Flying high in low times
Elsie Smith, right, co-founder of NECCA with her twin sister, Serenity Smith Forchion, are bullish on the future of circus arts.

Flying high in low times

With recent losses to the arts, circus keeps its vitality

BRATTLEBORO — On Jan. 14, Feld Entertainment Inc., the corporate enterprise that owns Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, announced that “The Greatest Show on Earth” will give its last performance in May 2017.

Not long afterward, it was reported that the Trump administration wants to eliminate - entirely - the National Endowment for the Arts.

Brattleboro, home of the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), is a regional hub for circus arts. NECCA serves over 2,000 individuals annually including students enrolled in classes like trapeze, acrobatics, clown, and German wheel, as well as those who take part in programs like Workshop Weekends and Vacation Camps.

Small businesses, such as Windham Movement Apparel, are geared specifically towards “movement arts” customers, many of whom are circus students. NECCA has led instructors and students to find housing in the region, and students arrive from across the nation and around the world.

Circus arts plays a substantial role in supporting Brattleboro's financial health, but beneath the public discussion about these changes the end of the Ringling Brothers circus and the possible defunding of the NEA is a concern for the fate of the arts, with the circus among them.

Are attitudes towards circus changing, why, and what does this mean for the circus arts community?

No fear of the future

“I think the future of circus arts hasn't changed at all with the demise of Ringling Brothers, ” said Serenity Smith Forchion.

Forchion and her twin sister, Elsie Smith, co-founded NECCA in 2007. It has been hosting regional circus trainees, performers, and laypersons for 10 years.

“This is not an ending,” Forchion added. “The snake has been shedding its skin of the big spectacular circus shows for a while for economic and many other reasons, and this is just that last bit of skin being shed.”

Troy Wunderle, founder of Wunderle's Big Top Adventures in Chester and current artistic director of Vermont-based Circus Smirkus, has also worked for Ringling Brothers, serving as its director of clowning.

“The discussion has always been 'what does the audience need?' And one thing that became obvious to all of us is that we're not a very patient audience,” he said. “We want to be dazzled by something, and quickly dazzled by something else, and we also don't want to be overwhelmed.”

He said Ringling Brothers' circus struggled to keep up with those audience expectations.

NECCA has integrated the changes of audience expectations and demands within the art in order to shape its curriculum. Smith discussed the evolutions of these changes from the late 20th century and into today.

Circus - the art - also served as a science.

“When my sister and I first got into it, circus was just transitioning from the heyday of the 1930s to the 1960s. [Companies like] Ringling [were] the pinnacle of moving lots of people around the country in short periods of time. The U.S. Army studied how Ringling moved people to [similarly transport people] in World War I and World War II.”

However, towards the end of the 1960s and through the beginning of the 1980s, a movement to bring circus into fitness developed.

“Circus was brought into Club Med as 'risk recreation,'” said Smith.

The most modern change within the art, she said, was the development of 'social circus' - use to help empower people, “[such as] homeless kids, kids [with autism], and at-risk demographics.”

Gravity as a unifying force

Wunderle said he believed productions like Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Mechanics, and Seven Fingers - what some call “New Age circus” - has been the driver of changes to the circus industry

“[It] is much more theatrical - there are story lines that are told … and those programs are doing really well… [They are] very hip and modern, and I think my kids' generation will grow up knowing that to be circus, not so much the big extravaganzas of my childhood.

NECCA has integrated risk recreation and social circus into their program, making circus more accessible to the public. The Center is currently awaiting approval of a grant through the NEA to bring in new companies of American performers, supporting the health of circus arts.

“[Circus arts] really is a big contributor [to our regional economy],” said Wunderle, “between what I'm doing at Wunderle's Big Top Adventures, NECCA, the Van Lodostov Family Circus Camp, and Circus Smirkus. Circus in America might be faltering a little bit, but youth circus is thriving.”

“The future of American circus is a lot of different things,” Smith said. “In other countries, circus [has been recognized] as an art form for a long time, but it is very new in America.”

The future of the arts under a Trump administration remains to be seen, but it will face financial distress should the NEA dissolve.

“It's devastating on all forms of arts,” Wunderle said about the news. “The arts is what allows a large chunk of our population to feel valued and to be passionate about not only their talents but what they can offer the world.”

Wunderle continued to explain that there are now more opportunities for youth to enter the circus world.

“Many of these [regional circus arts] organizations are creating an interest in circus arts as a hobby. [At Circus Smirkus] we are looking for talented youth from ages 10-18 from all over the world … So I think kids are actually getting more exposure to circus than [in previous generations.]”

Though funding will be obstacle, he believes youth will carry the history of circus into the future.

Circus arts has welcomed a diversity of participants - those who are wheelchair-bound, those who face mental, social, or economic impingements, and those who don't. But Smith and Smith-Forchion see something that connects everyone.

“[E]very single human body experiences gravity,” said Elsie. “and the performance of a circus acrobat is a process of defying, toying, and playing with gravity.”

Serenity added: “[Gravity] is the unifying factor … [It] allows us to have more poetry in what we do, because it is more imminent.”

Students and members of the community will be able to experience gravity in NECCA's new building, opening July 2017, just another example of how circus arts in the Windham County is suspended in a thriving space with new developments still unfurling.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates