. . . with a world champion juggler.
All kids have dreams of running away with the circus. We've already achieved that dream. Now we have a new one. We dream of starting our own circus . . . We're Cirque Us, a new modern circus collective based in New England. --from Cirque Us.
I am in Brattleboro VT, sitting on the bleachers in what is undeniably a gym, like the one you remember from high school, watching the first run-through of Cirque Us's upcoming premiere of their 2017 season. Last year, I had the privilege of seeing them in one of their very first--and polished--performances at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. This year has taken me, by invitation, behind the curtain. Essayist E.B. White believes it's not merely that curiosity will be assuaged, but that the rehearsal brings something far more precious. He says:
" . . .long before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given. Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark, and dirty old training rings . . . whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources--from internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars."
Aerialist Sarah Tiffin
There is light and combustion here aplenty in the training gym, and much exuberance, and a charming glut of youth. Everyone, including the company manager, the creative director, and the performers are in their late teens and early twenties. They are in sweaty, baggy clothes, with flashes of biceps that scream athlete. Eyes and ears in every single head are focused--with the professionalism of performers twice their age--on the enterprise unfolding in the center of the room, except for a few moments when someone peels off for a moment's chat with me. A performer may star in one scene in some death-defying (yes) aerial or other spectacle, and then be "just" another bit player in a following act. They are in mostly perpetual motion, stopping only now and again to appraise what they're doing and checking in for stage direction, asking things like "Am I still sad in this scene?" and "Who is supposed to be standing here?"
Cirque Us 2017's creation is DreamCycle, where "acrobats, jugglers and aerialists are woven into the fabric of a dream as fears tiptoe across the narrowest wire." It was conceived and is being directed by Liam Gundlach. It's a narrative built around dreams of a central character portrayed by returning wire-walker extraordinaire Sorrell Nielsen. Gundlach says that physical gestures are "a powerful way to tell a story, like a musical, where the songs advance the narrative instead of just dialogue. In the circus, it's the movement." Akin to dance, I think, as I pivot to watch the aerialist on the trapeze.
Creative director Liam Gundlach
Who are these talented young people and how did they get here? While their stories are not identical, they keep repeating two answers to my question. First, the vast majority of them started as children with Circus Smirkus, the legendary home-grown circus (and circus camp) based in Greensboro VT. Second, everyone credits company manager, Doug Stewart, as being the creative catalyst and chief of holding-it-all-together. At 20 years of age, Stewart founded Cirque Us in 2016.
The company are circus performers in the summers and students and workers throughout the rest of the year. Among those with whom I was able to speak on the set is clown and aerialist Sarah Tiffin. She returns this year in what she describes as a mischievous, Puck-like character in DreamCycle. She attends Bennington College, learning about sports psychology and biology. When Zoonii Kayler, 19, is not performing on a hanging stainless steel pole, she is at King's College in London studying biochemistry and genetic engineering. Sonya Gurwitt, 23, has just graduated from Brown University with degrees in environmental studies and creative writing. Once the show is firmly on the road, director Gundlach will return to his studies at l'Ecole de Cirque de Quebec/Circus School of Quebec in Quebec City. Delaney Bayles? She's a juggler, and student at Colorado College. At 19, she just won the World Juggling Federation's Advanced Overall Championship. Chase Culp, Ivan Jermyn, Ripley Burns, and second-generation circus performer Sam Ferlo round out this year's cast, along with a handful of interns, including a young filmmaker and a cook who regularly feeds the entire troupe.
Sam Ferlo on the straps, founder Doug Stewart (orange shirt), Ripley Burns, Zoonii Kayler, Sonya Gurwitt
After an opening performance in Brattleboro, White River Junction is next on the tour itinerary, with shows at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on June 24th and 25th at the Barrette Center for the Arts. Cirque Us then hits the road with performances in New York City, Trenton NJ, Philadelphia, Ithaca NY, Hillsdale NY, Greensboro VT, Stowe VT, Ellsworth ME, Portland ME, Pawtucket RI, and 3 stops in Massachusetts--Somerville, Great Barrington, and finally, Northampton. To view the complete schedule and to purchase tickets, check out the Cirque Us website.
See them. Bring your parents and your kids, or show up solo in your own company. You will ooh and aah, feel your heart race, and laugh out loud.
I write about the arts and other interesting things in the Upper Valley. Please sign up to receive an email each time I post something new by clicking here. To view my profile page or to read previous posts, please click here.
Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge