Circus Arts: NECCA, Smirkus Circus working to make Vermont a circus arts leader
BRATTLEBORO — Circus Smirkus and the New England Center for Circus Arts have so much in common that they teamed up on the Austine Campus on Jan. 16 and 17 to host auditions for Circus Smirkus' 2016 season.
According to a press release from Circus Smirkus, the reason it held auditions in Brattleboro was because of the "crumbling infrastructure" of its venue, Memorial Auditorium, in Burlington.
In October 2015, the Burlington Free Press reported that the building has a leaking roof, asbestos tiles, cracked wooden support beams, crumbling masonry, boilers on their last legs and possible rust on hidden steel girders. The building is owned by the city. There have been questions on how the city hopes to pay for the renovations, but Burlington Public Works estimates the building needs about $17 million in capital upgrades over the next nine years.
The Austine School for the Deaf, which was part of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, closed at the end of the 2014 school year. In September of that year, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing declared bankruptcy. In November, the Winston Prouty Center on Guilford Center submitted a bid to purchase the property.
Current occupants of the Austine campus include High Five Adventure Learning, INSPIRE School for Autism, Garland School, UVM Extension and New England Center for Circus Arts. All of them have indicated they would like to continue to occupy space at Austine.
The theme of this year's Circus Smirkus tour is "Up, HUP, and Away: The Invention of Flight."
Elsie Smith, who founded NECCA with her sister, Serenity Smith Forchion, said this is the second year in a row that auditions have been held in Brattleboro. "We have a gym on the Austine Campus that is already decked out as a circus facility," she said, so minimal setup is required. "Instead of having to prepare and do rigging, it only took us about three hours to get ready."
Smith said Circus Smirkus and NECCA consider themselves "sister" organizations. "Cirus Smirkus has summer touring programs and overnight summer camps and we have day camps in the summer. While we don't have a touring company, we train many of their participants during the year."
Smith said the weekend of auditions was especially busy, with judges, coaches, alumni and Smirkus-hopefuls spilling out all over the Austine Campus.
NECCA has raised $1 million toward the $2.5 million needed for its proposed facility on Putney Road. When the new facility is built, said Smith, NECCA will no longer utilize the various spaces it now rents around town. "We want to get it all under one roof."
Ed Leclair, the executive director and producer of Circus Smirkus, said his organization and NECCA have "a very interesting synergy" though each focuses on different elements of the circus arts.
"We provide a youth tour, traveling around New England and performing shows in 17 cities, but we don't have a year-round facility for training. NECCA provides us with much of the incredible talent we rely upon for the tour."
Leclair said the auditions were a lot of fun for everyone. "The kids were breathless with excitement and our coaches and staff were all eager to find new talent."
Leclair said the auditioners displayed a wide range of skills including aerial acrobatics, balancing arts and clowning. "It was a wildly enthusiastic group with a diverse set of skills and they were all ready to go."
Leclair said the hardest part about the two-day auditions is telling someone they didn't make the cut. But, he added, Circus Smirkus is picking people for certain parts that have already been determined.
"The point we make, if you have made it to these auditions you are already a highly skilled professional and you will have a career if you so choose. We encourage the kids to audition again and again because they may fit a certain character or a particular act. It may not happen this time, but maybe later."
Troy Wunderle, of Rockingham and the founder of Wunderle's Big Top Adventures, is Big Top Tour Artistic Director of Circus Smirkus and Director of Clowning for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Wunderle said the biggest challenge during the auditions is choosing 40 people out of a very talented crowd. "Each of them was totally qualified, but we were trying to figure out who was the most qualified to fit into this year's particular corps. Everyone had the skill to pull it off. The talent was especially high as was the enthusiasm and passion."
Wunderle's daughter, Ariana, made the cut, but not without some initial anxiety.
"She's been performing since she was 2 years old but she gets just as nervous as any other kid going into the competition. Because her dad does what he does, she carries a little bit extra on her shoulders."
The audtioners who were chosen included, Ilse Bryan, Rhode Island; Eva Lou Rhinelander, Maryland; Ariana Wunderle, Vermont; Serafina Walker, Mass.; Ella Warner, Vermont; Lola Picayo, N.Y.; Maedya Kojis, Minn.; Julia Baccellieri, Ill.; Delaney Bayles, Utah; Lucia Mason, Mass.; Sarah Norden, Maine; Jennette Oubre, N.Y.; Cheya Potter, Wash.; Leah Zuckerman, Wash.; Ripley Burns, Mass.; Lyla Goldman, Wash.; Graham Reicher, Calif.; Dylan Biedrzycki, N.H.; Chase Levy, Mass.; Aaron Schondorf, N.Y.; Sam Landa, Virginia; Keiran Sass, N.H.; Ben Kaufman, Vermont; Liam Ryan O'Flaherty, Vermont; Cameron Zweir, Mass.; Sam Hollis, Texas; Ivan Jermyn, Vermont; and Wesley Williams, Fla.
NECCA's annual fundraiser, "Circus Spectacular," is scheduled for March 5 and 6 at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro. The event will feature high flying aerialists, acrobats, and jugglers from around the world. For more information, visit necenterforcircusarts.org.
This year's Circus Smirkus traveling show includes a stop at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey, N.H., on July 11 and 12. Tickets go on sale May 1 and can be purchased at smirkus.org. Circus Smirkus will also be performing in Northampton, Mass., at the Three County Fairgrounds on July 14 and 15.
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