BRATTLEBORO — Since 2007, the New England Center for Circus Arts has trained regional circus students and performers. But co-founders Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion haven't stopped there; they also offer free and discounted programming for at-risk youth, children with autism, adults with physical disabilities, and cancer survivors.
“At NECCA we embrace the physical and the emotional benefits of doing circus,” Smith Forchion explained. “[The] physical literacy alongside personal expression that comes hand in hand with circus arts invites more than just the learning of 'tricks.' Circus can be considered secondary to the deeper experience of building friendships, challenging one's expectations for self, experiencing community, feeling joy, being special.”
With their vision of facilitating social skills learning via circus arts, Smith and Smith Forchion developed “Circus in the Neighborhood” - a program to reach out to those challenged by limited resources - “to share with them opportunities,” Smith Forchion added, “for joy, inspiration, and physical fitness that can transform a life for years to come.”
On Saturday, March 4, and Sunday, March 5, the circus school is hosting a fundraising event starring guest circus artists from around the world to support and preserve such outreach programs.
Featured performers include Ariana Ferber-Carter and celebrity ringmaster Paul Binder, the founder of the Big Apple Circus and an honored member of the Circus Hall of Fame.
A protégé returns
Carter grew up in Northampton, Mass., trained at NECCA, performed for Circus Smirkus, and now performs as the main act on cruise-ship circus shows around the world.
“She's an incredible contortionist,” offered Smith Forchion, “and this will be her first show in Brattleboro since she graduated from our Professional Training program.”
About her time at NECCA, Carter said that “Elsie and Serenity taught me the basics of how to control my body. They had very high expectations ... they made sure that they were asking of me what would be challenging for me to do, and that really set the precedent throughout my life in circus that I'm really grateful for. They were really respectful of my potential. They've been wonderful mentors my whole life.”
Carter spoke passionately about the topic of body appreciation, a value that was impressed upon her by her mentors.
“They modeled [that] it's not what you look like, it's what you're doing with yourself, it's how strong you get,” she said. “I could see how confident they were in their bodies, how they treated their bodies, and what they could do with their bodies. Growing up with that as an example made a big difference later when we got into the professional world.
“Serenity and Elsie model really strong self-care and self-worth, and that matters. And I'm glad that they are teaching [the children], because they pay attention.”
A legend offers support
Binder, founder of the Big Apple Circus in 1977, was born and raised in Brooklyn and is a graduate of Dartmouth College.
“I was a history major,” said Binder, “primarily European cultural history and American history. But interestingly enough, both traditions could be incorporated into circus.”
Circus came later in his career. First came television. After college, he was the floor manager for Julia Child's The French Chef at WGBH in Boston, before returning to New York to attend Columbia Business School for his MBA. He pursued work in entertainment at Merv Griffin Productions - for several years he worked as the associate producer of Jeopardy, and later as Talent Coordinator for The Merv Griffin Show.
In 1970, Binder joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He performed as a comedy actor and trained in circus arts, becoming an expert juggler.
Binder and his colleague Michael Christensen left the Mime Troupe to work as street jugglers in Europe; they traveled from London all the way to Istanbul. Shortly thereafter, they began performing their comedy-juggling act at Paris' legendary music hall, Casino de Paris, and on a popular French television series.
Binder was invited to tour with the renowned Nouveau Cirque de Paris - an offer that he described as “irresistible and inspirational.” He returned to New York after the tour, with a dream to create an American circus that similarly embodied the theatrical core and artistic intimacy that he had experienced in Europe. That was the genesis of the Big Apple Circus, a not-for-profit theatrical organization.
“My life has been a great adventure,” Binder said, adding that he is grateful to all those with whom he has worked along the way.
“I'm going to be there,” Binder said about NECCA's event, “because it's exciting. I think that the [outreach] programming NECCA is doing [is] vital and important for the future of circus.”
Also on the Circus Spectacular bill are Mario Diamond, a mime from Quebec who will be performing two new acts for the show, and Ariele Ebacher and Jon Damm, who began performing as children in New England and have toured nationally and internationally as professional circus artists.