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Cirque du Thompson's Point: Portland development lures 1st-of-its-kind college

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Cirque du Thompson's Point: Portland development lures 1st-of-its-kind college

PORTLAND — There was no "big top" at the press conference on Aug. 15, but there were aerial acrobats and the announcement of a high-flying goal: The city may become host to the country's only college devoted to training circus performers.

The newly formed Circus Conservatory of America has leased space at the planned Forefront at Thompson's Point, and hopes to offer a degree program in circus arts at the long-awaited commercial development, officials said.

The conservatory will be housed in a now-vacant, 33,000-square-foot building on the 28-acre property, which is near the Portland Transportation Center and the Fore River Parkway.

Since 2011, developers have been planning to build a $105-million complex there, including a hotel, parking garage, offices and an event center that would host the Maine Red Claws professional basketball team.

The school plans to offer preparatory classes in 2014 and enroll its first full-time class in September 2015, according to its website. Enrollment could total as much as 120 students.

"It's possible this could have happened anywhere, but I don't think so," Peter Nielsen, the conservatory's president and co-founder, said of Portland. "It's going to happen here, and that's the best place for it in the world."

While circus training programs exist throughout the United States, the conservatory would be the first to offer a bachelor of fine arts degree. That may be a sign of how the popular form of entertainment has changed over the years, according to Nielsen.

Circuses date to ancient times, but in recent years have become more sophisticated, he said. Instead of animal stunts, today's circus spotlights human performances that combine athleticism with elements of dance and theater.

Think Cirque du Soleil, not Barnum and Bailey.

"Circus today has been redefined, while still respecting the ancient traditions," said Nielsen. "Circus is being created, right here, right now, in Portland."

But before it begins training the next generation of performers, the school first must obtain approval from the state Department of Education, which has authority over degree-granting schools.

The conservatory is also seeking accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Accreditation is required in order for the school to receive payment from student financial-aid programs.

The school's funding is another challenge. Although the conservatory wouldn't provide details, it's launching a capital campaign to pay for renovations to the cavernous brick building, which formerly housed railroad equipment.

Despite those obstacles, officials at last week's press conference were optimistic about the school's future.

"The performance is about to begin," Mayor Michael Brennan said. And indeed it was. The crowd of about 50 soon oohed and aahed to aerial performances by two members of Frequently Asked Questions, a Montreal-based circus troop.

Lindsay Culbert-Olds twisted and turned while clutching two straps that hung from a giant crane, and Kia-Melinda Eastman performed acrobatics along the length of a suspended rope.

The two were on hand to show support for the new school.

"It was great to perform on (the conservatory's) behalf and show people what sort of beauty is going to end up in this building," Culbert-Olds said. "And Portland is a dream spot for this."

Asked what it's like to be hanging from a slim rope, 20 feet over the heads of the crowd, Eastman was nonchalant.

"It's something you're trained to do, so you feel really safe," she said. "And it's beautiful up there. You get a great view."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.