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.
Since its founding in 2007 by Smith and her twin sister Serenity Smith Forchion, the New England Center for Circus Arts has developed performers and teachers of circus skills. Their former students have gone on to work at SHOW Circus School in Easthampton (see “The Stay-At-Home Circus,” Valley Advocate, June 25, 2009), Esh Circus Arts, just outside of Boston in Somerville, and Circus Smirkus, which is based in Greensboro, Vermont but performs throughout the Northeast—including a stop earlier this summer at Northampton’s Three County Fairgrounds.
Standing in the hallway outside their main studio, Smith points to a photo of a former student—one of several displayed on the wall—noting that she performed in Circus Smirkus this summer. Smith mentions another former student named Jade Kinder-Martin, who “grew up on Circus Smirkus,” and is now in Montreal, working as a stunt double for Gordon Levitt, who will play Phillip Petite in an upcoming Robert Zemekis film.
“Brattleboro is something of a circus mecca,” Smith tells me, noting its location along the Route 91 corridor from New York to Montreal.
“But being an arts organization in the U.S. can be hard,” continues Smith, “because the Canadian government and the province of Quebec fund the arts so well.”
Here in the States, circus walks a precarious line between performance art and easily dismissed sideshow.
“Circus in America has been considered entertainment and spectacle, but not art,” Smith says. “It is one of the oldest forms of entertainment, and one of the newest forms of art.”
Elsie Smith and her sister Serenity grew up in Huntington. Both attended UMass, though neither graduated.
“I did one year at UMass as an honors major, with an interest in architecture,” Smith tells me. “My sister did a year and a half, with a focus on theater.”
The summer after their freshman year, they both worked in Hancock, New York, for the French Woods Festival of Performing Arts. With that, they were hooked.
“My sister did one more semester before working for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus,” Smith continues. “While I toured with Circus of the Kids.”
Serenity went on to co-found the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, and Elsie taught there as well. They also became accomplished trapeze artists. One day a friend of a friend who was visiting the Bay Area on behalf of Cirque du Soleil saw a photo of their trapeze act and invited them to join Cirque.
“I wouldn’t say that everyone in circus knows everyone else,” Smith tells me. “It’s more like two degrees of separation.”
In 2003, the Smith sisters moved back to the Valley, starting their own performing troupe and circus school called Nimble Arts, which specialized in acrobatics, aerial arts, and choreography. Nimble went on to become the New England Center for Circus Arts, a non-profit organization which was incorporated in 2007. By 2012, NECCA was instructing over 2,000 students.
Smith and Smith-Forchion are still involved with circus worldwide. When I first contacted NECCA about visiting, Serenity was teaching in England and Ireland, and Elsie was preparing to leave for Canada. When I finally met Elsie several weeks later, Serenity was in Europe once more.
“There’s a lot more circus in Europe and Quebec,” Duncan Wall—the national director of Circus Now, a non-profit circus support and advocacy organization founded in March of 2013—tells me over the phone, “like the arts in general.”
Wall divides his time between New York City, where Circus Now is based, and Montreal, where he teaches courses in circus history and aesthetics for Canada’s National Circus School. He is also a former student of France’s National School for Circus Arts, an experience that he described in his book The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present.
“Beginning in 1981,” Wall writes, “the French state… began subsidizing circus companies the way it subsidized theater and dance companies. It initiated infrastructural support for the industry in the form of professional networks and a series of ‘circus poles’ around the country, venues specializing in circus shows.”
The French, Wall notes, allocate 9 million euros to the circus each year. “The money is earmarked for a variety of functions,” continues Wall, “troupes, festivals, and other special events—but the largest chunk, roughly 40 percent, goes to support the National School, the crown jewel of their circus educational system and one of the most prestigious circus training grounds in the world.”
National Schools like those of France and Canada are the internationally renowned centers by which American circus schools like NECCA are measured.?
“The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] just released a study that the circus economy is bigger than dance,” Wall tells me. But despite generating this financial interest, circus is still “poorly funded compared to theater and dance,” he adds, and is often not even a category on grant form applications.
Which poses a constant challenge for American circus schools like NECCA.
“Canada and the European Union have a much different policy for funding the arts,” says Smith. “More money, more support.”
“Health insurance is also a huge obstacle,” Smith continues. “In the U.S. it is linked to a full time job, whereas in other parts of the world it’s linked to residency status. It’s really hard to take time to create new works when it means you can’t be fully employed and are also paying $800 a month for health insurance.”
Still, for those drawn to circus—even Stateside—its charms can be hard to ignore.
Like the Smith sisters, Wall came to the circus somewhat by accident. “Growing up, I had no connection to the circus,” Wall writes in The Ordinary Acrobat. “My ancestors weren’t acrobats or wire-walkers; I’m aware of no Gypsy blood.”
But what began as a year-long experiment as an American circus student in France has become a full-blown lifestyle-altering, career-defining obsession.
Through his work at Circus Now, Wall says he hopes circus will one day be as accepted as hip-hop, yoga, skateboarding, or surfing. Circus, he adds, provides a particular relationship with the world, of “feeling creative and being physical.”
Reflecting on my visit to NECCA while talking with Wall, the familiar phrase “running away to the circus” suddently seems rendered in a new light: not necessarily leaving conventional society, but joining a community dedicated to experiencing one’s existence and comprehending our world in a certain way.
I realize an increasing urge to juggle.
“Be careful,” Wall warns me, noticing my growing enthusiasm. “That’s just how I started.”
Earlier this year, the New England Center for Circus Arts purchased a three-acre plot a mile and a half north of downtown Brattleboro. Smith and Smith-Forchion intend to transform the open field into the future site of their school, which will include a world class performance center as well. Regular trapeze classes have been held at the field since the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in June.
“We’re like a teenager who wants to get a PhD,” Smith says of how quickly their school has progressed, and how much more they would like to be able to accomplish with it.
Standing in the hallway of the old mill building, Smith tells me of their plans while we look at the framed architectural drawings of the proposed site displayed on the wall. Their plan seems ambitious, but Elsie Smith and her sister have already created unique careers for themselves by thinking outside of the box, and following the muse of the circus.
“What’s your timeline?” I ask.
“2.5 million dollars,” she quips. “If we had the money, we could break ground tomorrow.”
Smith smiles gently, but her eyes seem to betray a stark seriousness.
Never bet against a trapeze artist.
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)