Feature Article Vol. IX, No. 2

An American Youth Circus Finds a Welcoming Community
“Down Under”

By Betty Butler

As soon we stepped off the plane in Brisbane, we could smell the smoke from the fires. Not the most promising start to a once-in-a-lifetime journey for our little band from St. Paul, Minnesota’s Circus Juventas, but in the end, this ominous welcome was a rare occurrence during our stay in Australia as we travelled to compete in the 4th bi-annual Australian Circus Festival. Though the country was on the verge of a devastating ecological disaster, my husband, Circus Juventas co-founder Dan Butler, our daughter Rachel, CJ’s Associate Artistic Director, and our troupe of six young adult performers discovered an atmosphere of inclusivity and a welcoming community at the big tops in “The Land Down Under”.

Upon arrival at the festival, we were immediately struck by the array of the four spectacular red and yellow tents (courtesy of the Lennon’s Hudson Circus) in a lovely open field setting bordered by trees at Mitchelton football field, in a Brisbane suburb. The impressive performance space (almost) made up for temperatures soaring to over ninety degrees Fahrenheit. Once inside, the atmosphere appeared calm and professional, (perhaps before the zealous bustle of the festival beginnings). The next day of rehearsals we met with the festival’s Artistic Director Patrick Rosseel and Ring mistress Carrie Harvey, both fostering the creative process efficiently and collaboratively. Our Juventas team was all highly impressed with the professionalism and creativity of Rosseel — and it was inspirational to observe his work with all the various circus teams and acts. It was clear that Carrie Harvey approached each act with dedication and passion to understand the motivation and presentation style in order to give the audience a keen perspective of the myriad of artists (300 in total) involved during the festival run.

One of the challenges we face as a youth organization travelling to festivals is adjusting our acts originally created for a contemporary, narrative youth circus show to fit into a stand-alone atmosphere of a festival or competition. All of the acts we brought were excerpted or inspired by characters from our August 2019 fairy tale mashup production, Twisted. Trying to pull these small moments out of a larger, narrative production and have them make sense to a festival audience is a very daunting task, and we’re never sure how these scenes, which have strong characters and storylines will work on their own. Thus, it was the cooperative work with Patrick and Carrie which really helped our team get our concept across to the festival audience. And apparently the adaptations were successful, as all of our acts were awarded in the professional competition category. But more on that later.

After an intense first day of rehearsals with lead coach Rachel Butler and her teams experiencing some to-be-expected stress adapting to the state-of-the-art power winch with the timing of the precarious acrobatic and aerial strap act dynamic — we were able to relax backstage, outside the tent flaps, and enjoyed the camaraderie of the festival fellow artists. Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of these festivals is connecting to young people from around the world, beginning friendships, and being able to cheer them on during the show– maybe more unusual in the bigger European festivals– but with the more communal quality of this festival, supportiveness outweighed competitiveness. On the day of Show A, our young team’s nerves were predictably high, the heat was intense, fine-tuning their act’s format to a ‘circus ring’, and with the lighting design needing finalization with Rosseel, there didn’t seem adequate time to be ready — but by the end of the evening, performers Brauc Eckman, Anwar Hassouni, Kate Schullo, and Ranulph Brown would win gold in the professional category in Show A for their theatrically infused Duo Straps/Hand to Hand act, as well as  winning the Junior Jury Award. Ranulph Brown and Juliette Kline would be awarded silver for their Sleeping Beauty-inspired Pas de Deux. In the professional category of Show B, later in the week, Stormy Hovan garnered silver for his Corde Lisse act based on the character of Baba Yaga. Hovan was also presented an award for “Innovation” from Cirque du Soliel Casting Director Stacy Clarke. The gold was exceptionally rewarding for the Acro-Straps team, as Brauc had experienced a devastating injury during the run of the Twisted show in St Paul in August, during the Teeterboard act, breaking his ankle. There was a question if he would even be able to participate in the act in any capacity initially. In rehab for 12 weeks, and not able to get back into training until mid-October, the team faced an uphill battle to prepare in the last remaining 30 days, modifying some moves to be ready for our departure late November. Through an immense amount of collaborative coaching and teamwork they succeeded in preparing their act by competition deadlines. And when it was all said and done, our young Juventas performers took home much more than their amazing hardware and accolades, they overcame injury and obstacles, travelled 17,000 Kilometers to a land unknown to present their circus acts for the first time and made enduring relationships.

