a blow to the current cohort of Flying Fruit Fly Circus students who were intending to audition for NICA’s Bachelor of Circus Arts course later this month.

‘To get so close to the point of audition, which would be this month, to then be told that that pathway is closed is definitely very troubling for them. Now, one of the students we have already found an alternative school for, in the Netherlands, and they’ll be going overseas – which is fantastic for them, but also just demonstrates the fact that this talent will not stay in Australia if we don’t provide the appropriate, high-quality pathways for them,’ says Hull.

Members of NICA’s third year ensemble in the 2023 production ‘Oneiric’. Photo: Rob Blackburn.

When asked why he thought this decision had been made, Hull replies: ‘I think the Board of NICA probably has some serious questions to answer, with each member of that Board, as I understand it, being a Swinburne employee – and indeed the Chair being the Chief Financial Officer of Swinburne.

‘And there’s nothing improper in that, I’m sure – NICA is a controlled entity of Swinburne. But my worry is, where is the voice of experience and expertise coming from – the voice for NICA and our circus community? Because why wouldn’t this Board act in the best interests of Swinburne? They’re all employed by Swinburne,’ he says.

When speaking on ABC Radio Melbourne Gantner added: ‘What I think Swinburne is doing is playing chicken with the Federal and State Governments to force them, if they can, to make other arrangements and provide finance to NICA to take Swinburne out of the picture.’

Responding to questions from ABC Melbourne’s Ali Moore, Gantner continued, ‘I don’t think they even want to host it anymore. They’ve said that they’re a university of technology and that NICA does not align with their strategic vision. That’s how they put it. I think that’s rubbish, but that’s their call and they’re entitled to make that call.

‘I said it’s rubbish because there is nothing more innovative and potentially startling and groundbreaking than some of the things that our best acrobatic and circus artists do with their bodies, and this school is providing graduates not only to all the great Australian circus companies like Circa and Circus Oz and Gravity and Other Myths and many others, but also providing its top artists to Cirque du Soleil and other leading international companies around the world,’ Gantner said.

Peak body alarmed by Swinburne’s decision

The decision to freeze NICA’s 2024 student intake has also been criticised by Theatre Network Australia (TNA) in a statement released on Monday 3 July.

‘TNA is calling for Swinburne University to reverse its decision to pause NICA enrolments for 2024, allowing time for NICA staff to work with the Victorian Government to develop a plan to retain this valued resource for the Australian circus sector,’ said TNA Executive Director Nicole Beyer.

‘The National Institute of Circus Arts is a unique institution, and currently the only circus training provider that provides a HECS-supported Bachelor level qualification, addressing barriers to entry into a professional career. As with any tertiary study it allows students to build skills and connections, and initiate collaborations they carry into the wider industry both nationally and internationally, where Australian circus artists are acknowledged as punching well above their weight.

‘Australian circus artists have faced devastating setbacks in the past few years, and we acknowledge the loss of NICA would likely result in a further exodus of circus professionals out of Victoria and overseas, which would be a huge loss for the Australian arts sector,’ Beyer said.  

Looking to the future

According to the Flying Fruit Fly Circus’ Richard Hull, Swinburne’s decision to pause enrolments for next year makes little sense, at least from the outside.

‘It’s perfectly fine for Swinburne to decide that NICA doesn’t fit with their strategic priorities anymore. I understand that. But I would hope that they would work cooperatively and collaboratively with NICA, with the Victorian Government, with the Office for the Arts – which is their principal funder – and with other potential stakeholders to find an alternative university or higher education provider, so that they can transition into a new academic home. This decision seems, at least in the short term, destructive because they’re closing off the pipeline of new students,’ he says.

Swinburne’s media statement notes that it is working closely with the Victorian Government to ensure NICA’s long-term sustainability.

One potential new home for NICA, theoretically, could be the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), a campus of the University of Melbourne.

‘I think the hope in all of this is that there’s a brighter future for NICA with a university or an education provider that better understands the value of NICA’s work, both within the circus industry but also across industries,’ Hull says.

‘Not every NICA graduate goes into circus as a career. They have successful careers in a broad range of industries that appreciate their experiences, skills, their dedication and critical thinking. So, absolutely, you would think that the VCA and the University of Melbourne would be potentially a much happier home for NICA, because it has such a belief and an investment in the arts,’ he concludes.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts