Jon Burtt is a master at staying on his toes. From an earlier career as a professional dancer, he evolved to directing his own dance company, then a circus company and circus school, before delving into research on approaches to the learning of circus skills, eventually leading to an academic role at Macquarie. When COVID hit he re-imagined a very practical circus course for online delivery. Then followed a curriculum restructuring which completely transformed what he teaches. Industry changes means he now teaches his students how to stay on their toes and be entrepreneurial in using their own unique skills. As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia
The journey from Circus to Academia
Q You’ve had a unique journey – performer, director, researcher, teacher, academic. How did that come about?
I’ve really had three related but different careers. First of all, as a performer, training at the London Contemporary Dance School, one of the best dance schools in the world and joining companies as a dancer, touring and working with some of the top choreographers around the world. Then, I started to get interested in choreographing and doing my own work and eventually this led to having my own company in London and then starting my own company in Australia. Things kept evolving and although we started off as a dance company, based in Perth, on the West Coast, we started getting guest artists coming across from the East Coast and some of those were circus people.
So, we had a circus component in some of our dance works and that led to us become a multi-artform circus company, working across disciplines, not a traditional circus company by any means. I realized from a choreographic point of view there is the extra dimension that aerials could bring to performance as another way of exploring and using space. I found that really interesting and so I started to learn about circus and working with circus artists and what that involved.
Even in the early days we were interested in technology, particularly interactive technology – infrared systems that triggered sound, and costumes that were interactive, and we worked a lot with electronics engineers. We were performing at big festivals and touring, and we had a circus school. Then, at a certain point, my co-director and I decided that we’d like to stop and just take stock and analyse what we were doing.
I was interested in how people learn embodied skills, how people process embodied knowledge, particularly circus performers because they are so unusual. I mean, they dance, they act, they are acrobatic, they are as comfortable upside down as the right way up, it’s just very interesting.
I did my Masters in an Indian physical culture called Mallakhamb, which is a yogic rope form for training strength and flexibility originally for wrestlers, but it ended up as a competitive gymnastics form on a rope. Imagine doing a whole series of yoga poses on a rope, but in a competitive framework – in two minutes, doing as many moves as you can. This is a big competitive sport in India. I was fascinated and my Masters was based on field research in India.
For my PhD I was Researcher-in-Residence based at the National Circus School in Montreal where I was looking at a new approach to learning circus. That got me thinking about ways of learning. I was just coming towards the end of my PhD when a teaching position came up at Macquarie and I was thinking I would like to come back to Australia. I’d never really anticipated a career in academia actually, it was something that just came through the research and through the process of doing a PhD, so that’s how I found myself at Macquarie.
Exploring unique approaches to learning, training, and feedback
Q Through your research and professional career you have explored different approaches to teaching all sorts of skills; not only practical and physical but also transferable skills. Can you tell us a bit more about some of these approaches?
The traditional Russian and Chinese approach to the training of circus skills, is very much top down – ‘you master these skills, then you move on to these skills’. You do what the coach says, and the coach is the arbiter of everything, and you move according to the coach’s learning design.
Another approach, which was taken from something called Decision Training, used experimentally in football teams in Canada and the US and in and with some gymnastic coaches, takes a totally different approach in that it is about training the cognitive skills of the students and doing a whole bunch of things that you just wouldn’t do in a traditional learning situation, really changing out the learning patterns. So you have things like random practice where the student might be on a trampoline for example, and then the coach throws in instructions at random intervals that the student has to respond to. Always in a safe environment so the students don’t injure themselves but also mixing up the practice, so the student doesn’t become complacent and expect certain things to happen.
Then there are different approaches to feedback delivery where, in certain situations, you give the student reduced or sometimes even no feedback, but instead wait for them to suggest what might be wrong or what might be improved upon. Many students who have been taught in more traditional modes find that very confronting because they have never been asked what they think is the solution to a particular problem. So, my research at the school involved a lot of looking at combining that with some pretty radical forms of instruction. There’s a form of instruction called hard first, where you basically hit them early on in the training with things they’re going to be performing but in a very modified form. It gives them a sense of exactly what they’re going to be doing on stage or in a performance situation, within safe parameters, so they get a sense of where all this is leading. There’s also a lot of use of video so the students can analyse their own work and not always be turning to the coach.
