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Editor’s note: This piece written by Corey Burdick was originally published in the print edition of the Best of Central Vermont, June 2017 issue.

Best of Central Vermont June 2017

Come one! Come all! It’s the excitement of acrobatics, juggling, and live performance for the whole family! Where? Right here in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Circus Smirkus is celebrating its 30th anniversary in style with Midnight at the Museum, the 2017 Big Top Tour.

From the opening of the tour in early July to its mid August finale, Circus Smirkus will perform 69 shows in five states. The theme-based shows will include aerial acts, wire walking, clowns, and live music. In addition to the Big Top Tour, the 30th anniversary celebrations include several other exciting endeavors, including two Smirkus teams educating the public about the origins of the circus at the Smithsonian and a visit from the Princess of the Council of Chiefs of Zambia to honor the first-ever Zambian to participate in an American circus!

Above: Smirkus troupers Sam Ferlo and Nick Zelle. Photos by Harry Powers and Robert Sanson.

HISTORY AND MISSION

How did this come to be in our very own Green Mountains? Rob Mermin founded Circus Smirkus in 1987 after having performed as a clown for over a decade. His expertise included studying with the famed Marcel Marceau, having his own Swedish television show, and, upon his return to the States, working as the director of Ringling Brothers Clown College. Rob remains a consultant to Circus Smirkus today. The mission of Smirkus is simple in theory and thoughtfully executed in practice: “To promote the skills, culture, and traditions of the traveling circus and to inspire youth to engage in life-changing adventures in the circus arts.”

Camps at the gorgeous headquarters of Circus Smirkus come in a range of offerings, from one day, get-your-feet-wet experiences for children as young as five to weeklong camps specializing in a variety of circus pursuits such as acrobatics, aerials, performance, balance, and juggling.

In all, 600 campers (adults too) participate each summer in a variety of programs that range in level from beginner to advanced. Although most of the camps are open to all skill levels, advanced sessions require a video audition.

Circus Smirkus Artistic Director Troy Wunderle

However, when it comes to securing a spot in The Big Top Tour, the process becomes a bit more involved. The audition requires both a written application and recorded audition.

After review by the tour’s directorial staff, the pool is reduced to 45 performers who are then invited to participate in a live audition and, based upon those performances, 30 troupers are selected.

This season’s troupe comprises kids from 13 states as well as Canada and the circus’s first performer from Zambia! After the troupers’ selection has been finalized, the show is created over the winter months, and during three weeks in June, it’s rehearsed. Then the troupers hit the road for seven weeks in which full, two-hour shows are performed twice daily.

The amazing performances audiences enjoy require numerous helping hands and behind-the-scenes dedication to execute. The tour includes 80 people—the crew, performers, and coaches. It takes eight hours to set up the big top and the backstage and concession tents, and to prep and organize 200 costume pieces, 100 props, 70 spotlights, and a mile of electrical cable. But ultimately, all this work is worth it for those involved. Executive Director Ed LeClair says, “With so many different types of skills to learn all under one tent, there is a way for everyone to succeed. Everyone is valued. Everyone contributes. Everyone is part of the show. Unlike the outside world, kids are applauded for what they bring to the ring, not their background, family, race, creed, or gender.”

THE SMIRKUS IMPACT AND ALUMNI SUCCESS

Ensemble shot from the 2004 Big Top Tour.

So what’s next for kids who participate in the camps or tour?

Many alumni pursue careers in the circus arts. Graduates have performed with Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Big Apple Circus, Cirque Mechanics, Les 7 Doigts, Pan-Twilight Circus, and the Moscow State Circus, as well as other international touring companies.

Two Smirkus alumni have even been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The skills acquired at Smirkus, including confidence, team building, and communication, have tremendous crossover in a variety of careers and serve to benefit even those who do not continue on a circus-related career path.

Ensemble shot from the 2004 Big Top Tour.

Ed LeClair believes in the power of the Smirkus experience to tap into the innate longing children have to belong and to be celebrated for exactly who they are, far from the pressures and expectations of family, peers, and school.

Ed says, “We offer a real rabbit hole, where the world changes once you dive through. On the other side, powerful, mysterious, kindly coaches simultaneously welcome you and push you on the first step of the hero’s journey.”

Although Ed will be departing at the end of the season after 14 years immersed in the world of circus, he had this to add about the history and future of Smirkus in the ever-evolving circus landscape:

“Our 30th is an important milestone of achievement and a treasure trove of success stories, and yet is it just the beginning. My departure at the end of the year opens the door to new ideas, new approaches, and the irrepressible energy of youth and new life sprouting. I am proud to have supported the ‘traditions’ of circus in my tenure, but I can’t wait for the next act. People often ask what my favorite show is, and I am proud to answer honestly, ‘Next Year’s.’ I can’t wait to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

Don’t miss the 30th Anniversary Circus Smirkus Big Top Tour throughout New England. Tickets are available at www.smirkus. org, or call 1-877-SMIRKUS (1-877-764- 7587).

2010 Smirkus troupers in Maine with President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush

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