SWANZEY, N.H. -- Tumbling, aerial dancing and wire-walking are difficult enough. Now imagine trying to balance those activities with summer reading assignments.
That's the name of the game for many members of Circus Smirkus, an award-winning circus for performers ages 10 to 18. Based in Vermont, it embarks on a two-month tour of New England and New York every summer with a collection of talented young circus artists who must audition to earn their spots. The circus typically performs a handful of shows in Brattleboro each year, but will instead pitch its one-ring, big-top tent at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey for the first time this year. Performances will be held at 1 and 6 p.m. on July 15 and 16.
Circus Smirkus had for several years performed at Famolare Field, but the owner's family has decided to put the land up for sale following the death of Joe Famolare last year. Troy Wunderle, the artistic director of Circus Smirkus, said he and his wife Sara, the assistant circus operations director, always look forward to the show rolling into Brattleboro because they were raised in southern Vermont, but Cheshire Fairgrounds should be a perfect fit for the special event.
"We knew the site would have it all, plus great visibility," he told the Reformer. "There is a huge amount of excitement. Not only do we know our fans that have visited, but one of the spectacular things about Smirkus is the total joy of seeing new audience members come to the show and have their expectations completely blown out of the water.
Cheshire Fairgrounds General Manager Jori Johnson told the Reformer the Wunderle family reached out to her a while ago and eventually walked around the land to scope it out. She said rental of the grounds generally costs $1,200 per day. Originally from the Midwest, Johnson said she had never heard of Circus Smirkus, but now thinks it is a great example of the type of wholesome activities the fairgrounds hosts.
"It's the perfect kind of event for this town," she said. "Circus Smirkus is meant for families, and the community here loves to see these types of events. A lot of people come to family-style events."
Wunderle, a graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, told the Reformer this year's theme is "Anchors Away for Atlantis" and the storyline is loosely based on the story of Atlantis, a fictional island popular in folklore. He said there will be aerial dancers, clowns, wire-walkers, acrobats, hand-balancers and unicyclists performing to fit the appropriate mood. One of the young artists will be 12-year-old Putney native Ella Warner, who said she will perform aerial apparatus and tumbling.
Her mother, Elizabeth, said her daughter has become Circus Smirkus' comeback kid because of a severe injury she suffered during gymnastics in March 2013. The younger Warner said she was tumbling at Woodman Athletics when she snapped two bones in her right arm, sending searing pain through her body and causing nerve damage. Elizabeth Warner said she had stepped out for a minute when she got an urgent phone call.
"I could hear her screaming (in the background)," she recalled Tuesday. "Her arm was like a zigzag."
Elizabeth said Ella was rushed to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, but doctors said the injury was so serious she needed to go to the clinic at Orthopedic Urgent Care Clinic at Boston Children's Hospital. She was treated by Dr. Peter Waters -- who Elizabeth said is the top pediatric hand surgeon in the world.
Ella then began a long road to recovery that included occupational therapy and resetting of the bone. She told the Reformer she did not have any feeling in her right hand until October 2013 and doctors feared it may not come back at all. Ella said she was at first nervous about getting back into gymnastics, but now has all the butterflies out of her stomach.
The pint-sized redhead told the Reformer she auditioned for Circus Smirkus on Jan. 11 and 12 and got the good news a week later. She leaves this Saturday and will be gone for 10 weeks.
"I think I'm most looking forward to learning new skills, making new friends and getting more involved with the audience, because sometimes I'm super-focused on what I'm doing, and not really paying attention and smiling," she said at the New England Center for the Circus Arts (NECCA) on Tuesday.
Elizabeth said the summer tour will be the culmination of more than a year of very hard work.
"For us, it's like the finish line to a long, hard way back," she said. "It's her own marathon."
Wunderle said the tour will begin on June 29 and reach as far away as Cape Cod this year. The show will be developed and fine-tuned during training in Greensboro (where the first and final performances will be held) before the performers hit the road for 70 shows.
The Wunderles' daughters -- 13-year old Emily and 10-year-old Ariana -- will also perform on the tour. Sara Wunderle said Emily specializes in aerial performance and pyramid while Ariana does the highwire walk, aerial, acrobatics and clowning.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.