The New England Center for Circus Arts makes Brattleboro, Vermont a circus mecca.
A moment after the woman at the reception desk hollers up to announce my arrival, Elsie Smith descends the office’s spiral staircase and welcomes me to the New England Center for Circus Arts. Handing over a few brochures, she highlights various events at their Circus Workshop Weekend, Aug.8-10. Classes offered include Intro to Partner Acrobatics 101, Somatics for Athletes, Flying Trapeze Intensive, Chinese Pole, and Aerial Fabric: Using Height. A performance called a Bootcamp Show will be staged at the Main Studio here at the Cotton Mill Studio in Brattleboro. A second show by visiting circus company FAQ Troupe can be seen in the gymnasium of the Austine School for the Deaf, located across town.
“Through a mix of circus, dance and theatre,” the FAQ Troupe brochure reads, “We Don’t Need Another Hero is a courageous journey of shedding away our alter egos to unveil our fragility and vulnerability as human beings.”
As I gather together the already-overwhelming information, Smith mentions that this month marks the 40th anniversary of Phillip Petite’s tightrope walk across New York City’s Twin Towers, and that local students are reading his book, which became the inspiration for the 2008 documentary Man On Wire.
“Patrick Tobin—who was actually a wire student of mine at Circus Smirkus when he was just 12 years old—is now in his last year at the National Circus School in Montreal, and on tour this summer with the FAQ Circus Collective,” explains Smith. “Because he was in town, we connected him with the kids from the Brattleboro Area Middle School, so they were able to come ask him questions, see him perform, and get up close to the apparatus.”
After I take off my shoes, Smith—who is already barefooted—brings me on a quick tour of the school’s space. In the main studio, next to the office, a few pre-teen girls are practicing. One of them is secured to a wire and jumps and spins in a somersaulting motion over and over again, checking in each time with a teacher who pulls at the wire to further levitate the student. Another girl holds herself in a split while standing on her head. In the corner, a younger student works with a hula hoop.
In a second, smaller room down the hall are several post-teen students. A few stretch together on a mat. Another dangles on an aerial fabric hanging from the ceiling. Two juggle, one passing the clubs to the other before lifting her up on his shoulders, all while she continues to twirl the clubs. At the far end of the room, a large window provides a nice view of the Connecticut River, slowly meandering southward towards Massachusetts.
Overall, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much going on. And the space—a few rooms in an old mill building down a small road from the high school and next to a lumber yard—seem underwhelming as well. But this is the circus, and things aren’t always what they seem.