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Ring Leaders

State of the Arts


Published September 28, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

The future of Circus Smirkus is up in the air. The improbable academy of aspiring clowns, jugglers, aerial artists and high-wire walkers recently announced a "temporary suspension of operations . . . until we resolve internal business issues," says founder Rob Mermin. The sad news leaves a lot of young performers in limbo.

Meanwhile, another circus-arts center has taken off in southern Vermont: Brattleboro's Nimble Arts. Established two years ago by identical-twin trapeze artists Elsie and Serenity Smith, the trapeze and circus school has become a popular hangout for big-top types. On a recent Sunday morning, four women from Rhode Island were finishing up a three-hour handstand-and-contortion class. Locals come, too. Thanks in large part to Circus Smirkus, Vermont has become something of a rural refuge for circus artists.

The Smiths are not "Smirkos," as Circus Smirkus alums affectionately call themselves, but they've coached plenty of Mermin's students. The sisters were 16 when they first tried the trapeze -- at Club Med, where their physician mother was attending a medical conference. The self-described "nerdy farm kids" took to the air. They both went to college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and taught summers at Florida-based Circus of the Kids. Serenity went solo for a while, working with Ringling Brothers and the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, but the sisters soon reunited and began to explore the duo trapeze.

Then, Cirque de Soleil found them. The Smiths toured for years with the remarkable, Montreal-based company that transformed public perception of the circus from low-brow dog-and-pony show to high-class act. The wholesome, one-ring Big Apple Circus contributed to the genre's image upgrade, too. These days, at least in Vermont, the circus arts are viewed as legitimate disciplines along the lines of gymnastics or ballet. Circus Smirkus had no sooner revealed its financial woes last week than parents started organizing to keep it going. Their press release is headlined, "Who will save the circus? Local parents group says the show must go on."

Nimble Arts offers a "family circus" class at their studio on the third floor of the Cotton Mill in downtown Brattleboro, in which kids and their parents build pyramids, juggle, walk the tight rope and participate in "group acrobatics." Flying-trapeze lessons are held at the family farm, just outside of town.

But all that instruction is a means to an end: performing. The Smith sisters have assembled a professional-level local circus troupe composed of acrobat Bronwyn Sims, jugglers Jen Slaw and Tony Duncan, actor and singer Patrick Donnelly and clowning contortionist Bill Forchion, who is married to Serenity.

This weekend, they'll perform "The Love Show" in the funky Nimble Arts studio. Among the show's circus and vaudeville acts is a symmetrical Smith-sister spectacle on the "fixed trapeze." Whether one is hanging off the other's insteps or the two are juxtaposed in mirror-image split stretches, it's a seamless partnership.

Can't make it down? "The Love Show" troupers are performing at First Night Burlington. Later in January, they're coming to Higher Ground. In a couple of weeks, Elsie, Serenity and Forchion are off to Norway with Sandglass Theater to tour a show co-written by Mermin and Putney puppeteer Eric Bass. Between Sand and Stars is inspired by the adventures of author-aviator Antoine St. Exupery, who penned The Little Prince. It's all about catching air.

Gigs tend to be far-flung when you're a professional circus artist. Jade Kindar-Martin grew up in Shelburne and learned the ropes at Circus Smirkus. He crossed the Thames on a tightrope. He and his stuntwoman wife said their marriage vows -- on a wire -- in France. This week the Circus Smirkus alum is working with the Great Wallendas at the "Big-E" exposition in Springfield, Massachusetts. He's the only non-family member in their seven-person pyramid -- a precarious tight-rope act. Patriarch Tino Wallenda personally invited him to join the group.

"It definitely feels like an honor," Kindar-Martin says on his cellphone before the first of three daily shows. "I've got three of his kids on my shoulders."

To add to the suspense, it's the first time the family has performed the act in New England since 1962, when a misstep in Detroit toppled the septet, reportedly killing two performers and paralyzing a third. Kindar-Martin prays with the Wallendas before every show. There's no net.

"That's just the way that it's done," explains Kindar-Martin, 31. "It's high-wire. Jugglers don't attach balls to their hands." Burlingtonians may remember Kindar-Martin's nerve-wracking, net-free walk high over Main Street eight years ago. He walked back and forth on a wire suspended between the upper stories of the Nectar's and Kinko's buildings.