The Circus School’s Next Act

Update: in early July NECCA founders, sisters Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion were removed from their positions, as reported by The Brattleboro Reformer. Students and coaches are protesting the board’s decision. 

Imagine a trapeze, a single bar suspended high above a net, free to swing between two platforms. Two women stand on these platforms, one holding the bar in her palms. One launches, lets go and then flips once, twice, three times in open space. She seems to hover for a small eternity before her partner cleanly catches her and the two swing as one.

It’s only after they return to the platforms and the bar lingers empty in the air that you realize you have been holding your breath.

When audiences watch the dazzling performances of Cirque de Soleil, the Ringling Brothers or even Vermont’s Circus Smirkus, this is the precise and effortless image that they’re presented. But as the performers soaring through the air, tumbling across the mats or juggling eight clubs in dizzying arcs will tell you, there’s a world of hard work that goes into this demonstration of grace, strength and skill.

On the trapeze. Photo by Jeff Lewis
On the trapeze. Photo by Jeff Lewis

Performers have to start somewhere and when it comes to the high- flying circus, they come to Brattleboro to hone their craft.

In an otherwise unremarkable red brick building not far from downtown, crisp fall sunlight streams through the wide third-floor windows while 11 students take turns owing across the mats in tumbling arcs, elegant blurs of limbs and torsos.

Afterward, they lie on thick mats with their ankles hovering above the floor and work through what appears to be some of the toughest core circuit training imaginable. Rock band Green Day provides the soundtrack.

Welcome to the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), a figurative and literal launching point for hundreds of students from Vermont and beyond interested in exploring the ancient and delightful arts of the circus.

Founders and twin sisters Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, ages 45, run the circus school from an adjacent studio that’s been converted into an office space. In 2003, after careers as aerialists took them from Portland, Ore., to Tokyo, New York City and beyond, the twins moved north from western Massachusetts, where they had started their own circus company, Nimble Arts.

In 2007, they founded the New England Center for Circus Arts as a broader circus training institution, providing recreational and professional circus training.

While continuing to perform and coach, they maintain connections with some of the largest companies in the U.S. and around the world, including the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, New Pickle Circus and Cirque du Soleil.

“There’s a part of me that thrives o of the traveling and performing in a new city and a new place,” says Elsie. “But it’s also great to come back to a place where I can have pig poop on my boots and still go to the local coffee shop.”

Today, the Center occupies space at the Cotton Mill industrial building and the former Austine School in Brattleboro provides the outdoor space for a trapeze. But just three miles north, huge bucket loaders and dump trucks kick up dust as they shuttle around earth, constructing what is to be NECCA’s future home.

When it’s done next summer, the building will feature a 5,800-square- foot trapezium with a 40-foot ceiling, classrooms, library and a workshop. Serenity describes the new space as “a destination for visitors as well as a school.”

“Like Tanglewood [the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, Mass.] or Jacob’s Pillow [a dance center and school in Becket, Mass] we want this to be a space that students and guests can appreciate,” she says.

Combining strength, flexibility and teamwork, Elsie and Serenity make the trapeze look easy. Photo by Jeff Lewis
Combining strength, flexibility and teamwork, Elsie and Serenity make the trapeze look easy. Photo by Jeff Lewis

The move is needed as, despite using space from the Cotton Mill and the Austine school, the only place students can practice the trapeze is outdoors before the weather grows too cold. After breaking ground in early October, NECCA launched a $2.5 million campaign to make it a reality. The first phase of construction is scheduled to be finished by June 2017.

The new building will let NECCA take on more students. “We can teach circus skills to everyone in Vermont and you might discover it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done and that it’s a home for you,” Serenity says. “Our task is to tell everyone they can do circus.”

NECCA’s students come in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds. The Center works with local homeless youth as well as teens and young adults with the Brattleboro Retreat; students who might otherwise never have a chance to swing from a trapeze or learn to juggle. It also offers 60 classes a week and the oldest student is 87.

As a reward to his students for scoring highly on their standardized tests, the principal of a local elementary school signed up for a trapeze class despite his fear of heights. Five years later, he’s coming back for another class. World-champion hand cyclist Alicia Dana from Putney (who claimed silver at the recent Paralympic Games in Rio), worked out at the center, using cross-training and inverted exercises to improve her riding posture.