Actually, I use a lot of the Decision Training tools in my teaching at Macquarie, because the tools work for any form of teaching. Whether it is practice-based, physical training, or theory-based, it’s still about developing the transferable cognitive skills that are going to support the student throughout their professional careers and everyday lives.
So working on my research into Decision Training at the National Circus School involved exploring these different approaches to learning design, feedback delivery, and instruction, with the aim of developing the students’ cognitive skills such as self-efficacy and self-regulation.
The whole focus of this approach working with performers is to get students to the point where they know how to train themselves so that when they’re in a situation like when they are in a touring show, where there’s going to be no one looking out for them, they will be able to develop themselves. Say you’re working in a small to medium-sized company, there will be no extra coaches working with you. You’re on your own, basically keeping up your skills, and developing your acts. You’ll be working with your peers, so it’s great if you have peers trained in the same way, because you’re coaching each other.
If you’re in a company like Cirque du Soleil, it’s slightly different because they can afford coaches that travel with the shows. And they tend to have a different type of performer there, one that’s more traditionally trained and perhaps less likely than a non-traditionally trained performer to leave the show and form their own company and do their own work. So, it’s this split.
There’s a lot of very interesting graduates now coming out of places like the National Circus School in Montreal where this mode is being adopted more and more where they are setting up their own companies and I would argue that they are much more self-sufficient and resilient than the more traditionally trained circus graduates.
It’s a different work environment now too. There aren’t necessarily long contracts. It’s project work, moving from one project to another, and they’re having to adapt. They may score a longer-term gig with a big company like Cirque de Soleil, but that’s very rare and so this type of training is designed to make a much more resilient, adaptive type of performer/ graduate coming out of these schools.
It’s developed into what I call ‘integrated training’. The idea is that this isn’t a one size fits all approach. You actually do need the traditional modes sometimes, particularly when there’s some safety involved or there’s very little knowledge or you’re working with someone who is starting late. A lot of circus artists start when they’re six or seven. But with artists coming in from other areas you might get someone starting quite late or coming from a different discipline, and then you have to work quite differently with them. You can’t bring in these really innovative and different ways of training skills until there’s a certain body of knowledge to work with, because it becomes a safety issue, and their bodies have to change. So, the integrated idea draws on traditional training methods and combines them, when appropriate, with aspects of Decision Training using them all as a toolbox, if you like, in the same way that a business school might incorporate things like Design Thinking alongside traditional modes of business study.
Adapting to online delivery
Q When COVID hit you were teaching a circus and performance unit. It must have been a challenge to take a studio-based unit which used an aerial rig, ground-based apparatus and crash mats and transform that into something that students could do at home?
Actually, it worked out all right and I think a lot of circus schools around the world also found they could teach online because it’s so skills based; for instance, juggling 3 balls, to take a very simple example: The students would be logging in online from their homes, so I’d say, ‘go grab three socks, roll them up’, and then we would start a juggling class.
They got really inventive. Students were tasked with creating a group performance piece using their own domestic spaces and objects as apparatus in innovative and original ways, connecting to other members of their group using the Zoom and video-editing technology. I said to them, ‘OK, you’re in these groups, but you’re in different locations. How can you create a group work using all your different places and connect them?’ They came up with some very inventive ideas where they would create a video where they were passing objects from one frame to another, or juggle in patterns, or do hand stands together. They explored things like connectedness, identity, and how they felt because they were all in isolation. There was a lot of peer-to-peer learning going on.
They developed a lot of different technical skills and also skills of perception because all the creativity had to happen within a very small frame – all they had to work with were the things they could bring into the frame of the screen. It really changed their perception of what they could do with what was around them. There were students doing contortion around their kitchens and making a whole kitchen piece, or outside in their gardens. They realised that the space around them was a learning space and a space that they could use for performance as well.
They adapted well to it so now I’ve got a few tricks for the online space that I can use so it is not all just always about going into groups to discuss things in breakout rooms to talk about different subjects, but actually exploring things through physical game-like strategies, games they can use in groups, and in different configurations, which are really cool.
Q A curriculum restructure dramatically changed the course and units you teach. How did you adapt your teaching?
You’ve caught me at a time when what I’m teaching has changed quite a lot so I’m thinking about how I apply the stuff I used to do into these new units.
Some of the teaching I’ve been doing this year is all new approaches and new material. We’ve gone from a very practice-based, discipline specific, Dance and Performance major to a more theory and management based Performing Arts and Entertainment Industries major – it’s a more Creative Industries type approach.
