Diving to success: Cirque du Soleil program teaches hoop diving at New England Center for Circus Arts

BRATTLEBORO — Circus artists gradually gained more control over acrobatic maneuvers through hoops, thanks to Cirque Du Soleil workshops hosted at New England Center for Circus Arts.

“I have to say it was a crash course, 10 days, trying to go through everything, but I believe I’m able to teach them safely,” said Gergely Boi, a head coach with Cirque du Soleil. “The point is to learn the basics and enjoy what they’re doing. It was a good progression.”

Jenna Struble, executive director at NECCA, said her group approached Cirque du Soleil last year to ask for some assistance with coaching. The Brattleboro-based circus school then received information about the NextGen Program offered by the Canadian company and largest contemporary circus producer in the world.

“The NextGen Program is really to help locate identified disciplines at risk,” Struble said, or “something that maybe schools aren’t teaching on a regular basis like teeterboard, hoop diving, Russian bar — these really beautiful, broad circus disciplines that have traditionally been plentiful but now are not.”

With Cirque du Soleil having many of those acts in its shows, the group seeks out schools to host the NextGen Program. Struble said NECCA currently is one of six schools in the world selected to participate.

Workshops this month marked the first time the program came to NECCA. Participating were students enrolled in NECCA’s ProTrack Program and circus artists from around the U.S.

“It’s also a really great opportunity for our coaches to get mentored,” Struble said. “We are the premiere circus school in the United States but we have a lot to catch up to with schools in Montreal, of course. Montreal is the circus headquarters of North America.”

NECCA’s mission is to empower staff, students and the community with “the transformative power of circus arts,” Struble said. She noted participants in the school’s ProTrack Program seek to become employable in the field.

“If there’s not a lot of training facilities in the world doing hoop diving,” she said, “our students learning hoop diving gives them a leg up for when they want to get a job in the future.”

NECCA recently purchased a Russian bar. Struble hopes to add the discipline in the future.

The NextGen Program “has been really, really great,” said Ben Huey of Cincinnati, Ohio, who currently works in circus arts in Quebec and doesn’t have a lot of experience in hoop diving.

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“Being accepted was a really cool experience, just that,” Huey said. “Working with Gergely … he’s a really amazing, detailed coach.”

Huey completed the ProTrack Program in 2014 and 2015, then stayed on as a coach at NECCA in 2015 and 2016 and returned to coach in summer 2018. He also has coached at circus schools in Quebec City.

Boi provided participants with “attainable goals each session” to be able to progress without feeling pressure about working with a coach from Cirque du Soleil, Huey said. They started with thinking about how to go through hoops after dive rolls and cartwheels.

Boi “would look at our form then give us corrections about what he thought we needed to work on before we go through a hula hoop that he held in his hand,” Huey said. “And then we just progressed that way until we were going through the stacks of hoops that are out there, which are a little bit harder. They’re stuck on by magnets so if you hit them, it’s not like the end of the world, but it’s not fun either.”

Huey said the workshops featured a lot of duo work and some group movements. After gaining confidence, he feels he can train in the discipline on his own and with friends in Quebec.

“NECCA was where I started circus,” he said, “so to come back and be able to continue to push myself to further my career and make new connections and reinforce old connections has just been really nice.”

Boi described the NextGen Program as a way to find candidates and add to the casting pool for different disciplines. By teaching coaches at the circus schools, the discipline can continue to be taught after his group leaves. The program began in 2017.

As a coach, Boi said he believes he should not just teach his students, but learn from them.

“To be creative,” he added, “you have to let them shine and listen to their ideas.”

As a coach who formerly performed with Cirque du Soleil, Boi said the work never gets boring. He touted the large amount of space available for training at NECCA.

Struble said the Brattleboro school currently has 238 students enrolled, with 34 in the ProTrack program.

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