Kids in the cen­ter ring, Sara­sota’s The Circus Arts Con­ser­va­tory


Kids in the cen­ter ring, Sara­sota’s The Circus Arts Con­ser­va­tory

As per­form­ers stand atop one an­other’s shoul­ders in a pyra­mid for­ma­tion, car­ried by circus legend Nik Wal­lenda across the Circus Sara­sota ring, not a wob­ble is seen. A mis­step may mean ma­jor in­juries, if not death, but per­form­ers main­tain a cool look through­out the show. The risk comes in ser­vice only to en­ter­tain an au­di­ence, where chil­dren guf­faw and adults hold their breath, brac­ing for a dis­as­ter that most as­suredly will never come. For in­struc­tors at The Circus Arts Con­ser­va­tory, though, the mo­ment serves not to feed fear but to swell pride. “Five of the seven who are part of the pyra­mid are Sailor Circus alums,” boasts Jen­nifer Mitchell, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Sara­sota per­form­ing arts in­sti­tu­tion.

Sailor Circus, a decades-old pro­gram once run by the lo­cal po­lice ath­letic league in this circus-rich town, was pur­chased five years ago by Circus Sara­sota, which re­branded then as The Circus Arts Con­ser­va­tory op­er­at­ing in town today. The for­mer stu­dents stand­ing lit­er­ally on the shoul­der of a per­form­ing gi­ant serve as tes­ta­ment to an en­dur­ing art form, even at a time when the very fu­ture of the tra­di­tional

What we are see­ing in young peo­ple today is that it’s less about spectating and ob­serv­ing and more about en­gag­ing and do­ing.” —Jen­nifer Mitchell, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of The Circus Arts Con­ser­va­tory

Amer­i­can circus seems in ques­tion.

News of the clos­ing of the Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bailey Circus hit com­mu­ni­ties on Florida’s west coast par­tic­u­larly hard. The Great­est Show on Earth, which ends in late May in Union­dale, New York, and dates to the 19th cen­tury, at var­i­ous points had main­tained win­ter head­quar­ters in Sara­sota, Venice and Tampa. Par­ent com­pany Feld En­ter­tain­ment moved all its prop­er­ties to a cam­pus in Pal­metto, Florida, in 2012. As a re­sult of that his­tory, gen­er­a­tions of circus fam­i­lies have set­tled in this area and the circus her­itage has be­come part of the fab­ric of the com­mu­nity. Be­fore sky­walk­ing across the Chicago sky­line on na­tional tele­vi­sion a few years ago, Wal­lenda con­ducted sim­i­lar stunts in down­town Fort My­ers and Sara­sota, and he’s of­ten seen prac­tic­ing at an out­door fa­cil­ity be­side The Mall at Univer­sity Town Cen­ter in Sara­sota.

And ac­cord­ing to Mitchell, that circus spirit still flows in the area. As of this spring, 105 stu­dents re­mained ac­tively en­rolled in the Sailor Circus af­ter-school pro­grams held by the Con­ser­va­tory, and more than 700 stu­dents are ex­pected to en­roll in sum­mer camps hosted this year. “We have seen our pro­gram­ming blos­som and

grow,” Mitchell says. “What we are see­ing in young peo­ple today is that it’s less about spectating and ob­serv­ing and more about en­gag­ing and do­ing. It’s not just peo­ple sit­ting butts in seats.”

Whether chil­dren learn the aerial art of spin­ning on silks or turn­ing to the rhythm of a wheel of death, the pro­gram of­fers rich ex­pe­ri­ences that com­bine ath­leti­cism with the craft­ing of per­for­mance art. The school, one of 250 such pro­grams in the coun­try rec­og­nized by the Amer­i­can Youth Circus Or­ga­ni­za­tion, has grown into one of the great­est care­tak­ers for the legacy of the big top. The or­ga­ni­za­tion cel­e­brat­ing 20 years― founded by veteran Rin­gling per­form­ers Pe­dro Reis and Dolly Ja­cobs in 1997 as The Na­tional Circus School of Per­form­ing Arts―quickly evolved into Circus Sara­sota and turned its fo­cus on ex­hi­bi­tion. In 2013, the education roots came back to the fore­ground for the non­profit.

Reis is an ex­pe­ri­enced aeri­al­ist stress­ing that circus train­ing can add value to any child's life, even if his or her fu­ture isn't on the high wire. “The self-es­teem and pride is mon­u­men­tal to kids who don’t do other ath­letic-type pro­grams,” he says. “That is an­other re­turn in­vest­ment. We are ab­so­lutely turn­ing out stel­lar stu­dents who will suc­ceed in life, no mat­ter what.”

Mitchell notes that only about 10 per­cent of grad­u­ates of Con­ser­va­tory pro­grams go on to be pro­fes­sional circus per­form­ers. She notes that even with the end of the Rin­gling Bros. Circus, many still find homes in other ma­jor per­form­ing troupes such as Cirque du Soleil. Of course, many go into re­lated fields, whether at theme parks or other live en­ter­tain­ment.

The Con­ser­va­tory also reg­u­larly sends per­form­ers into area nurs­ing homes and to share the arts with stu­dents in schools. And as the ef­fort ex­pands, it also has grown a new pres­ence at col­leges in the Sara­so­taBraden­ton area.

All the while, Circus Sara­sota con­tin­ues to put up its big top each spring.

We are ab­so­lutely turn­ing out stel­lar stu­dents who will suc­ceed in life." —Pe­dro Reis, Circus Sara­sota co-founder

More about do­ing than watch­ing, the Con­ser­va­tory an­tic­i­pates some 700 kids will en­roll in sum­mer camps.

Pro­fes­sional circus per­form­ers can come from Con­ser­va­tory ranks.

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