We don’t have the circus unit now or any specifically drama-based or dance-based units although those things do come up in the units in different weeks. It’s a big change – I’m now teaching Creative Entrepreneurship and Performance & Event Production – all things that I’ve obviously had a lot of experience doing in my professional life, but it’s interesting now having to teach those subjects so that’s been an interesting journey this year.
All the types of transferable skills that we were developing in those practice-based units are very applicable to entrepreneurship, like collaboration and teamwork, and even things you explore in circus like trust and managing risk, are directly applicable to a business situation or a creative venture or startup.
Prior to becoming an academic, I had my own dance company, and then circus company with a circus school attached to it, and we used to do events, corporate activities, touring etc., and we used to go for government arts funding, and we learned, as you do in the industry situation, on the fly, through experience. So now it’s very interesting to try to distill that and teach other people the key things that I learned, and also, how it applies in a COVID world (and we can’t even really talk about a post COVID world) where things get planned and then suddenly it’s got to go online. So, people need the skills to be able to turn an event that they spent two months working on as a live event into an online event and decide what things they want to retain in the new format. So, in a way, it’s a much more complex area now.
It sounds as though you have really embraced the opportunity in the move to present more holistic Creative Industries style units.
Yes, I think that’s right. When we were running our own circus company, the work in the studio was maybe 30% of our time, the running of the business was the rest of it, and you had to delegate a lot of the creative studio time to other people who you trained up. You had to be on top of so many different aspects of running the company such as applying for grants, liaising with corporate clients, managing the school, marketing, and planning.
The actual creative part, the actual time in the studio, is very intense but it’s not the bulk of the time that you spend running the whole thing. There is all this other stuff you need to know, and you need to think that you can be as creative in those other roles as you are in the studio. It’s like applying innovative ways of thinking – you might be talking to a corporate client, and they’re trying to tell you what sort of theme they’ve got and how they would do it and you can guide them through how the thing could work, take their ideas, make it better, and return to them something they never imagined, so that next time they’re going to call you again to do something.
All those things are all part of the business.
So for me it was not a problem going on to teach creative entrepreneurship. It also makes total sense to do event management. You really have to be good at all those other aspects as well.
It’s similar to the sort of ideas behind Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. It’s about giving as much weight to creativity and blue-sky brainstorming and the hard business stuff and bringing them together. It’s about applying creativity and getting people to think with an entrepreneurial mindset, and not being afraid to say, ‘can we monetize this, can we turn this into a product or a service?’ For some students who have come from purely creative practice-based backgrounds this way of thinking is new to them because they’ve never really been asked to think about it like that.
But you have to sustain yourself in the end, you’re not always going to get a grant, and sometimes getting funding is a bit like being on a merry-go-round, they’ll fund you for a while, but then there’s only a certain amount of money, and then suddenly you’re on your own.
Showing students how to use all their skills in new ways
The creative industries have changed a lot and the skills that graduates are going to need in different industries are different now too.
If we take the example of how things have changed for students studying dance at Macquarie, we have students who actually started in a Dance and Performance major and are now finishing with a Performing Arts and Entertainment Industries major and it’s been a really interesting journey for them.
There aren’t really hundreds of jobs in dance companies out there anymore. So how are you going to use this passion you have for dance, these skills you have? Some of the students we have coming into our course have 15 years of dance training, but they have a set of experiences and skills that are really adaptable to other areas. In my Creative Entrepreneurship unit, it’s a question of showing them how they can use these skills they’ve got, how it makes them different and what areas they need to improve on or build to match all this amazing creativity they have, as well as different ways of thinking.
Students have told me that it has actually been a really interesting journey for them, and they can see how things have changed over the time they’ve been with us and how they will need these other skills going forward now because since COVID the whole thing has changed, there aren’t those dance jobs out there. And so, it’s this question of rethinking what you can do – starting dance schools, thinking about how your creativity could be used in a startup, thinking how you could contribute to a team in ways that use those transferable skills that you’ve developed. How can you monetize the things you do well? There’s one Japanese student that developed a business plan for going back to Tokyo to start her own pole dancing studio. That’s her passion and through the Creative Entrepreneurship unit she has learned some things about the business side, learned how to do the website and she’s all ready to go. When people can see how they can flip those skills then that’s really great.
