Arts, Behind the Scenes, People

New England Center for Circus Arts lifts hopes

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Jess Hill, a coach at New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vt, practices her skills on the ropes. Photo: Kristopher Radder.

By Nancy A. Olson

Circus is for everyone. That’s the foundation on which identical twins Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, world-renowned circus performers and teachers, have built the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vt.

Since its founding in 2007, NECCA’s mission has been to create and sustain “a school, facility, and community where circus arts are available to the general public and to inspire students of all skill levels, ages, abilities, and aspirations.”

NECCA has grown substantially in the last decade. In June 2007, the center moved into its new state-of-the-art circus trapezium, a custom-designed 8,600-square-foot building with 40-foot-high ceilings, which allow for varied training apparatus, including an indoor flying trapeze rig, a built-in trampoline, and requisite safety equipment.

Today, the circus school offers the most comprehensive full-time professional training program, a three-year track, for artists in the newest facility in the United States.

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The new New England Center For Circus Arts building on Putney Road, Brattleboro, Vt. Photo: Kristopher Radder.

But that’s not all. Whether a person is looking to develop fitness or wants to try something new, choices abound, including aerial fabric, Chinese pole, tumbling, trampoline, juggling, trapeze — both swinging and flying, as well as youth classes and summer camps.

“Circus is one of the best ways of teaching physical literacy because people learn how their bodies work,” Forchion said. “We’re getting circus into schools in an intentional way. Right now, five local gym teachers are learning how to do backflips. We work with homeschoolers. We have after-school programs. We also work with people with disabilities.”

Smith and Forchion moved to Brattleboro in 2002. Their father, a farmer and logger, lives in nearby Guilford.

“We never set out to build the longest-running professional circus training program in the United States,” Forchion said. “As our careers developed, and we became accomplished in that realm, we needed a place to train. That was at Cotton Mill Hill in Brattleboro. We started giving impromptu lessons, and they proved so popular, we outgrew the space in Cotton Mill and embarked on developing a building of our own.”

What started out as impromptu lessons, is now one of the major arts organizations contributing to the local economy in Brattleboro, she said.

“We have hundreds of students a year,” Forchion said. “This is a destination program. People come from all over the world, bringing in more diversity. Our students eat in local restaurants and stay in local hotels. Some of our adult students work in those same businesses. So there are both economic and social benefits.”

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New England Center for Circus Arts co-founder Serenity Smith Forchion helps Tess Neill, hanging from a fabric sling, fine-tune a position called ‘the gazelle.’ Photo: Chris Bertelsen

A Community of Performers

Jess Hill, from Asheville, North Carolina, is an example of someone who moved to he area because of NECCA, where she now teaches. A gymnast as a child, she saw an aerial fabric performance at a festival and was hooked.

“I started taking one class a week while in college,” she said. “After graduating from college, I [decided to] do this full-time.”

Hill received two years of professional training at NECCA.

“This community is open and supportive,” she said, “and a non-competitive environment, which is important to me. The level of coaching and teaching is amazing. The coaches have so much knowledge and experience, and they’re very good at explaining.”

“It’s progression-based learning,” Hill continued, “which allows your body to develop strength, so you’re safe in the moment and safe for the long-term.”

That approach informs all the options available at NECCA, Forchion said.

Early Beginnings

The sisters grew up on a small farm in rural Western Massachusetts, the oldest of seven children. In addition to helping take care of the chickens, rabbits and pigs, the twins would give endless presentations for anyone.

“Performance was always in us,” Forchion said. “The two of us were always doing handstands in the front yard, or turning cartwheels over logs. Our genes gave us a natural awareness of movement plus flexibility and agility. But our biggest trait was that we worked really hard. We would practice until we couldn’t lift our arms anymore. Natural talent will take you only so far. You have to have a burning desire to do something.”

Forchion said both her parents are hard workers.

“When we were growing up our mother was a midwife. She took us along on home births,” she said. “We watched her go to medical school to become a locum tenens doctor. [Locum tenens is a Latin phrase, meaning “to hold the place of,” in other words, a substitute.] She works in challenged communities, providing medical services in underserved areas, such as on American Indian reservations in the United States, and among aboriginal communities in Australia and New Zealand. She lives in Hawai’i.”

The Smith family didn’t have a lot of material possessions, Forchion said. Instead, the family traveled to different parts of the United States and to different countries.

“Also, at the age of 15, I went on a summer program to Spain, so I understood that people live in many different ways,” she said.

Then chance played a part in Forchion’s life after she had spent a summer teaching at a performing arts camp that had circus.

“When I was 18 and a junior in college, a door opened into a complete unknown, and I walked through it. I had a chance to join Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus.” she said.

As a cast member at Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus, Forchion was a dancer, an aerialist, and an elephant rider.

“It was so intriguing,” she said. “I lived on a train. I traveled and met new people and had new experiences. The tribe of circus was a natural fit.”

Now the twins are offering to others the opportunity to find joy in movement.

“We’re having a broader effect than we ever set out to have,” Forchion said. “NECCA students range in age from three to 87. And we have drop-in classes. We encourage everyone to come in and try something.”

For more information: 802-254-9780, info@centerforcircusarts.org or necenterforcircusarts.org

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Coach Katie Schmidt helps Tegwyn Rugg while on the trampoline at the Trapezium building for New England Center for Circus Arts. Photo: Kristopher Radder.

Nancy A. Olson is a freelance writer now after 35 years of teaching English and journalism. She lives in Putney, Vt., which she first discovered by attending Windham College.

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