WEST BRATTLEBORO — A new circus show inspired by connections to community and nature strengthened in the coronavirus pandemic will be performed completely outdoors in the backyards of top notch artists.
"This is the tree that I'll be dancing in," said Serenity Smith Forchion, co-founder of Nimble Arts, who will wear a harness as she climbs 20 feet up.
Her backyard is one of the "stages" for Circus in Place. Kevin O'Keefe, artistic director of Circus Minimus, pointed out Round Mountain in the distance.
Circus in Place is being put on by the international award winning circus company Nimble Arts in collaboration with Circus Minimus.
"This performance for all ages brings together community, artists and the land that sustains us in a time of challenge and uncertainty," Nimble Arts said in a news release. "The lands that we call home in West Brattleboro, Vermont will be set up with multiple stages for audiences to enjoy the woods and nature alongside presentations of circus theater."
Shows start at noon and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A sign language interpreter will be at the Sunday performance at noon. The event will take place rain or shine.
Tickets, which are limited to support social distancing, are $15 a person and available at nimblearts.org. Children younger than 2 can attend for free. Volunteers can watch the show for free. Donations will go to the artists.
Masks are required. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own blankets for socially distanced seating and walking shoes for a path through the woods.
COVID-19 guidelines can be found on the website.
The audience will be welcomed by Abenaki singer/songwriter Bryan Blanchette sharing history of Ndakina place. Arborist Mark Przekurat also will provide information.
The show includes "traditional and contemporary circus that blends the arts of aerials, acrobatics, balancing and juggling with storytelling, laughter and entertainment," the release states. Forchion and O'Keefe will share the stages with Forchion's twin and Nimble Arts co-founder Elsie Smith, FinnAnn Cotton, Ariele Ebacher, Jan Damm, Julia Baccellieri, Casey Haynes and Tony Duncan.
Forchion recalled the day when New England Center for Circus Arts, which she also founded with Smith and where they serve as artistic directors, shut down due to the pandemic.
"I literally came home and called all our neighbors who I knew were also shut in and I was like, let's do a walk every day," she said.
Since then, almost without fail, Forchion has led an approximately 6-mile hike around the neighborhood each day. She said the pandemic initiated a closer connection among neighbors.
O'Keefe's wife, Erin Maile O'Keefe, created Brattleboro Area Mutual Aid group to help community members. Forchion's brother-in-law Jim Westbrook, who also lives in the neighborhood, started a free breakfast program at Retreat Farm.
"We found that we could really do community work, take our free time and give back," Forchion said. "I definitely got as much as I gave."
With gigs canceled and communities worried about the virus reluctant to book labor intensive shows due to the risk of a cancellation, she described circus performers wanting to "flex our artistic muscles." That, she said, would involve producing their own show — something that is "financially daunting" and "really time consuming."
"It's not a money maker," O'Keefe said, "especially if you factor in hours versus income."
O'Keefe has lived on property in the neighborhood for about 17 years and hosted productions there before. His wife built a carport with a steel girder, knowing that Forchion and Smith live next door and could use it for performing. A field next door, owned by Valerie Stuart and John Mabie, has been the site of luaus.
Circus in Place "adds a level of professionalism to it," O'Keefe said. While he and Forchion have performed some gigs together, they see it as a completely different approach to their art.
"It's an opportunity to say, 'Oh there's this great rock,'" he said. "'Maybe something could happen here on this great rock? Oh there's this beautiful silver maple tree. Maybe something could happen in this tree? There's these two trees. Maybe we could string a wire between the two trees.'"
Forchion and O'Keefe spoke about their experience in noticing more about the natural world around them during the shutdown. They both would share stories about a bard owl visiting their properties.
The shutdown also emphasized the need to be more aware about the food supply chain, Forchion said. Farming and gardening activities in the neighborhood increased in the pandemic.
With important issues related to racial and climate justice being highlighted now, Forchion said making art can sometimes feel frivolous. That's why the production includes more context than an audience might otherwise find in a circus show.
Forchion said Baccellieri, an artist of color, will perform to Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit," a song about Black bodies being hung from trees. A group of neighbors has met regularly to discuss racial issues. Forchion's children are people of color.
Part of the show will include a walk through woods that Forchion donated to the Vermont Land Trust to preserve and prevent future developments. Signs will share information about animals in the neighborhood and different trees along the path.
The hope is to create a structure for producing an event that can be brought to other communities.
"We're looking at being able to travel next summer so that it would be in residency at different host locations," Forchion said. "We could spend a few weeks talking with the elders, trying to find the history of the native peoples who were there before us, finding out the current experiences of the people who live there and bring it into another version of this show."
Forchion said she wants audience members to leave the show with some positivity, but also thinking about today's issues.
O'Keefe plans to hand out feathers, symbolizing how when someone picks one up, they are embracing the challenge in front of them.
"I want to see if they can find a gift in this moment, the way that we're trying to find the gifts of this moment," he said. "There's incredible silver linings, I think."
Forchion said she hopes to raise enough money to build a stage in her backyard and make it accessible to those with disabilities. She and O'Keefe also envision a future where they can invite the community to a feast after a production.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.