Fleeky Flanco, hand balancer and contortionist.
Courtesy photo
Fleeky Flanco, hand balancer and contortionist.

NECCA’s Circus Spectacular returns to the Latchis

Annual performance raises funds to make the circus school’s classes, camps, and school programs affordable to area youth

BRATTLEBORO — You don't have to leave home to join the circus because it's right here.

The New England Center for Circus Arts 13th annual Circus Spectacular returns to the Latchis Theatre on Saturday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 5 at 1 p.m.

This annual flagship event offers world-class entertainment for the entire family, with high-flying aerialists, acrobats, and jugglers - all to raise money to make the nonprofit circus school's offerings available to those who otherwise could not afford it.

“The NECCA Circus Spectacular is one of our favorites,” said Jon Potter, executive director of the Latchis. “It's such an exciting event, and it's something that folks of all ages enjoy.”

Jan Damm, a circus performer and clown who lives in Brattleboro and tours the U.S. and internationally, will be the guest ringmaster this year.

When reached by phone, Damm called NECCA “a gem of an institution for both Southern Vermont and the U.S. circus scene at large. We are all so lucky to have this resource for arts and education right here in Brattleboro.”

At this year's Spectacular, “I'll be hosting the show in the guise of my iIllustrious German alter-ego, variety sensation 'Hans Leibedich from Dusseldorf, Deutschland,'” said Damm, who will also appear as a main character in the new Ringling arena tour starting this fall, a modernized, animal-act-free revival of the venerable Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which shut down five years ago.

Local talent will perform

Many local circus artists will take the stage at this year's Spectacular, including Elizabeth Wohl, who lives in Brattleboro and, when not flying through the air, works as a health care attorney.

“My specialty is combining opera and aerials,” she said. “I trained as an opera singer in college and wanted to combine my singing experience with circus.”

Separately, the skills are difficult enough. Doing both together? “They take different sets of muscles; sometimes they need the same muscles at the same time to do different things,” Wohl said.

She will perform “Je Veux Vivre,” from Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette at this year's Spectacular.

“When you are performing to a piece of music, the aerials have to compliment the music,” Wohl said. “The two questions are: Who is the character that you are embodying, and what is she trying to say? The music amplifies the story.”

She hopes the audience will enjoy “the magic of live performance” which she calls “the interactive alchemy.”

“For me, the goal of that exchange is always wonder, inspiration, and delight - and sometimes awe,” Wohl said. “I truly believe it's magic.”

Other local circus artists include Bellows Falls native and director for Circus Smirkus, Troy Wunderle, who will join the cast again this year for “a zany act.”

Wunderle spent six years as director of clowning for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and is the 2022 recipient of the American Circus Educators Association's Excellence in Circus Education award.

Hand balancer and contortionist Fleeky Flanco will share what he learned from Chinese acrobatic masters, and NECCA graduate and cruise ship entertainer Joel Herzfeld performs an LED Cyr wheel act.

The opening number, “Charivari,” is named for an old circus term for a high-energy opening act. This year it will be performed by a dozen students in NECCA's youth troupe, ages 7 to 18. These students are from Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

“They focus on team building, and working together helps young people learn about life skills, like how to communicate, how to be kind to each other. A lot of work on consent and permissions and challenging yourself to do something that is scary,” noted Producing Director and NECCA Co-founder Serenity Smith Forchion.

NECCA in the community

“We rely on funds raised by Circus Spectacular and the generosity of our donors to support and ensure equal access to circus arts,” NECCA Executive Director Jenna Struble said. “Ticket sales, support from local businesses, and donors help us provide student financial aid and free performances to the community, as well as discounts and free programming for youth with winter sports and programming for the Boys & Girls Club.”

Struble said that rising costs and increasing community make NECCA's financial aid offerings more urgent, “so that we can make good on our commitment to be inclusive of every body and ability as they utilize circus arts to realize their potential.”

“The proceeds from the Circus Spectacular enable us to bring circus to those who otherwise wouldn't have this opportunity,” Katie Schmidt, NECCA outreach director, added.

The funds are “an integral part” of NECCA's capacity to offer scholarships to youth and teen students in the school's weekly session classes, its summer camps, and its outreach to schools.

In those programs, children and teens can participate in “accessible circus activities such as aerial fabric and trapeze, juggling, acrobatics, and more,” she said.

Schmidt noted that the professional performers participating in the show are donating their talents. A number of businesses have also underwritten production of the event.

Last year, NECCA served nearly 3,000 students, awarded nearly $53,000 in financial aid to students of all ages across numerous programs, and performed seven free community shows valued at $36,000 in ticket sales, along with free tickets to groups in need, she noted.

When asked about the origin of the Spectacular, Forchion said that NECCA has become increasingly connected to the community.

“As the years progressed and NECCA has grown, many of the world class artists have moved to Brattleboro because they use NECCA as a training ground,” she said, estimating that 30 to 40 people international circus stars now call Brattleboro home.

According to Forchion, NECCA enrolls students from 18 months to 70 years old. (“We embrace mature students and we feel they have a lot to offer artistically,” she said.)

“The interaction between our local students and the visiting performers is really valuable,” she added, calling that connection “community building at its best.”

Forchion said she takes pleasure in “bringing inspiring and talented people to town, where they energize us all during a low time at the end of the winter.”

“Laughter is good medicine,” she observed.

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