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Maine: Training Ground for the Next Generation of Circus Performers?
01/27/2014   Reported By: Jennifer Rooks

Maine might soon be home to a new four-year college. And it would be unlike any other college in Maine - or in the U.S., for that matter. It's name? The Circus Conservatory of America. That's right - a college with a focus on circus arts. As Jennifer Rooks reports, organizers believe Portland is the perfect place to make their vision a reality, and they've already started.

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Circus - Thompson's point

Thompson's Point in Portland sits right beside the Amtrak station, and just a stone's throw from the Portland Jetport. Circus Conservatory of America president, Peter Neilsen, says access to transportation was big factor is choosing this site (above) for the college.

But there were other reasons as well. Portland is close to Montreal - the international hub of contemporary circus. And, Portland has a thriving creative economy.

"The final determining thing was when I started talking to people in the circus community about Portland," Neilsen says. "They said, 'Oh, I always wanted to live there!' And I knew that Portland was a place that could attract the circus world and could hold that kind of creative energy, and that it could be part of what was here in Portland."

Neilsen comes to Maine from Vermont, where he recently helped develop the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and where, at the same time, his son was becoming involved in the youth circus movement. Neilsen discovered that, although there are several bachelor of arts programs for circus in other countries, there are none in North America.

"I was seeing this incredibly rapidly rising youth movement across the United States in circus," Neilsen says. "And I was watching circus becoming this very hip thing, and watching the age group of my own son move towards college and realizing there was a huge need and demand for a circus college in the United States."

If you're wondering - circus? hip? - you should know: This is not the circus of your grandparents' or parents' generation. Not Ringling Brothers-style, but rather Cirque de Soliel. Acrobatics. Live music. Dance.

At the Merriconeag Waldorf school in Freeport, a handful of kids are taking part in a beginner's circus class. This is another part of Neilsen's vision, which is already underway. An affiliated group - Circus Atlantic - offers recreational circus arts classes for everyone. Circus Atlantic held a circus camp last summer, and began classes in Freeport, Yarmouth and Portland about six months ago. (photo" circus atlantic student plays diablo)

Here, kids are learning everything from basic tumbling to acrobatics on a lyra - a big circle suspended from the celing - to the diablo, a spinning object manipulated with a string.

Circus - Blythe and JanetteTen-year-old Blythe Thompson (left, with instructor
Janette Hough-Fertig) wanted to take the class after seeing Circus Smirkus perform. "I liked the aerials because they had this giant trapeze, and they had, like, four people on it and they were doing the same tricks," she says.

Instructor, and Circus Atlantic business manager, Blain Tully grew up in Wells, and has a background in artistic gymnastics.

"I just find it really impressive, all the skills that are here are really impressive. And I figure that, if I find it impressive, somebody else finds it impressive, too."

Instructor Janette Hough-Fertig - who moved to Maine from Philadelphia - has a background in dance and aerial dance. 

"It's the dynamic of the performance, the pop. When you're learning to do a trick, then you can share it with people. It's all this effort, that you're then you're sharing it with someone," Hough-Fertig says. "You're kind of communicating with them and letting them know how hard you worked. It's very different from theatre and dance in that way, and other things, because it's about the strength. And what people are watching is the beauty of your effort and everything you do."

Circus - Tools of the trade.A lot has to happen before the Circus Conservatory of America can open: fundraising, construction, gaining degree-granting authority from the state. Neilsen hopes to open the college in either 2015 or 2016, with 50 students in the first class. But he's looking even further into the future as well, and hoping the CCA becomes just the beginning of something much bigger.

"I see Portland becoming the creative soul of this circus entertainment business in the United States - a place where people can come and be a part of a beautiful natural setting and a really creative community, and diverse community, and be able to kind of make circus happen in a way that's really thoughtful, and then take that everywhere else in the country," Neilsen says. "So, with that happening, with people coming from all over the world to experience what we're going to build on Thompson's Point, I think that Portland will have a really serious role to play in what circus in America becomes."

Editor's Note: Tomorrow on Maine Calling, Peter Neilsen will join a discussion on the future of the circus and circus arts in Maine.

Photos:  Jennifer Rooks


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