New England’s Quietly Expanding Center for Professional Circus
In an odd sort of way it comes as no surprise to discover that entire state of Vermont is listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation registry of engendered sites. Tucked into every bucolic corner of the state’s villages and quaint towns are warrens of endangered artists and craftsmen, among whom one can find the artists, instructors and trainers of the New England Center for Circus Arts in the charming town of Brattleboro. The Center inhabits two floors of a former cotton mill which they share with potters, visual artists and sculptors who work in every conceivable medium. Thanks to their studios’ sixteen foot ceilings and the aerial expertise of the Center’s founders, the Smith twins, Elsie and Serenity, who work under the professional name of the Gemini, most of the students, both professional and recreational, train on the various forms of aerial arts. But there is also the opportunity to try almost every other circus art as well: unicycle, juggling, clowning, German wheel, wire walking, partner acrobatics, contortion, and hand balancing, almost all of which were on display in the Center’s graduation show for its professional track students earlier this month.
What makes the center unique, besides its rural location—Vermont is also home to Circus Smirkus; what other state
besides Florida can make such a claim to nurturing the circus arts?—is its intensive training program. This is a ten month program that all its students, beginners and those at an intermediate level, are obliged to take. Its emphasis is on increasing flexibility, strength and creativity. The Center is very much concerned about safety and injury prevention, Bill Forchion told me, when I visited in mid-May to attend the graduation show.
“On the professional level we don’t intend to force their style, but we are very safety conscious.” Students are usually anxious to start performing or working on an act right away. They tend to be young and impatient. But the intensive training program comes first. That program was once the feeder program for the professional training. “Now some of the people are already performing when they come to us, but we still try to give them safety and injury prevention training,” which is intended to extend their performance careers in an art that is prone to injury and has a limited life span under the best of circumstances. This concern is, in many ways, observable throughout the building. One of the rooms on the lower level is designated as a massage center where a massage therapist is on duty along with a somatic teacher. The Center’s dance instructor works from the same philosophy of understanding the core principles.
It is evident from talking with Forchion that the Center has been growing at a remarkable pace. “We are trying not to outgrow our space,” he says of the expanded enrollment. The Smith sisters began giving workshops at Nimble Arts back in 2002. The school was incorporated as The New England Center for Circus Arts, a not for profit organization, in 2005. They have been in their current space for five years. There are, however, plans and the land to plant them, for a new facility in downtown Brattleboro. “We want to grow and still maintain our core values,” Forchion adds.
That includes helping its students develop as complete creative individuals by cultivating the whole person, and establishing a sense of community, not only within the school itself but with the professional circus community at large.
With this in mind the Center is also developing a third program, a residency during which a visiting artist may spend an indeterminate amount of time depending on what they want to accomplish. Those who take advantage of this program would tend to be professionals who have already established a career.
Like almost every other circus school in the country, the Center also has a recreational program, expanding their community all the way to Boston and New York. They find the school through word of mouth and social networking.
The Center’s growth, remarkably, is dependent almost entirely on word of mouth. Apparently its mission to create a
school, facility and community where circus arts are available to the general public and to inspire students at all levels, ages, abilities and aspirations is being fulfilled in a way that people in the professional are eager to tell each other about it.
To achieve that its literature tells us, “We seek to offer outstanding professional circus performances, attract visiting guest artists and instructors from around the world, provide a higher level of training for professional track students who aspire to be professionals, and facilitate greater access to programs for area schools and youth organizations.”
Participants in the Professional Track presented their graduation show for two weekends in May. Titled From Out of the Ordinary, the individual acts were held together rather loosely by a mise en scene that took audiences on a visit to an airplane factory circa 1940s, although, as directed by Aimee Hancock, neither the era nor the factory atmosphere are maintained religiously throughout. It pops up every so often in brief mimed interludes depicting typical work scenes, as the cast of seventeen, dressed entirely in black, goes about the business of getting to work, punching the time clock, taking a lunch break, and working on the assembly line.
Unfortunately these are neither particularly supportive of what follows, insofar as providing context, Nor are they very interesting in and of themselves. Nor for that matter are they used to cover equipment changes. Basically they seem to exist for their own sake, and each of the individual performances are presented in appropriate costumes.
Each of the graduates prepared two different acts for presentation at the showcase, and in most cases one act is considerably stronger than the other. The problem for an audience not invested in the performers personally, and as with any graduation showcase, the individual numbers are restricted by the areas of specialization of the graduates. In this instance, given the expertise of the school’s founders, the show is heavily slanted toward aerial work. As a result, after a while the individual acts tend to look pretty much alike despite the variety of apparatus involved, so it is a challenge to stand out and distinguish oneself. Several of the young artists, despite that, give impressive performances.
One of the strongest performances, on both the cord’ lisse and the static trapeze, was turned in by Molly Graves in terms of both skill and novelty of presentation. I was especially impressed with her ascent on the cord’ lisse.
Thom Wall’s strong suit was his juggling of numerous small balls, which I found amusing and clever. His attitude on stage seems to be a throw away. This is charming for a while, but care must be taken that it doesn’t start looking like a cover up for any misses.
The most impressive work on the trapeze, for me, was turned in by Cole Della Zucca, and the most satisfying work,
insofar as both skill level and a finished act were concerned came from the dead-pan comic partner acrobatics of Lauren Breunig & Ryan Freeze. Freeze also does a turn on the slack wire, once again presented with an appealing comic edge, but the skill level needs to be higher for this to be a satisfying act. The nice thing about their work together is that they consistently maintain characters and never depart from the act’s mise en scene.
Two other performers who turned character and context into interesting performances were Gwynne Flanagan whose work on fabric to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” had a nicely realized sense of the vamp, and Elise “Teddy” Sipos whose acro-dance “Red Gloves” was a pleasantly comic spin-off of The Red Shoes. The one performer who moved the most effectively was Leah Benson, who not only looked great in each of her appearances but found an interesting way of presenting a strap act.
Surely the most exciting act of the entire two performances was that of Elliana Dunlap on the German wheel. Most of what she did was straight from the traditional repertoire of this skill set, so all her moves were gratifying large in contrast to so much that seem cramped and introspective from other performers.
Megan Gendell found a way of falling into and out of a night gown from the rectangle trapeze, and Amy Nash was a convincing Wonder Woman on the so-called “tippy” lyra. C. Rose Bonjo worked her contortion on the ground and on the trapeze.
I liked Jeremy Fein’s understated club juggling, but wished his work on the German wheel had incorporated more of that specialty’s spectacular moves. His manipulation of the wheel was almost entirely confined to floor work. T. Lawrence-Simon was the only one of the cast to attempt the twisting catch that is seen so often in trapeze acts these days, and he managed to pull it off. Daniel Stern worked his way through the standard repertoire of the aerial straps Alicia Dawn presented both contortion and aerial work on the double cloud swing, here referred to as the double hammock. Shannon McKenna also presented a display of contortion and then later another on the cord’ lisse.
While all the acts could be considered finished products, I am sure they will continue to grow and develop into unique, polished features.
In 2011 the school had over 1000 students come through its doors for group classes, private lessons, workshops, teacher trainings, Professional programs and outreach work for at risk youth.