BRATTLEBORO -- Serenity Smith Forchion wasn’t always going to be a circus star.
"I used to think about being a doctor before I discovered circus. Doing good for people has always been something important. Circus is not frivolous," she said, reflecting on a career in aerial acrobatics that has taken her all over the world in performances with Cirque du Soleil, Ringing Brothers and many of the other top troupes.
Still, she didn’t expect that her life in circus would produce a medical miracle, but that’s just what happened not so long ago. Working in England with a program called Aim to Fly, which offers aerial circus programming for victims of spinal chord injuries, she saw that one woman learned to walk again as a result of the core strength she gained from circus work. Her children told Smith Forchion, "You gave me my mom back."
In a career full of praise, that ranks at the top -- and it came about because Smith Forchion, her sister Elsie Smith and the rest of the folks at the New England Center for Circus Arts are committed not just to doing good circus, but to doing circus for good.
It is in that spirit that NECCA has assembled a star-studded cast once again for Circus Spectacular 2014, which takes place Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre and is a benefit for NECCA’s community outreach programming.
The two performances feature NECCA professionals, students and special guests from the top circuses and venues around the world in a dazzling array of acts and skills, including trapeze, aerial silks and fabrics, dance trapeze, juggling, rope, Lyra, handbalancing, duo trapeze, mime and comedy.
"It’s really nice to have something in early March. We’re all ready for a little warmth in our lives," said Smith Forchion.
While not all of NECCA’s community outreach programs produce medical miracles, they do bring a lot of warmth to a lot of lives in the area. And it wouldn’t happen without events like the Circus Spectacular, which in the past has raised in excess of $26,000 for outreach programs.
Those programs include free juggling workshops at the Brattleboro Boys and Girls Club, collaborations with Kurn Hattin and Big Brothers Big Sisters, parent and tot classes, April classes for the Month of the Young Child in partnership with Youth Services, programs for homeless teens and free performances at community events, fairs and festivals.
In the last couple of years, NECCA has also developed outreach programming for cancer survivors, first in collaboration with Forest Moon and now on its own. The next local session of Circus for Survivors in Sunday, March 23.
"A lot of cancer survivors are struggling with trusting their bodies and trusting that they’re alive," said Smith Forchion.
The folks at NECCA are not alone in their belief that circus can be a force for change as well as very entertaining.
Case in point is Pamela Donohoo, one of the guest artists coming to town for Circus Spectacular. An aerialist, dancer, gymnast and choreographer, Donohoo has performed all over, including in Las Vegas in "Le Reve (The Dream)." But she has a degree on cultural and social anthropology from Stanford University and has spent considerable time in Africa, India, Latin America and the Caribbean pursuing research and projects around her interests in conflict resolution and peace building, sustainable development, gender and social justice, cultural development and folklore. Her art reflects her interest in these issues.
"I think artists are in a great position. We have a voice, and we are expressing it," she said. "It’s hard for me to create acts outside of the context of culture and what I’m thinking about."
For the Circus Spectacular, Donohoo will perform a swinging pole act, and yes, she developed it, in part, to challenge the notions of what dancers do with poles.
"I had a hard time with the pole, because it was so stigmatized as a dancer’s pole," she said. "I visualized it as a spear, something that supports us, something that provides. Š This is an object you can use and put faith in. It gives you more power, and in the end, it’s restorative."
The lineup for the Circus Spectacular includes: NECCA’s Advanced Youth Troupe, Morgan Oldham (Lyra), Tommy Tomlins (juggling and aerial sling), Elsa Hall (straps), Daniel Obey (handbalancing), Alyssa Morar (aerial silks), Troy Wunderle (Rola Bola and comedy act), Alissa Feller (solo trapeze), Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion (duo trapeze), Mario Diamond (mime), Fe Fox (dance trapeze), Panela Donohoo (swinging pole) and Molly Graves (rope).
Tickets are $50, $25 and $15 for adults, $25 and $10 for youth under 12. For tickets and information, call 802-254-9780 or visit www.necenterforcircusarts.org. Proceeds benefit NECCA’s community outreach programs.
Sponsors include Brattleboro Savings & Loan, World Learning, the Richards Group, Verizon, Brattleboro Ford/Subaru, Trust Company of Vermont, Price Chopper/Golub Foundation, the Brattleboro Reformer and WKVT.