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Instructor Ukoiya Mastin, left, teaches Joyce Marcel the fine points of fabric climbing.

The Arts

Town comes to circus

A day learning the ropes — in some cases, literally — with the New England Center for Circus Arts

BRATTLEBORO—There’s more to the circus than razzle and dazzle. There’s also psychology.

I learned this when the staff of Brattleboro’s own New England Center for the Circus Arts (NECCA) opened its studio and its abundance of serious toys for the general public to sample on Jan. 7, turning their gym in the process into a happy, noisy 12-ring circus.

After signing waivers of indemnity, we were all allowed to line up and, one by one, play with the toys.

For the first hour, it was all kids, and for the second hour, it was mostly adults (with a few kids sneaking back in), and we all had a chance to test ourselves in a variety of scary ways: by swinging upside down on blue silk, by levitating ourselves to a trapeze, by learning how to balance while rocking on a German wheel, by walking on a tightrope or just swinging a hula hoop with our hips.

Overseeing the fun were identical twins Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, Brattleboro residents, aerialists, and former top headliners with such high-flying entertainment venues as Cirque du Soleil. They created NECCA in 2003.

The twins were wearing dark stretchy pants and tops over colored undershirts (Elsie in orange and Serenity in turquoise, which was how I could tell them apart), but they might as well have been dressed as ringmasters in red tailcoats and top hats, the way they managed the creative chaos of their Cotton Mill studio.

A matter of trust

To approach the various disciplines takes trust, confidence, and a willingness to face down your fears.

“We train to everyone’s individual pace,” Forchion said. “Some people don’t ever go upside down.”

One girl, I noticed, was wearing a t-shirt that said, “If it doesn’t need a waiver, it’s not worth doing.”

The kids were mostly apprehensive at first, and then fearless once they started. They were so supple that they might have been made out of rubber. It was impossible to count how many there were, since they seemed to be all over the place at once, but I think there might have been more than 30.

The teachers were kind, encouraging, and generous.

As I watched, one gently lifted a young boy to the trapeze, arranged his legs over the bar, bent him backwards, and safely held him with one hand over his feet and the other behind his back as he swung in delight and his parents cheered.

A mother stood with her mouth open in surprise as her daughter, dressed in pink tights, gracefully, thoughtfully, and calmly lifted herself onto the trapeze and stood on the bar.

One by one, the children lined up to walk the tightrope, one hand held by the teacher for balance, as their parents and grandparents took photographs and videos.

The littlest children were tucked into the blue silk that hung from the ceiling and turned and turned until they became little fabric balls.

Then it was the adults’ turn.

Anne Goodale, with her long, white hair in a braid, said she had made the circus her New Year’s resolution. Then she resolutely tried all the disciplines before deciding to take a Spring course.

I tried the silks with the extremely patient aerialist Ukoiya Mastin as instructor. When I put my arms into the sling and yelped, she laughed and said, “They don’t tell you that it hurts.”

She helped me lean back into the support of the fabric and open my arms, giving me a wonderful upper body stretch. She said sometimes circus performers practice aerial yoga that way.

Then, by bracing my foot on her thigh, she managed to tip me over for a scary second.

I wasn’t comfortable losing control like that, but the elegantly dressed Judith Serkin of Guilford managed to swing upside down from the trapeze with ease and grace.

“This is the kind of thing I used to do 50 years ago,” she said. “But I stand on my head every day, so I’m used to being upside down.”

John Edwards of Northfield, Mass., managed to not only hoist himself up but also do tricks on the trapeze that required serious upper-body strength.

Impressed, I asked him how much he works out. He said he exercises a lot, but the circus was new to him.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, but now my young daughter is giving me an excuse,” he said, heading for the tightrope.

I next tried the German wheel. It’s a large, steel circle that comes in various sizes and requires not only strength, but also a new kind of balance.

Before students are allowed to roll it over and over (with them inside, their feet locked to the wheel), they are required to have the strength and ability to do cartwheels. So none of us amateurs were going to roll.

With Smith holding the wheel and my back, I learned to balance myself uncertainly and rock the wheel back and forth with my hips. I felt proud to have accomplished that much.

Mind games

I asked the twins about the psychology of circus.

“You have to maintain control, but still push yourself,” Smith said. “As teachers, we try to figure out why each student is in the class. Is it ego? Are they there to show off? Are they there to prove they can do something that someone said they couldn’t do? We’re psychologists as well as circus people.”

Smith said that when she went to high school, she was a bookworm. New ways of moving your body weren’t taught.

“They’d say, ‘If you haven’t done it before, then don’t try it,’” she said. “They didn’t have the means to teach.”

Luckily for her, it was the eighties, the beginning of “risk recreation,” which included things like Outward Bound.

“Then gymnastics came along,” she said. “And then circus. And not only was I able to do it, it made me feel special.”

“Then Cirque du Soliel came into being, and that gave us permission to see circus as an art form,” she said. “Between risk recreation and art, those two, I took to it right away. I left college and joined a group teaching self-esteem and the trapeze. I ended up being a world-class performer.”

The twins train professional performers, as well as people in the community who are eager to learn. They are proud of their school’s duality.

“There are a lot of professional circus schools,” Smith said. “But I only know of one or two like ours, which train professionals as well as the kid who just discovered he can do something for the first time.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #135 (Wednesday, January 18, 2012).

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