BRATTLEBORO — Efforts by coaches, students and alumni of New England Center for Circus Arts to reverse a decision by the board of directors were rewarded when Executive Director Michael Helmstadter stepped down Friday night, and an offer was extended to return founders Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion to the nonprofit organization.
Smith and Forchion were fired by the board on Monday. Before the announcement, which came in the early evening hours of Friday, the NECCA community came together for a rally.
The rally followed a NECCA summer camp final performance. Many coaches were waiting until after camp had ended to go on strike. One of these coaches was Billy Higgins. Higgins has been with NECCA since November. He’s worked in circus performance for about 20 years and has coached for about three to five years.
Higgins came with his partner, Victoria Quine, who trained directly under the founders, who are twin sisters. He said his overall experience with the organization has been great, but that the firing of the sisters made things a little tough. “It is my belief that, with that move, NECCA as we know it to be ceases to exist,” Higgins said.
Five coaches have already resigned because of the firing, Higgins said. Higgins is one of 16 coaches who went on strike starting at 3 p.m. on Friday.
“Our demands are pretty simple,” he said. “We’re looking for new leadership.”
The coaches wanted the removal of Helmstadter and the resignation of the board. He said the only reason he continued to work this week was to support the campers.
At the summer camp performance, the trouble brewing within NECCA’s ranks was left at the door. Coaches, community members and parents gathered to see the children perform circus acts. The environment was noncompetitive. Coaches patiently stepped in to spot students when they seemed to be having trouble. It was all about fun. After each student performed a trick the audience clapped. If a trick wasn’t landed, embarrassment was wiped away by applause.
“We do everything we can to not let exterior, adult-world, problems filter through to camp,” Higgins said. As he was speaking a group of little girls came up to see him. One refused to leave until he gave her a hug. While campers were left blissfully ignorant, other students came to the rally to show their support.
“I’m very frustrated with the board and with the choices that they’ve made,” student Tara Bossard-Kruger said. She’s been working with Smith and Forchion for the majority of her young life. “I’ve grown up with them,” she said. “They really created this school and they’re the ones who made it what it is. I think removing them is a really bad decision.”
Many adults said they’d come to Brattleboro specifically to train under the sisters.
Caroline Cole has been worked for circuses since the ’80s. She moved to Brattleboro from Boston. “I came here for Elsie and Serenity she said. “And now I own property here.”
Johna Applestein said she graduated college in 2014 and had only one plan, to train at NECCA. Appelstein seemed cheerful, showing her circus pride with a red nose and rainbow suspenders, but soon she began to choke up talking about NECCA. She described her relationship with Elsie who had welcomed her in. When Appelstein got out of college she auditioned at NECCA and was rejected. Elsie told her after the audition that she needed to work on her ballet. So Appelstein stayed in Brattleboro for a year and trained with Elsie. The next year she got in.
Blair Belt, who dressed as a butterfly and walked on stilts, had a similar story. She hadn’t made it in the first time either. She needed to work on her pull-ups. Elsie told her, “It’s OK you’re where you’re at now and you’re gonna get better.” Before NECCA, Belt said, she never really felt like she belonged anywhere. NECCA, she said, gave her a place to fit in.
Quine came back to NECCA after an injury. She said that every job interview she’d gone to, she’d been hired on the spot because employers were impressed that she trained with Elsie and Serenity. She felt so grateful that NECCA had welcomed her back so easily. “This is your forever home,” she said.
Former NECCA PROtrack director Jamie Hodgson reminded everybody that no matter what happened they’d always have a home. “This building isn’t your home,” she said, pointing to the new NECCA building behind her. “This board certainly isn’t your home.” “NECCA is home,” she said. “This community is home.”
Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.