In a sports culture where athletes are funneled by peers or coaches into specific sports based on their body types or they self-select the sport they think makes sense for them, the circus takes a different approach, say the twins.

“We live in our bodies, and I think everybody is an athlete,” Serenity says. “We lose that as we get older unless it’s fostered. We can discover what works for you. The question is: How can we adapt what we do to your body or do we adapt your body to what you want to do?”

For students who intend to make the circus arts their livelihood, the Center’s professional-level program accepts auditions by video. Applications come in from around the world, including Australia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Belgium, England and more.

Students at NECCA practice on both recreational and professional levels.
Students at NECCA practice on both recreational and professional levels. Photo by Evan Johnson

“If you can name a place, people are traveling from there and calling Brattleboro their home,” Elsie says.

In one of the most memorable audition videos they’ve received, a man demonstrates his tumbling skills in the middle of downtown Denver, Colo., hand-springing and cart-wheeling in the streets— dodging the streetcars as he went.

For the groups of 18 students accepted into the three-year programs, the training is split between working out in groups and time practicing alone to develop an individual style and routine. During the most intense training periods, students strengthen the core, lower and upper body while developing their technique in their specialty area.

“Instead of having you do twenty pull- ups, we’ll have you work through a routine to learn the technique and the specific skills,” Elsie says.

The physical training is also paired with an academic curriculum where students learn how to write a biography, manage a personal website, apply makeup, make costumes and safely rig the apparatuses they’ll use. Students also learn the history of the circus.

Blair Belt came to live and study in Brattleboro by way of Colorado, driving across the country in a bus she and her fiancé had converted into a tiny house. In her ten years practicing circus, she’s done physical theater, unicycle and stilts before settling on aerial silks, a type of performance in which artists perform acrobatics while hanging from vertical silks. She practices this as part of a residency program.

While her training sessions at the Cotton Mill center are two days a week, the 24-year-old works out every day, alternating legs, core and arm workouts along with yoga and running. The soreness that usually follows workouts is something she’s come to expect and even embrace.

“Everything hurts in the best way possible,” she says with a wide smile. “But being able to do the drops and the tricks that I do makes all the other days worth it. When I’m able to climb the fabric using only my arms, that makes the arm day completely worth it.”

Belt’s residency program goes until August 2017. She plans to spend 19 to 24 more months with NECCA as she prepares to start a career in the circus, first touring and then opening a theater in her hometown in Rockwell, Texas, with her fiancé who now works at Brattleboro’s youth theater.

Faith Durnford and Jenna Ciotta are students in NECCA’s intermediate intensive program and train five days a week in aerial hoop. “We all have different goals but a similar interest in professional performing,” says Durnford.

While they complete circuit training, a tumbling-based training class, and work with instructors on their primary interest area, they’re also working independently on their active flexibility, cardiovascular health, strength training and handstands.

Serenity and Elsie, the co-founders and artistic directors of NECCA. Photo by Jeff Lewis
Serenity and Elsie, the co-founders and artistic directors of NECCA. Photo by Jeff Lewis

During higher intensity workouts, it’s not uncommon for students to complete a 32-station cross training circuit with 60-second intervals of pull-ups, box-jumps, hollow-body rocks and more. Outside of training at the Center, they are also completing sprint and distance running workouts. Ciotta says her abdominal muscles seem to be constantly sore.

“There is never a day that sneezing doesn’t hurt,” she says.

Serenity says it makes sense for students to include this kind of variety in their training, and it’s a point she says recreation- level athletes can use as well.

“For longevity and health and for success as an athlete, it’s cross-training that’s even more important than specialization,” she says.

“Your body will be more nimble, less prone to injury and you may last long enough to make a career in this.”

Anyone can sign up for weekly classes at NECCA and student performances are free. Upcoming events include: Nov. 5, a Showcase of the Circus, and student shows on Dec. 3 and 4. On Dec. 16-18 there are special performances of The Flying Nut—A CircusNutcrackerattheAustinecampus.

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.