Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the traditional circus. Sad clowns, stupid human tricks, animals in tutus—it’s the sort of entertainment I imagine would be effective at Guantanamo Bay.
Fortunately, the circus arts have evolved over the years, due largely to the popularity of Cirque du Soleil and other circuses that dispense with the animals and rely entirely on imaginative acrobatics and exuberant spectacle to keep the kiddies entertained. One such circus is St. Paul’s Circus Juventas. The difference is that in Circus Juventas, it’s the kids who do the entertaining.
If you’ve never been to a Circus Juventas show, you owe it to yourself to go see Ravens Manor, this summer’s big event, if only to be reminded what children are capable of with the right coaching and parents who truly believe the cable holding their precious daughter forty feet in the air, upside down, by her ankle, is going to hold.
Circus Juventas isn’t just a circus for kids—it’s the largest youth circus in the country, and easily one of the best. More than 600 kids participate in the circus school program, and the top students put on a show every year. This year’s theme was inspired by Disney’s Haunted House ride. It involves a woman who lost her only true love at sea and spends the rest of her life locked up inside a gothic mansion, and involves some zombie boyfriends, a swamp princess, and lots of girls in neon dreadlocks. But the “plot,” such as it is, is just a pretext for the various circus acts, which are numerous and spectacular—so spectacular that it’s hard to believe these are local high school and college kids during the day.
We’re not talking somersaults and handstands and a bunch of pity-clapping from parents. These kids put on a show that includes an astonishing variety of eye-popping circus tricks from around the world—tricks with names like the Mexican Cloud Swing, The Spanish Web, the German Wheel, the Russian Bar, and the French Trapeze. They also juggle fire: ten of them, simultaneously, toss torches back and forth as casually as if they were tossing each other a pair of car keys (though most of them probably don’t even have their learner’s permit yet). Which raises an interesting question. I mean, how do you explain to your son that yes, you can juggle fire all you want—but don’t even think about driving to the grocery store by yourself.
Like Cirque du Soleil, the “acts” are really theatrical episodes that involve one set of skills or another—climbing ropes, dangling from long ribbons of silk, swinging from the rafters—and evolve into a kind of moving sculpture backed by music so operatic and bombastic you’d swear that any second a girl is going to slip free of her rigging and fly for real. In one particularly stunning scene, half a dozen performers are jumping out of the mansion’s windows down onto trampolines and back up to the windows, over and over again, such that it looks like they really are defying gravity. It’s amazing—just the sort of thing you would not want your kid to try at home.
Another treat is that mandolin player/violinist Peter Ostroushko and his band composed and play the eerie score live (his daughter, Anna, performs the French Trapeze and Spanish Web), and all of this music has been compiled onto a new CD. Ostroushko’s band lends just another layer of professionalism to Ravens Manor, a show that demonstrates beyond a shadow of any possible doubt that Circus Juventas has evolved into a world-class organization since its inception in 1994. The big bonus is that a couple of times a year they throw their doors open and let us jaded adults inside to see what a bunch of lithe, strong, determined kids can do if they set their minds to it, have the proper instruction—and their parents' permission.
I’m not sure I’d let my daughter swing from the rafters and juggle fire, but it’s sure a lot of fun to watch someone else’s kid do it.
Ravens Manor continues through Aug. 17, but tickets are selling fast. A small warning: unless they figure out how to condense it, the show is more than three hours long, which could test the patience of the littlest audience members.