Despite Ringling Bros. Shutdown, The Circus Arts Remain Alive And Well In Vermont

Jan 16, 2017

It's big news when a group like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announces that it will close after 146 years. But at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, aspiring circus performers continue to train. And in many ways, the staff there say the future of circus arts has never been brighter.

It's Monday morning at the New England Center for Circus Arts, or NECCA, and graduates of the program are taking advantage of the open studio.

NECCA is a training school for professional circus artists. Co-founder Elsie Smith is working with two aerialists who are practicing a flip, high up on a single trapeze.

"Good. Better on the up, Miranda," she says as she helps a performer flip around, locking her legs with a second woman on the trapeze. "Still a little low on the up. Do it again."

Smith co-founded NECCA nine years ago with her twin sister, Serenity. They've both performed with Ringling Bros., and a number of the center's graduates have gone on to work with the Greatest Show on Earth.

"Personally, I was surprised that they decided to close the entire circus portion of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey," Smith says. "I had been speaking with many people leading up to this about the idea that they would combine some of the different tours that they have — they're called units — into one tour. So I was surprised that they decided to call the entire thing quits."

The producers of Ringling Bros. announced this weekend that the touring three-ring circus would give its last show in May, due to high operating costs and declining ticket sales. About 500 people work for two traveling shows.

Doug Stewart is a NECCA graduate, and he was practicing in the gym Monday.

"For a lot of people, Ringling is what people think of when you think of circus ... And it's sad that that image and that mentality of what circus is is no longer going to be here." — Doug Stewart, NECCA graduate

He says for so many people, Ringling Bros. was the first experience people had with circus, and he wonders what the impact might be on getting younger performers involved in the art.

"It was the first circus that I went to as a kid," Stewart says. "And for a lot of people, Ringling is what people think of when you think of circus. You ask a random person off the street and they have images of Ringling Bros. And it's sad that that image and that mentality of what circus is is no longer going to be here."

Stewart auditioned for a spot with Ringling Bros. this summer and was put on a waiting list. Even though that will not be happening now, Stewart sees other opportunities out there.

"As far as my dreams, I started my own company," he says. "There's a lot of smaller companies that are forming now, and I think the future of circus that I see is a lot more smaller companies and theaters, as opposed to the traditional style in tents."

Todd Degnan performs on the Cyr wheel at New England Center for Circus Arts.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

The New England Center for Circus Arts is busy this morning. There's a guy spinning inside an enormous wheel, a woman is practicing graceful moves on a rope that hangs from the ceiling and a small group of performers spot each other as they try acrobatic moves across a padded floor.

The performers are strong and confident. Their work is rooted in the centuries-old tradition of circus arts, but their movements speak to a contemporary art form.

"In America, the circus school, the training, the artistic playing of circus mixed with theater, circus mixed with dance, circus as a contemporary voice is still very, very strong," Smith says.

"It's going to be a journey for us [in the circus arts] to try to remind the American public that we're still here and we're still alive, and we're doing really well." — Elsie Smith, NECCA co-founder

Smith says it's sad to see a venerable institution like Ringling Bros. fold up its tent, but there's another part to the story.

"Circus arts in America is changing," she says. "And this just really puts a public title to everyone out there that circus is changing. We've been aware of it for a long time, those of us who are on the inside. And it's going to be a journey for us to try to remind the American public that we're still here and we're still alive, and we're doing really well. It's just a different art form."

NECCA started in an incubator warehouse space in Brattleboro. Now work is underway to build a $2.5 million training center for circus arts on the north end of town.

Future graduates won't be able to work with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, or with the Big Apple Circus, which also closed recently. But now, Smith says, today's circus performers have a new show to create.