A new and highly significant chapter in the extraordinary story of NoFit State Circus begins on Tuesday December 11th, with the opening of their Four Elms community hub in Cardiff’s Adamsdown. Four Elms will be Cardiff’s first brand new creative building in over a decade and Wales’ first purpose-built circus training space.
Alison Woods, Executive Director of NoFit State, stresses that the opening of Four Elms is ‘not a move but an addition’. NoFit State is retaining its existing home in John Street to be used as a functioning office and training space. The new building will substantially increase the company’s capacity for rehearsal and development work, which makes a very strong statement about the range and scope of NoFit State’s future activities.
The additional new space at Four Elms will enable NoFit State to expand its thriving community programme – they currently operate a range of projects involving a couple of hundred children in five to six age groups. Alison Woods explains that young people are drawn to participate in these circus skills workshops because they enjoy ‘exploring their own physical capacity to express themselves,’ and also because they are attracted to ‘the element of risk’ involved in circus work. She adds that this is no admission that young participants in NoFit State’s youth programmes are needlessly exposed to danger, only an observation that young people like to respond to rules that are necessary and practical rather than arbitrary and authoritarian. Woods believes, ‘as a species we all enjoy the juxtaposition of freedom with rules’ and the combination of creative expression and rigorous safety procedures offered by NoFit State’s community programmes appeal to young and old alike.
The Four Elms building will host sessions for both professional circus practitioners and community trainee performers and there will be no allocation of space based on notions of seniority or levels of expertise. This is very much in keeping the relatively ‘flat’ decision-making process of NoFit State, whereby the leadership team of the company works to arrive at decisions after consulting with both staff and community partners. NoFit State was founded in 1986 during the Thatcher era and has remained committed to its founding vision that ‘the total outweighs the sum of the parts’. While on tour the company lives together, works together, eats together, laughs and cries together, as Woods explains: ‘we tour as a village, and in the middle of that village is a big top. Even the international artists we hire from places like Canada and France have to take their turns working in the box office or sometimes digging drainage ditches.’
NoFit State aim for circus work to be aesthetically thrilling, but their work has always had a strong social function and they will share their new building with other companies with roots in South Wales. Cardiff has become a dynamic and vibrant centre for circus in the UK with companies such as Crashmat Collective, Mary Bijou Cabaret and Citrus Arts flourishing within the Welsh capital. There has been a serious shortage of rehearsal space for circus work throughout South Wales and Four Elms will offer all circus performing companies access to an extraordinary new creative space.
With the support of Cardiff Council, NoFit State began work on Four Elms in January 2012. The project, budgeted at £1.3m, involved the whole-scale renovation of the former Trinity Methodist Church, which has now been refurbished with care to its history and future functionality. The jewel in the crown of this nineteenth-century building is its main hall, where a rig has been installed to hold aerial circus equipment. Performers will climb a spiral staircase within a turret to enter a balcony from which they can launch themselves onto a flying trapeze.This turret is decorated with what Woods describes as ‘the most stunningly beautiful stained glass windows’ which have all been restored to their former glory.
Kevin Sutton, conservation architect with Cardiff-based Davies Sutton Architects (DSA), says, ‘This was certainly a commission with a difference. It’s not often you are presented with the challenge of making a trapeze work within a listed former place of worship’.
NoFit State was born in Splott and Adamsdown, so the opening of Four Elms will mark something of a return by the company to the heart of its home communities. Woods, claims the support of ‘local residents who have signed petitions, baked cakes, organised sponsored events and rattled buckets to transform this building into a new creative centre in the heart of the community’ is crucial to the future viability and success of the project.
A spokesperson, on behalf of the Arts Council of Wales, said: ‘This is an amazing regeneration project and will offer improved space for classes and circus training, a home for the youth circus to develop and grow along with providing much needed facilities such as meeting space that can be hired by the community’.
The official launch night for Four Elms is Tuesday 17th December, which is billed as an evening of performances and mulled wine in front of an open fire. Members of the wider community will get their chance to view the building, and sample some taster circus training sessions, during an open weekend on February 1st and 2nd of 2014. It will be the first event scheduled for Four Elms and all activities will be free of charge.
NoFit State is running a crowdfunding campaign via its website to raise funds for the erection of the rigging in the Four Elms main hall. You can sponsor a nut, bolt, beam or ladder and help to support the creative and community activities within the building. At the time of publication that figure stood at £10,483. Go to http://www.nofitstate.org/fourelms to find out more.
Four Elms is certainly a building that liberates the spirit and it will provide a focal point around which the Cardiff community can gather to discover and express its undiscovered talents. We all dream at some point of leaving home to join the circus, in Cardiff the NoFit State Circus is making a new home among us.