The new Performing Arts and Entertainment Industries major is playing into that. Students will be needing to know how to generate their own startups, or if they are working in another company, like say a marketing internship or something like that that, they can really absorb what’s around them with a view to thinking down the track, ‘OK, what are the things I need to learn about to start my own agency? What’s the area I’m going to target?’ So that’s an example of how the major has been changing over this last year or two.
Diversity in the classroom
Q Your student cohort is very diverse, both professionally and culturally. Could you explain how you accommodate that in your day-to-day teaching?
Some of the students who started with us four years ago were doing a totally different major to what they are now studying. A lot of them were dancers or people interested in theatre and very much those discipline-specific things. And now we have a cohort where we have people from music, journalism, screen production, podcasting, people that write media content rather than perform it. So, you’ve got this huge range. Also, there is diversity in our students where English might not be their first language, it might be their second language or even their third language.
One of the assessments in the Creative Entrepreneurship unit is a website task and that is really great because it works for a diverse range of students. When I ran the Creative Entrepreneurship undergrad unit last semester for example, if students were from a performance background they had videos they could put into the website, or they created a hypothetical website promoting a dance school or an events company or something like that. One student had taken a lot of film of street dance because that was his thing and so he set it out as a gallery and more of a video and photography-based business.
Another student was a trained baker, and she connected the idea of creative entrepreneurship and this idea of creative identity to the way she presented her website, Phoebe Bakes, basing it around her creative identity online. I talked about that in terms of performance, how you can sell a brand through yourself, with your own identity being a point of difference. So, all these different approaches suit different people in different ways – with the diversity of the student backgrounds, cultural, technical, what they’ve experienced, their language, there’s a whole range of things, including their social backgrounds, and their gender identity as well. I think a course like Creative Entrepreneurship is a great leveling of the playing field because they’re all bringing something different.
We are working towards empowering students to realise that they have a unique potential based on their own backgrounds. For example, one student who was a bit of a media personality in Singapore and compered singing competitions and was on radio and television there, has come over here and identified a gap in the market within the South Asian community here in Sydney in terms of events. She realised she’s someone who knows what sort of events they like and how to put on those events for the South Asian community. So she’s created a business around herself because she’s quite well known in Singapore basing it around her personality as someone leading that company but really targeting a particular market. It’s about looking at your own background, and saying, ‘there’s a lot of creative potential here, I just need to look at how I can harness that.’ That plays into this whole idea of diversity, because everyone then can value their own cultural background as a rich source of inspiration.
In terms of diversity, the idea of creative entrepreneurship is something that can cover a lot of ground because it’s about what can you make of what you know and the connections you have, and the networks or the potential networks you have, the markets that you understand that I might not, or someone else might not yet. It’s about not discounting your own experience.
Even in the first-year unit I push this approach because the first year Performing Arts and Entertainment Industry unit is an introductory unit and a big unit, and I basically zero in on ‘entertainment’. I now find that the traditional idea of performing arts, such as ballet and the so-called high arts, is really outside a lot of their experience for the cohort I’m now getting.
What is in their experience is the content they see on TikTok, the content they see online, and so I said, ‘TikTok is part of this unit, film is part of this unit, and these are areas you have expertise in and so you can draw on that for any of these assessments.’ So, we started talking about WWE (World Wresting Entertainment), online shows like Smackdown, and the way that is presented as theatre. And we talked about influencers on TikTok, and the way identity is performed on that platform. So suddenly they realise they can write about this; they do know about this. And they know how much everyone is earning and how it’s monetised and how the whole system works. That is also part of the Performing Arts and Entertainment Industries unit. So suddenly they realise that their experience is valued, and it is taken seriously.
For this first year unit we have a great guest teacher, Dr Karen Pearlman, and one of the first things she says to students is, ‘when you came to uni today, did you look at a screen? Well, that’s media, that’s media content, someone has to produce that, that’s creative content, screen-based creative content’. And they go, ‘Yeah I get it, that’s not very far away from my experience’, or, ‘It is my experience’.
So, that’s the approach we’re taking, to try and make it as relevant to them as possible.
Inspiring students to be co-collaborators in their learning
Q What issues or aspects of your teaching practice do you find yourself thinking about or reflecting on now?
