This article was originally posed in Seven Days. Read the full article here.
Nearly 20 feet in the air at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Colleen Agozzino stood on a trapeze and began to swing. She vigorously bent and straightened her legs, over and over, gathering speed and momentum like a pendulum. Suddenly she dropped, hanging upside down on the trapeze bar, and then rolled up and over the bar multiple times, still swinging. Even in this brightly lit gymnasium where everyone was diving through hoops, propelling themselves off a trampoline or doing handsprings, Agozzino’s movements were breathtaking.
She is a student in NECCA’s ProTrack program, a full-time, three-year training school for aspiring circus professionals. Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion — twin sisters and Brattleboro residents who performed together in Cirque du Soleil — founded NECCA in 2007 and immediately launched ProTrack, making it one of the longest-running professional circus programs in the U.S. While NECCA has offered hundreds of recreational classes to the local community over the past 16 years, it has also turned out hundreds of professional artists who perform and coach in shows and training studios around the world.
On Friday, May 5, NECCA’s 2023 graduates will cap off their training by performing as Circus Springboard in a show titled “Intertwine” at Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro. Smith explained that if the ProTrack program can be compared to college or graduate school, the touring show — three states, four performances — is the final thesis.
“Taking all your material and equipment and resetting it in a new theatrical space is both performance and traveling education,” she said.
The nine artists who will perform at Highland Center for the Arts started their NECCA training in fall 2020, at the height of the pandemic. After making it through a highly selective audition process, they dove into an intense curriculum of fitness and flexibility classes and acrobatic and aerial instruction. As in any higher education program, ProTrack students choose majors and minors; their options span more than a dozen apparatuses, including those familiar to the general public, such as trapeze, trampoline, aerial fabric and rope, and those that are more obscure — the Tippy Lyra, the German Wheel and the Static Cloud Swing.
Marine Scholtes Labrecque, 21, came to NECCA from Montréal, having studied ballet for years before switching to circus classes as a teenager. During three years of training in Brattleboro, Scholtes Labrecque, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, designed their own apparatus — “it’s my take on the aerial ladder,” they explained.
“The great thing about being at NECCA is that my skill level has grown a lot, but my style has grown even more,” Scholtes Labrecque continued. “When I started, I was a very lyrical artist because of my dance background, but then I discovered clowning — that I can be funny onstage and get laughed at and enjoy it. Those things merged together to create my own persona as an artist.”
“[Vermont is] something of a magnet for circus people, whether you’re a student or professional.”
To direct Scholtes Labrecque and their fellow “Intertwine” performers, NECCA brought in Mark Lonergan, the artistic director of Parallel Exit, a circus and physical theater company in New York. Lonergan has collaborated with NECCA since the beginning of the pandemic — he and Forchion helped start the American Circus Alliance in 2020 — and he wanted to work with NECCA’s ProTrack students partly because Vermont is “something of a magnet for circus people, whether you’re a student or professional,” he said.
Besides NECCA, there is Circus Smirkus in Greensboro and Flying Gravity Circus in nearby Wilton, N.H. “New York has a lot of circus because it has a lot of everything, but what New York does not have is this,” he added, gesturing around NECCA’s bustling space — “the facilities, the people and the knowledge.”
Lonergan noted that even though the United States has a vibrant circus history — Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey — its “circus education for professionals is still quite young” compared to those of Canada, Australia and Europe.
“It’s important for there to be talented, skilled and well-trained circus artists in this country,” he said. The “Intertwine” performers “have been in student mode up until now, learning, absorbing, growing, pushing themselves. My role is to be their connector to the professional world.”
Accessing that world means getting a job, and that is the end goal of students in the ProTrack program. They spend much of their third and final year at NECCA preparing: creating their own acts, assembling photos and videos of their work, building resumés and websites. NECCA helps them pursue auditions and even hosts auditions for other companies, including, earlier this year, a German cruise line that presents theatrical entertainment on all of its ships.
“We as a school have always embraced variety,” Forchion said. She explained that while some circus-training programs focus only on group acts or contemporary circus, she and her sister had a different vision for ProTrack. They had both performed and coached across a wide circus spectrum, from Ringling Bros. to Cirque du Soleil to their own performing company, Nimble Arts.
“We want to train people who want to perform in different places,” Forchion said. “Some of our students would hate performing on cruise ships. Some would love it. Some would love to do burlesque or street performance.”
All of those potential jobs, no matter where they are, can be difficult to get. Among this year’s ProTrack graduates, 23-year-old Josephine Somerville of Needham, Mass., was the first to land a contract. After performing in “Intertwine” on the Tippy Lyra (an aerial ring) and the German Wheel (a cross between a ladder and a giant hoop), she will spend the next four months with Circus SNOR, a small tented circus based in Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Just four years ago, Somerville was finishing a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience (after fast-tracking her education by combining high school with community college). She started a job in the field of behavioral health but didn’t feel fulfilled.
“I realized that circus is the thing that makes me happy,” she said. “So I decided to do the thing that makes me happy and makes other people happy.”
Somerville’s family was “super supportive” of the shift, she said. “My mom was originally an economist, and she left that to be a farmer,” so the idea of leaving a stable job to pursue a more satisfying career was not unfamiliar.
Even as Somerville and her peers applied for positions with circus companies and festivals, they spent most of their time rehearsing for “Intertwine,” which is both a showcase of their individual acts and a “collaborative art project.” That’s according to Layton Hahs, 26, who came to NECCA from Cape Girardeau, Mo., and performs on the aerial sling.
“Everybody here is incredibly skilled, and you’re going to see some amazing feats of human strength and flexibility,” Hahs said. “But it’s also our last big hurrah as a group. I think what will really bring the audience in is the connection we have. Everyone can relate to the feeling of togetherness and cooperation.”