BRATTLEBORO -- With performances of their graduation showcase, "Eighteen Tickets to Elsewhere" opening this Saturday, it was already going to be a busy week for students of the New England Center for Circus Arts' Professional Track program.
Then, events in the outside world made things even more intense.
An accident at a Ringling Brothers circus show in Providence, R.I., last Sunday, sent several aerial artists who were hanging from an apparatus by their hair plunging more than 20 feet to the ground. Eight were hospitalized, including NECCA alumna Samantha Pitard; another NECCA alumna, Alyssa Morar, was in the audience and filmed the accident.
The accident touched nerves at NECCA, chief among them concern for their friend. Pitard was fortunate not to be seriously injured and was in touch via text and Facebook messaging with folks at NECCA shortly after the accident.
Pitard later told the Associated Press, "I'm hoping to join back up with the tour and show the world that I'm OK, and I'm hoping some of the other girls will do the same."
That same "show-must-go-on" spirit prevailed among participants in the upcoming Professional Track performances, which take place May 10-11 and 15-17 at Greenhoe Theater at Landmark College in Putney.
"It's always a reminder that what we do has great risk in it. It makes us more respectful of all the details," said Kalina Suter, an aerialist who followed a path from Switzerland and Sweden to further her career at NECCA. "I feel it's a privilege to do what we do."
The accident served as both a caution and a somber, but teachable, moment at NECCA, which has always placed safety at the forefront of what it does and what it teaches. Film crews from the "Today Show" were in Putney on Monday interviewing folks at NECCA and learning about all that is done in the name of safety. Students are put through rigorous training in the functioning and operation of the rigging and equipment they use.
"We teach them they should never pass their responsibility for their safety on to someone else," said Elsie Smith, co-founder with her twin sister Serenity, of NECCA. "What circus performers do is they decide to accept the risks."
Accidents like the one in Providence are extremely rare, Smith said.
Audiences here and elsewhere are glad that there are people willing to accept those risks.
Performances of "Eighteen Tickets to Elsewhere" are family-friendly and include trapezes and acrobatics, juggling and giant wheels, tight wire, duo trapeze, straps, a stilt act and an aerial act on apparatus NECCA invented.
Eighteen such people will grace the stage, capping up to two years of high-level training with NECCA by showing off acts they've developed. Some, like Suter, come from far away to take advantage of NECCA's now international reputation. It's the only elite training program of its kind in the United States, and its participants are gaining acclaim around the world. Graduates from previous years are gracing the stage at Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Bros, Sept Doigt de la Main and other top circus shows around the world.
The emphasis is on helping participants develop their skills and techniques and transform those techniques into polished, marketable acts that will help them earn contracts.
"It's been incredibly life-changing ... the sense of community and the training," said Suter, who hopes to move to Australia and do contemporary circus there. "My skill level has changed tremendously from two years ago, thanks to NECCA. They definitely taught me to take the skills that I have and put an act together."
There is also emphasis on helping each participant find and develop their own unique voices.
"We try really hard not to make little Aimee Hancocks, little Elsie Smiths or little Bill Forchions," said Smith.
"They see where you shine," agreed Pro Track participant Eric Allen, who studied several years ago at NECCA -- audiences may remember him as Cupid from "The Love Show." Since then he's been making his way in circus, but he returned to NECCA this year. "I wanted to get to the next level," he said.
Allen is not the only performer who might be familiar to local audiences. Two students -- Bekk McGowan and Ferne Johannson -- are the first who've completed NECCA's Advanced Youth Training program and then gone on to complete the Professional Track program.
And there's Molly Gawler, a frequent presence at NECCA in between professional work with Pilobolus and other prestigious companies. She's also participated in other local arts offerings, through her Droplet Dance Company and the Gawler Family musicians. She enrolled in the Pro Track program because she wants to broaden her work in dance and movement to include more performance and theatricality.
"I love to integrate dance, theater and circus," said Gawler, who has appreciated so much about her year with the program, not the least of which is the chance to work with her classmates. "I just was so amazed by every single one of my classmates."
Gawler urged everyone to come check out "Eighteen Tickets to Elsewhere."
"It's an incredible show. For people who have never seen circus before, it will completely open their eyes," she said.
Performances this Saturday are at 3 and 7 p.m. On Sunday, the performance is at 7 p.m. A 10:30 a.m. family performance is on Thursday, May 15. On Friday, May 16, performance is at 7:30 p.m., concluding with performances on Saturday, May 17, at 3 and 7:30 p.m.
This Saturday's 7 p.m. performance is a fundraiser for United Way, with all ticket proceeds donated by NECCA to support United Way projects.
Saturday, May 17, will be A Day at the Circus for cancer survivors and their families. The experience includes a circus skills workshop followed by a trip to the show. This event is open to anyone living with a cancer diagnosis at any stage, and up to three family members age 10 and up. Participation in this special program, funded in part by the Symington Foundation, is free and includes the workshop as well as tickets to see the show.
Tickets range from $8-12 and can be purchased at www.necenterforcircusarts.org. For information, call 802-254-9780. Advance purchase is recommended.