Photo by Caitlin Abrams
A pair of 10-foot-plus wooden legs wearing striped stockings writhe below the high rigging of a big top while voices from somewhere above them yell back and forth with a lady holding a stack of circus posters 40 feet below. They’re up there—the legs, the rigging, the voices—because of the lady with the posters; the whole fantastical big top is. If it wasn’t for Betty Butler and her husband Dan, Circus Juventas would be a term without a Google search result. When she “walked through the gates and found [her] home” at a local circus school as a kid in Sarasota, Florida, Butler’s fate was sealed. Fast-forward a lifetime and there she stands in her own circus school, the largest of its kind in North America, in St. Paul’s Highland Park. She’s figuring out how Alice’s legs are going to drop into view after she drinks the enlarging serum in Circus Juventas’ interpretation of the Lewis Carroll classic. Circus artistic director problems. Between giant-leg MacGyvering and her 18-year-old Caleb borrowing gas money, we ask Butler about how she grew a 30-kid after-school program into a 1,000-student behemoth, what kind of kid joins the circus, and if she still gets the itch to glide on the flying trapeze.
What exactly is Circus Juventas?
It’s part of a renaissance of circus that began maybe 25 years ago. Cirque du Soleil was a great catalyst for changing circus around the planet. However, youth circus wasn’t really near the numbers that it is today, so when we began in ’94, there weren’t many others. This is an incredibly unique environment that teaches incredible teamwork coupled with the incredible physicality of circus skills. We also value storytelling and theatricality. The level of training is high. Original costuming. Original narratives. Interesting music. Incredible sets. And even just the sheer magnitude of what we do: Most people can’t imagine coordinating a circus cast of [75 to 100 people] to tell a story.
How did you go from an after-school program to the largest performing arts youth circus in North America?
We started with 30 kids in 1994 at Hillcrest Recreation Center in St. Paul, and we asked the families to just bear with us. I remember the day—November 12, 1997—that we met with all parents in the community room of Hillcrest to lay out our proposal for [going all in]. It was like, “We are at a crossroads here. We’re either going to have to think about phasing out or consider a capital campaign to do this full-time.” We had no experience, no money. The odds were against us, but slowly people started coming onboard and buying into it. We met with Norm Coleman, who was completely behind the whole project, and the seed money came from the city of St. Paul and we thought, this might actually happen. We started out with 270 students in the new big top in 2001 and then we just grew every year eventually to 500, and we’re at 1,000 now.
So, what kind of kid joins the circus?
It ranges. You’ve got the kids who come once a week to do a little bit of juggling or tumbling and then they have a gazillion other things they’re doing, to the kid who lives here, and everything in between. . . . [Because] as a school you have to be permanent [as opposed to a traveling circus], it allows us to grow kids from toddlers all the way through college. Which makes it like a family. You can start at 2 and you can go to 22. So it allows kids a jumping-off point for the rest of their lives. We’ve got lots of kids who’ve gone on to professional work. Kids who’ve gone to professional circus school in Canada, and they’re hard to get into. We had a girl who got picked up by Cirque du Soleil and now she’s in Japan in Totem basically one year out from here.
What’s the most insane stunt a kid could end up doing here, and how do you convince parents their kid won’t break their neck performing said insane stunt?
Depends on what your cup of tea is. It could be riding the bike on the high wire. It could be doing a double on the flying trapeze. It could be the Russian swing where they fly up 30 feet in the air and catapult onto a mat. I mean, there are some pretty badass things a kid could do here. It’s a perceived danger because we have so much active and passive spotting. There are safety nets, there are safety belts, obviously tons of crash pads. Safety is well built into the circus.
Speaking of danger, do you still do any of this stuff?
I keep wanting to challenge myself on an ankle leap. I keep wondering, can I do that? It’s tempting. What’s the worst that can happen? I don’t know. I don’t know that I want to know. Probably some pretty bloody ankles. I think I have pretty good muscle memory. I think I could do it. I was just on the unicycle on Mother’s Day. I road up and down our street and my youngest didn’t know I could do that and he was like, “What else can you do, Mom?” I could jump up and walk the wire, [but] the only time I’ll do it is when nobody’s around.
Catch Circus Juventas’ Wonderland July 28–Aug. 14