In the first study of its kind, Gillian Arrighi is investigating the benefits of recreational circus training
Dr Gillian Arrighi's work space does not resemble the stereotypical office of an academic. There are theatre masks on the walls, juggling sticks on the desk and a large box in one corner overflows with a felt hat, a fox stole and myriad other items of costuming.
Arrighi is a lecturer and early career researcher in the School of Drama, Fine Art and Music - one of three Schools within the Faculty of Education and Arts.
She spent more than 20 years as a performer and performance collaborator in travelling theatre and working in the music industry before returning to university to study a Master of Creative Arts in 2002. Now she is carving out a new career in academia.
Although not a circus performer herself, Arrighi's interest in touring forms of popular entertainment prompted her to devote her PhD thesis to a study of the FitzGerald Brothers' Circus, the largest circus working in Australasia at the close of the 19th century.
In researching her PhD she recognised a gap in the historical narrative relating to the role of children in the entertainment industry during that period. Further primary research in that area fed into her latest line of research, which is about the phenomenon of youth circus in Australia over the past 40 years.
"There has been an explosion of community-based circus and circus skills groups since the 1970s - groups like The Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Cirkidz and Flipside," Arrighi explains.
"What I am investigating is the social significance of this; why they have proliferated and why parents are keen for their children to engage in this type of activity."
Anecdotal evidence emerging from Arrighi's work points to the inclusive nature of circus and its combination of physical and mental challenge as reasons for its popularity.
"Circus training is a hybrid; both sporty and creative. It produces imaginative and creative outcomes as much as it develops highly skilled physical proficiencies," she says.
"It is community-based and generally performed in an environment that is non-competitive and non-judgmental."
She has received testimonies from parents about the perceived therapeutic benefits of circus training within this environment: from boosting self-esteem to physical improvements in children suffering from autism, Attention Deficit Disorder, nervous conditions and executive function disorders.
Arrighi says there is a strong historical connection between the indigenous community and circus in Australia, while her research has also uncovered evidence of circus skills successfully being used in work with disadvantaged young people, including refugees and homeless youth.
Once this foundational study into the cultural history of youth circus in Australia has been completed, Arrighi hopes to pursue further research into the health and wellbeing advantages of circus training. There is great potential for an interdisciplinary study, possibly linking with physical education experts from the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition - a collaborative research enterprise supported by the Faculty of Education and Arts and the Faculty of Health.
"This is a subject that begs further investigation," she says.
"We have anecdotal evidence that circus helps build strong bodies and minds, enhances creativity and can benefit people who have been marginalised, but there has been no close study undertaken to validate these claims.
"What I think is really significant is the arts/health nexus and the larger question of what impact creative engagement has on everyday life."