For founder Jasmine Straga, this inclusivity is at the heart of Australian Circus Festival. The festival’s stated goals include: uniting different circus genres (social, community, contemporary, and classical), providing performance opportunities for artists, especially young students, creating an event where circus students, teachers, and fans would be able to come together and celebrate their art-form, and placing artists in front of industry professionals in order to gain contracts. Lofty goals indeed, and our performers discovered that the festival’s commitment to these ideals made for an amazing experience. According to Stormy Hovan, who performed a powerful rope act, the backstage community was welcoming. “Everybody wanted to meet each other, and people went out of their way to make connections on a business level and a personal level.” All the CJ students expressed a good vibe of bonding with the festival artists; sharing our table for makeup backstage.  The fellowship produced lots of cheers and congratulations at the award ceremony. He was also impressed with the genre inclusion, remarking there was “a lot of diversity in the circus styles.” But the highlight for Stormy was being recognized and connecting with Cirque du Soleil’s Stacy Clark who took time to share ideas with the festival participants not only in workshops throughout the festival days, but one on-one sessions with Stormy to discuss his ultimate dreams of becoming a professional circus artist.

The event was not without a few snags.  A power outage led to some challenges for one of our acts during a performance. However, we were extremely impressed with the rigorous solution-oriented riggers lead by indefatigable stamina and energy of Carlo Urban.  They did an astounding job of handling the inevitable for a newer festival. While you always hope for a flawless routine, these technical and logistical issues were a big part of the experience we were hoping to expose our young artists to. CJ students spend most of their training under our big top in St. Paul where they have the luxury of permanent, familiar rigging and rigging teams, months of rehearsal, and possibly most important, air conditioning!  So, the realities of performing a live show in a touring tent was an eye-opening experience for our students.  They rose to the occasion and demonstrated an amazing level of professionalism.

I also had the added honor of serving on the jury for Professional Show B, where I got the opportunity to see some truly wonderful performances. I’m a big fan of the “Gaucho” acts and loved the presentation of USA’s Girl Power Gaucho act with its booming vitality literally shaking the big top with its percussive dynamic. We were charmed by the Duo Perch performance of Maddy & Liam, who also collected a silver.  We were impressed by the technical precision of the Aerial Strap act of Stan Ricketson, which won gold in Show A.  Jasmine’s own student Jess Peters, performed a striking tango-esque contortion act. (All three were Aussie home-grown acts ), and we all shared in communal awe of Wen Zhao’s Hand balancing performance from the Fujian Troupe of China, which was also awarded Gold in Show A. A highlight for me was presenting a special award to Australian competitors Paralympic champion Paul Nunnari and Melise Avion.  Their courageous display on the silks featured Paul executing a neck spin in his wheel chair from a loop high above the big top. The ovation and positive vibes from the crowd were heartfelt and unifying.

It was impressive to see how wonderfully and actively the festival was supported by generations of established Aussie circus families. Jasmine made a great effort to honor the legacy and rich history of Australia’s generational circus families. The festival granted individuals/legacy families of Australia with  Lifetime Achievement Awards as part of the award ceremony. Notable Lifetime Achievement Award recipients included:  Doug & Sally Ashton, Gary Grant & Lorraine Ashton Grant, John LeMare, as co- founder of Federation Mondale du Cirque MC, was awarded a special prize from the Australian Circus Federation, by Pepe Ashton and Zsuzsanna from the FMC.

Overall, Dan and I found this young festival to be well-organized and executed considering the bareboned staffing it had made do with for the past two years. Jasmine exerted an extraordinary effort to fund, as well as manpower this festival to success. With the assistance (and offerings of tents, rigging, sets, lights, etc.) of 5th generation circus performer Shane Lennon, as well as many of the Ashton family members, including Bekki, Tanya, and Jesse, and a multitude of volunteers wearing many hats and working tirelessly for the two weeks prior — they pulled off quite a feat for the 4th Australian festival. However, it’s clear that funding and sponsorship would be critical for festivals such as these to survive/thrive for international awareness, growth and ultimately lasting success.

After the festival ended, we had the opportunity to take some outings and explore the country a bit, which only added to the once-in-a-lifetime feel for our students. We had a wonderful afternoon visit with the Flipside Circus right in Brisbane center. We were invited to Maroochydore by Joseph and Michelle Ashton to attend their hilarious and innovative cabaret performance, Infamous, which was a delight for our troupe. We also had the chance to visit the Australia Zoo and hung out with the Kangaroos and Koalas; which would have been more than enough sight-seeing for us, but there was one more experience in store. The Ashton’s again stepped in with what we now know to be characteristic Australian hospitality and invited our entire troupe on a two-day boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef. The experience was beyond words, and we couldn’t be more grateful to our hosts for the opportunity.

Overall, the Australian Circus Festival was a fantastic experience extending good old-fashion circus hospitality to our students and our organization. Just as the founder intended, our performers made connections and gained invaluable performance experience. This was an exciting, inclusive opportunity for Circus Juventas, and we hope to return in two years’ time for the 5th bi-annual festival.