With the greatest of ease

Despite the cynicism about what is going to fill the Dome, there is one idea that is really taking off.
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The Independent Culture
In August this year, 3,000 people applied to get into the Millennium Dome. But they weren't over-keen punters wanting a peek at a work-in- progress, they were young hopefuls after a job.

Over the summer, The New Millennium Experience Company advertised in circus schools and performing-arts centres throughout the country for aspiring artistes to occupy the central space in the Dome. The lofty eyesore is 50m high at its tallest point - about the same height as Nelson's Column. Something had to be done for an estimated daily audience of 12,000 that didn't involve low-flying aircraft.

The people at the Dome are giving little away, but apparently, we're in for a light-and-music show with lots of trapeze dare-devilling and acrobatics. Rumour has it that it will be a cross between the Notting Hill Carnival, a football match and a rock concert, with Peter Gabriel doing the music. But don't let that put you off.

Out of the 3,000 who replied to the adverts, 800 were selected for regional auditions. The NMEC's Circus Training Project set off on a national search for gymnasts, trampolinists, trapeze artists, divers, dancers and rock- climbers in places like Glasgow, Cardiff and Norwich. Finally, the circus came to town last week for the London auditions. Kids from Fame, Flashdance fans and would-be members of the Flying Trapeze flocked to the capital's hub of spit'n'sawdust life, Circus Space in Hoxton - a labyrinth of rooms with trapezes and exercise bars.

They bounced through acrobatic auditions, strained through body-conditioning exercises, acted up in the performance classes and contorted on the trapeze. The auditions started at 8.30am, and by 5.30pm everyone was exhausted. So why did they do it? "The Millennium is the biggest thing ever," said Amber Noble, a diminutive 16-year-old from Stevenage who was taking a break between auditions. "I've been doing gymnastics since I was nine and this is a chance to put all my years of training into something good. I thought the strength work was really hard. I had to keep jumping on and off boxes which were bigger than me."

There wasn't a spinning bow tie in sight as lithe young things clad in unitards and track pants solemnly and silently went through their paces while being marked out of 10. The only merriment to be found was in the performance classes where four young people expressed "joy" with varying degrees of loud whooping noises. So what kind of weird circus are we in for?

"The raison d'etre of the auditions is to generate a new performance form," explains Mica Bergese, artistic director for the show, who has worked with Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. "There is no contemporary circus or circus-based performance tradition in this country. Circus is about aerial performers now. It has moved on tremendously abroad, while we're stuck in the past here. Circus is not a variety show any longer."

Apparently, while us Brits were content with clowns and ballerinas-on- horseback, the rest of Europe was streaking miles ahead. France and Germany, Canada (remember Cirque du Soleil?) and eastern Europe have developed a form of circus that depends on aerial acrobatics rather than large red noses. Now, it is all more The Brothers Karamazov than the brothers Cottle.

Bergese is hoping that, after a year in the world's biggest top, the circus tradition will have truly taken root over here. Successful candidates will be offered a place on a one-year Certificate in Higher Education in circus skills that has been set up in collaboration with Circus Space and the Central School of Speech and Drama. Then there will be one final audition to make sure everybody's up to speed, and the show'll be on the road.

"It's a great opportunity for someone like me," said 25-year-old Ken Fanning from Dublin as he finished his gruelling day. "I did a one-year course in circus media at Bristol and went back to Ireland to start off a circus career, but there's very little opportunity there apart from street juggling and acrobatics. If I pass the auditions, I'll get to live in London for two years and I'm sure I'll get a job after the Millennium circus show."

For some people, the opportunity to do a grant-aided course in London was enough. "I come from the Belfast Community Centre and I want to do a course but it's too costly," said Simon Llewellyn, an 18-year-old with a spiky haircut and a manic grin. "The only way I can do this is through the Millennium Dome. I've been in a circus for quite a while now and this is an opportunity to see what I could learn here and take back to Belfast. I loved taking part in everything to see what I could and couldn't do. They've got really good trainers who tell you what you are doing wrong."

Such was the lure of the course and the job that people applied from as far afield as Australia, the Netherlands and Majorca.

"I really liked doing the dance and the performance this morning," enthused Lennie Visser, a pixie in a black unitard. "I came to the auditions from Amsterdam because I want the chance to perform in front of so many people. I do trapeze in a children's theatre company and I heard about the auditions when a friend of mine sent me the details from Circus Space with a note saying `this is for you'.

"I went to a circus school in Brussels three years ago," continued Lennie, "and I've worked 10 metres high, but 50 metres seems really high to me. I'm quite happy to spend the millennium new year in London rather than Amsterdam. If you are in this show, your prospects will be very good when it's over."

Who knows, by new year 2001, we could be a nation of trapeze-lovers, passionate about acrobatics and aerial-displays? One thing is guaranteed though. We're bound to leave the Dome with neckache.