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Circus life pays off for Portland-grown performer

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Circus life pays off for Portland-grown performer

PORTLAND — See the world, join the circus.

Such is the life of Portland native and Waynflete School graduate Amanda Crockett.

Crockett, 34, is a performer with Cirque du Soleil. She has a daily role in "Michael Jackson One," an ongoing production in Las Vegas, but her work has taken her all over the globe.

Last week, Crockett spent a rare break from the circus in her hometown, where she gave a brief presentation on her career at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Portland. She also hinted at positive changes that could sweep through the region when the Circus Conservatory of America comes to town.

As a child, Crockett said, she wasn't into gymnastics. She didn't begin training in acrobatics and trapeze until she was 18, but she spent much of her early life clowning around.

Crockett was 9 when she first put on a red nose and assumed the character of Dazzle the Clown. She was following in her father's (rather large) footsteps, she said.

George Crockett, a longtime Portland resident and businessman, had a side job as a clown, performing at parades and festivals across the state, Crockett recalled.

"Seeing my dad transform from a father and a businessman into a clown – who was really wonderful at making people laugh – was really magical," she said. "One night, he was putting me to bed and I stopped him before he left the room. I said, 'Dad, wait. I want to do what you do. I want to be a clown.'"

George Crockett helped his daughter get a costume and develop a character. Later, he put her in touch with Sam Kilbourn, a former performer with Maine comedy troupe Wright Brothers. Kilbourn became her mentor, teaching her mime, juggling, Vaudeville and more, she said.

In high school, Crockett performed with Kilbourn in a trio called the Three Meatballs.

"That was my high school job," she said. "Other kids worked at restaurants or whatnot, and I performed."

Crockett's big-top career aspirations blossomed at age 15 when her mother took her to see "Alegria," a long-running Cirque du Soleil show.

"Afterward, when we were walking across the parking lot, I stopped and looked back at the tent in the distance and said, 'Mom, that's what I want to do. That's it.' And she had the best answer any parent could have. She said, 'Great, you should do it,'" Crockett recalled.

To become a circus performer, Crockett followed a circuitous path. She took dance classes and a workshop at Maine's Celebration Barn Theater. Then at 18, she joined Circus Smirkus, a children's circus in Vermont, where she served as a touring performer for three summers. She also attended the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theater in California, and trained at two smaller schools in San Francisco and Australia, she said.

These days, circus training is easier to find, she said.

"There are circus schools and aerial studios popping up all over the country, which didn't exist 20-25 years ago," she said. "And soon, there will be one in Portland."

The Circus Conservatory of America is an accredited college planned at Thompson's Point. An opening date is unknown, according to the conservatory's website, but a decision will be made in March.

Crockett said the formation of the college "could only be positive" for Portland.

"It would bring some really interesting people to the city," she said. "It would put Portland on the map in a very different way."

Generally speaking, circus performers are creative, fearless and hardworking, she said.

"You need to really want it, to go after it," she said of the circus life.

Worldwide, circus has been a grand tradition for centuries, but, until recently, it garnered very little respect in the United States, Crockett said.

"Circus is gaining in popularity in this country. It's gaining respect in this country. It's really wonderful to see. There's a big change now from five or 10 years ago," she said. "There's still a limited job market in the U.S., and with more schools opening up and more people being trained, it will be interesting to see what happens with job availability. If you're going to pursue a career in the circus, you need to be willing to travel."

Crockett's early career took her everywhere. She has performed in nearly every U.S. state, and 15 countries on five continents. Luckily, circus transcends language barriers, she said.

"I've performed in many countries where I couldn't actually speak to the audience, but still communicate with them physically, and make them laugh, and share this common language," she said. "It's one of the best parts about it."

George Crockett, who is in his 70s, said he's proud of his daughter's decision to join the circus.

"Supporting someone who is following a dream is an easy job," he said. "That's a parent's role."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.