The idea of inspiring students to become co-collaborators in their learning, so they can respond to the changing environments they will experience in their professional lives, I think is the key. It’s a bit like going back to that example of students coming out of the circus school being their own coaches. They’re going to go into environments where they’re just going to have to learn on the fly and be able to evaluate themselves, do a SWOT analysis of what’s missing, go somewhere to get that chunk of knowledge or experience that’s missing. Because it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be handed to them, and it’s not going to be someone saying, ‘hey, you need to do this, this and this’. They’re going to have to do a lot of that themselves.
I think if they can early on in their university time get this idea that they are collaborating with the lecturer, they are co-creating their learning and co-creating the course and that their feedback is so vital for the course to develop and continue. It’s like a feedback loop the whole time.
It’s a feedforward thing where they are constantly moving forward – they’ll make mistakes, do an analysis of that, work out what can be fixed or fixed for next time, constantly analysing and thinking about how things can be improved. ‘How did that go? What things don’t I know which I should know?’ All that self-evaluation, and the sort of way that you can empower students to think, ‘I’m in control of this, it’s not like I’m a pawn here’.
And it’s a great time with what’s available online now. They can run an entire business online, they can make their own website for next to nothing, get their own domain name, go onto an online site where they can sell their stuff. They can do it all from home. Never before has there been a time where they really have been empowered through technology to do anything they wanted to do, so that’s really exciting.
I learn about the technology alongside the students because there’s constantly better and more user-friendly stuff being developed. In my Creative Entrepreneurship unit, for the assessment task where they have to make a website, I was like, ‘OK, I need to know how to teach my students how to make an effective website with a really user-friendly but powerful system.’ I knew the basics of it because I author one for our department using Squiz, but that is not very user-friendly. You can use something like Wix or Canva and it is so easy – they’ve made it really user friendly.
Basically, the way you teach it is you say, ‘here are the basics, now … explore’, because something will pop up, it will tell you need to do this, this and this, and there will be a little training video. The technology is now so seamless and so user-friendly that no student has had a problem developing their own website for that assessment task. No student was challenged to the point where they were floundering and couldn’t do it. They were all able to do it. And I think, being able to visualize a business idea or a creative plan, like a plan for themselves for five years, in the form of a website with all the branding and the concise mission statements and things that you need on a website, was a really good process for them.
But they really had to work it out. What was important for them was to get it into their website and to see it there out in front of them. Some of them have published their websites and are launching businesses, which is really great.
Circus training at Macquarie
(We’ll let Jon explain)
I was running on the side, a little recreational circus training group that met twice a week on campus during semester time. It was something that I ran, just because it’s different to have something like that in a university and it brings people together in ways that other learning activities at uni don’t . We haven’t run it for 18 months because of COVID, but before that we’d been running it for about 2 1/2 years. It was for students and staff actually, just more of a social circus type approach.
Q What advice do you have for other teaching staff?
I think the thing I would say is really see your students, you know, really see them and let them know you’ve seen them. This idea of seeing students came out of a conversation I had with Karen Pearlman, and I think it has become a central theme in my teaching practice at Macquarie.
Even if you’ve got 100 or 200 students or more, there has to be a moment where they feel you have seen them and you know a little bit about them and how they tick and what they know and that you value that.
At some point, each student needs to have that moment where that happens because it’s incredibly important for that student because they hold a lot of trust in you, they place a lot of value on the convenor, the lecturer, the tutor. You can see the gears clink clinking into place when that happens, you can feel this moment where they go, ‘Wow, OK, Right, I get it’. Or, ‘oh, you mean something I know is really worthwhile?’, or something like that or just some connection where they get the sense that you’ve really seen them. It’s a bit of a challenge sometimes, but you have to really see them – not in that kind of hierarchical way, but just person to person, saying ‘you really have something here and I recognize that’.
Find out more about Jon’s research into social circus – for social intervention, developing confidence and the acceptance of differences
Social circus is the subject of Jon’s next book.
In this short (4 minute) audio, Jon talks about the teaching of circus skills as a form of social intervention.
Dr Jon Burtt
Senior Lecturer, Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Language and Literature,
Jon Burtt is an artist, teacher, and scholar working across dance, theatre, and circus studies in the performing arts and entertainment industries. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Language, and Literature (MCCALL) at Macquarie University in Sydney. In 2016 he was recognized with a Vice Chancellor’s Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning. He is a Higher Education Academy Fellow. Jon has recently been awarded an Australian Academy of Humanities grant for his work on the social circus research project.
Header image: Joanne Stephen, Macquarie University