Circus campers flock to Portland’s Thompson’s Point

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PORTLAND — It was an opportunity to fly, tumble or just be silly.

About 300 students jumped at the chance as the biennial American Youth Circus Organization Festival came to Thompson’s Point last week.

“Circus is a noncompetitive hybrid of art and sports,” AYCO Executive Director Amy Cohen said Aug. 20 on the festival’s first full day.

With as many as 14 workshops going on at once, students mostly from 8 to 18 swung, juggled and pedaled through the Thompson’s Point complex, where the Circus Conservatory of America opened in January.

The festival lasted through Sunday and featured evening showcase performances on Aug. 20 and 21. Showcase director Polly Solomon said 41 acts allowed novices and advanced students to perform the gamut of circus acts.

“We don’t take people based on skill level,” Solomon said. “We select them on the needs of the show.”

Solomon also loved the setting.

“We are really embracing the industrial chic of this warehouse,” she said.

CCA General Manager Blain Tully spent Aug. 20 scurrying from workshop to workshop, helping break down and set up as classes changed over.

“This was a long time in the making,” he said, noting the school had been interested in hosting the festival even before it opened.

For Cape Elizabeth High School junior JoJo Zeitlin, the workshops offered a chance to try new things. Fresh off a workshop on “Applause Worthy Tricks With a Hula Hoop,” she said she was ready for something new.

“My next class is contortion. I love doing it, but I don’t get to take a lot of classes,” Zeitlin said.

Elise Smith, co-founder of the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vermont, said her aerial courses build confidence with competition.

“At the intro level, it is about breaking down skills into the smallest elements,” Smith said. “A lot of people say ‘I am not flexible or strong enough,’ and I say ‘come do it and you will get stronger and more flexible.'”

Jesse Patterson, 18, of Dallas, said she began by studying ballet, and moved on to circus arts classes when she was 8.

“I never been to a festival before, so I thought I’d try it,” Patterson said.

After the hula hoop workshop, she signed up for a comprehensive workshop on creating a circus performance, and took part in the Aug. 21 showcase.

Celeste Lunetta said her daughter, Rosie Crooker, plays soccer and lacrosse, and is a ski racer, along with taking circus arts classes in New Hampshire.

“She said she does it because circus makes people happy,” Lunetta said.

The workshops also covered practical matters, including the need to warm up, obtaining liability insurance for schools and instructors, and the best methods to show potential funding sources the impact a school has on its students.

From beginning wire-walking courses set in the Thompson’s Point pavilion area, to old-fashioned vaudeville courses where students struggled and laughed as they tried to slap their thighs and then touch their earlobes and noses, all the big-top learning lacked was a big top.

“Better yet, you get to perform for people,” Tully said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Nemo Mass twirls his way through a fabric workshop Aug. 20 at the American Youth Circus Festival held at Thompson’s Point in Portland, home of the Circus Conservatory of America.

Juggling courses were a staple of the American Youth Circus Festival Aug. 19-23 at the Circus Conservatory of America at Thompson’s Point in Portland.

Jesse Patterson, 18, of Dallas, spins a hula hoop in a workshop at the American Youth Circus Festival on Aug. 20 at the Circus Conservatory of America on Thompson’s Point in Portland.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.