In This State: Circus is the life for twin sisters

Budding performers and their coach work out at the New England Center for Circus Art in Brattleboro. They are, from left: Abby Lively, of Shelburne Falls, Mass., on a break; Sam Borrus, of Cambridge, Mass., doing a handstand; Coach Anthony Oliva, of Anchorage, Alaska, observing; and Fernanda Eggers Jorge, of Brazil, balancing on the hands of Kerry Kaye, of Brattleboro. Photo by Dirk van Susteren

Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/. This piece is by Dirk Van Susteren, a freelance reporter and editor who lives in Calais. He can be reached at dirkpatrick@aol.com. A version of this story appeared in The Boston Globe in October.

Twin sisters Serenity Smith Forchion and Elsie Smith once “ran away to join the circus” — and the two bookish high school nerds never looked back.

Running away to the circus is up there with going to sea or going West, as a time-honored American means of escape and self-actualization. What was special about the Smith twins was not that they took off, but that they returned. They came back to New England and established a circus school.

Serenity, 41, likes to tell the story of how they both attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1988, but dropped out after becoming enamored with all things circus — thanks to their experiences at an upstate New York children’s camp, where they worked for a summer.

Elsie made no pretense of returning to UMass; after camp she took off with a traveling circus group that offered classes at schools across the East Coast and the South. She soon would follow a boyfriend to Thunder Bay, Ont., where she would become a trampoline artist and coach.

In early 1990, Serenity applied on a whim for a job at Ringling Brothers and was hired to dance, ride elephants and perform aerials. On her first day in the ring she was gussied up in lipstick, glitter, eye shadow, earrings and fake eyelashes, then was wrapped in a hoop skirt and sent to the ring perform with scores of other dancers at a venue in Miami.

Serenity soon went off to Japan to learn more about circus arts. And in 1996 the two young women teamed up in San Francisco to begin working on the trapeze routines. (Serenity by then had been performing with the Pickle Family Circus, a renowned regional circus that no longer exists). Eventually, they joined Cirque du Soleil.

In 2002, the twins landed in Brattleboro where they founded an organization called Nimble Arts, a production company that that specializes in circus performance.

A few years later the sisters, with help from Serenity’s husband Bill Forchion, a circus performer, stunt man and filmmaker, founded the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro. The school is not far from the sisters’ childhood home of Huntington, Mass., and just up the road from their father’s farm and logging operation in Guilford.

NECCA, located in the “Old Cotton Mill,” a converted textile factory, draws budding circus performers of all ages from around the world who want to learn how to juggle, clown, dance with stilts, walk a tightrope or swing on the trapeze.

“We have children who come for birthday events, teenagers who take classes with their friends, and people in their 70s, who come for exercise,” says Serenity.

During a recent visit, Serenity was on a coaching break and as we talked she sat on a wooden bench in an anteroom cluttered with street shoes and fleece taht belonged to the 20-somethings practicing in the next room.

Elsie was out on the floor coaching two women struggling on a trapeze bar suspended 14 feet in the air.

Kelly Jo Stull, of Baltimore Md., takes notes after working on her aerial fabric routine at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

“We had a grandmother from Vernon who was tired of buying material things for her grandchildren, so she decided to enroll three generations of the family, the kids and her own children, and herself and husband in one of our programs,” says Serenity.

The school is also working with a young woman with cerebral palsy; they are developing a routine for her that she can perform with the help of two caregivers.

The New England Center for Circus Arts employs six staffers and some two dozen auxiliary coaches, and uses several rooms in the renovated mill. The school also has a few satellite venues nearby, including a converted truck garage in Brattleboro and a flying trapeze at the twins’ father’s Sunrise Farm.

On any given day, the school’s factory rooms are abuzz with circus athletes, stretching, practicing handstands, climbing colorful fabrics to the ceiling, and stepping, with arms thrust outward for balance, across the tightrope strung safely, just three feet above mats.

You might also find students taking trips across the floor on the German wheel, that giant cylindrical contraption that performers ride as human spokes. Each successful venture across the floor prompts a high-five or a “That’s awesome!” from Chris Delbaco, a young instructor from New York City.

The school cross-pollinates with Vermont’s Circus Smirkus, the famous youth circus, based in Greensboro, that tours the Northeast every summer. NECCA sends trainers to Circus Smirkus, and teenage Smirkus performers enroll in NECCA courses.

Upcoming NECCA performances include the annual “Flying Nut Show,” (Dec. 14-16) in which the “Nutcracker Ballet” story is told through acrobatics, and the “Circus Spectacular,” a fundraiser on March 2 and 3 at the 750-seat Latchis Theater in Brattleboro will feature performers from Ringling Brothers and Cirque du Soleil.

Daniel Nolasco, of Boulder Colo., practices a maneuver on the German wheel at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

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