There once was a day, perhaps not so long past, when every kid at some point entertained a dream of running away and joining the circus. Thrills and glory would await them there as they climb to the distant pinnacle near the highest peak of the Big Top and fly through the air on a swinging trapeze.
That dream, for many kids, is still alive and well, and thanks to Circus Smirkus, a training and touring circus company in Greensboro, Vt., many kids experience the circus life—without having to run away.
For Greylin Nielsen ’14, a Circus Smirkus performer for five years, from 8th grade through her senior year in high school, the experience gave her skills that will last a lifetime.
“Circus Smirkus is such a unique experience,” says Nielsen, who traveled around New England each summer as a performer in the company’s Big Top Tour. “It teaches group cohesion and self-confidence. It really develops the whole child.”
Nielsen will be among Circus Smirkus performers featured in Circus Dreams, an award-winning film that documents a year around the organization, which will be screened at the Academy of Music on Sunday, Feb. 19, as part of the Northampton Arts Council’s Four Sundays in February series.
The film will be preceded by performances by Circus Smirkus clowns, aerialists and others. The event, which is sponsored by Smith College, begins at 2 p.m.
Nielsen, who is from Temple, N.H., had had a taste of circus performance beginning in fifth grade with the Hilltop Circus, a small company associated with her school. She and her younger brother were introduced to aerial acts such as trapeze, aerial hoop and tight wire. “I thought, ‘This is really cool, I can walk across a tight wire,’” she says. “It captured my interest and kept it.”
After auditioning for Circus Smirkus, Nielsen quickly set to work training for performance on tight wire, trapeze, “pretty much anything that was airborne.”
It didn’t take long before Nielsen found herself flying through the air. “I got to be thrown around a lot,” she recalls. “They like to try things with little people.”
Circus Smirkus has hosted and trained kids, ages 10 to 18, in a range of circus performing skills at its summer camps and school programs for the past 25 years.
Addison MacDonald, manager of the Smith College Conference Center and a fellow former Circus Smirkus performer, agrees with Nielsen that the childhood circus experience was transformative.
“At the age of 10, I was spending my summers with performers from across the world out of a farmhouse in northern Vermont,” he describes. “The experience really taught me to be adaptable to both people and situations.”
Unlike Nielsen, MacDonald remained mostly on the ground during his four years with Circus Smirkus, from age 10 to 14. “I opened each show as a rapping clown, which still humiliates me to this day,” he says. “Later I was trained in juggling, acrobatics and magic. Being a clown was my strength.”
Though their tenures with Circus Smirkus were separated by a couple decades, both Nielsen and MacDonald developed friendships there that have been with them since.
“I’ve gained an amazing network of friends from Circus Smirkus,” says Addison. “I’ve been to Europe and South America to watch and perform with friends I met during my summers at Smirkus.”
For Nielsen, a biology major, the circus life continues into her life at Smith. She trains and teaches other performers in circus arts at Show Circus Studio in Easthampton, and she’s attempting to start a Circus Club at Smith, called the Bearded Ladies.
“There are a lot of people who want to do circus,” she says. “Circus is on the rise.”
As Nielsen remembers it, the year the film Circus Dreams was being shot was one of high stress. It was 2006 and the company was on the verge of financial collapse, unsure if it would open its doors again the next season.
Circus Smirkus obtained the funding needed to open for another season and has continued growing since.
“It’s nice to go back and watch the documentary now,” says Nielsen, “but it’s humbling to see that part of my life captured forever—my ignorant adolescence.”
Tickets for the Circus Dreams screening and circus show (in advance: $8 for adults, $5 for kids under 16; at the door for $10 adults, $5 for kids under 16) are available online and at local businesses, or by calling Northampton Arts Council, 413-587-1069.