The Mountain Times

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In this state: When life’s a circus

It's a cliché but it's safe to say that twin sisters Serenity Smith Forchion and Elsie Smith once "ran away to join the circus."
Serenity, trim and athletic-looking at 41, likes to tell the story of how two bookish high school "nerds" entered the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1988, but dropped out after becoming enamored with all things circus -- thanks to their experiences at an Upstate New York children's camp, where they worked for a summer. The camp had circus arts as an activity.

Elsie made no pretense of returning to UMass; after camp she took off with a traveling circus group who brought esteem-building exercises to schools across the East Coast and South. She soon would follow a boyfriend to Thunder Bay, Ont., where she would become a trampoline artist and coach.

"I went back to UMass, but then on a whim applied for a job at Ringing Brothers, and was hired and learned on the fly to dance, ride elephants and do aerials," explains Serenity as though still surprised.

For a "farm girl," her first day in the ring in Miami in early 1990 was quite the experience. She laughs as she explains how she had to get all gussied up in lipstick, glitter, eye shadow, earrings and fake eyelashes, then was wrapped in a hoop skirt and sent to the ring perform with scores of other dancers.

Their trajectory was not straight-line vertical, but it did course upward. Serenity soon went off to Japan to learn more about circus arts. And 1996 the twins teamed up in San Francisco to begin working on the trapeze routines. (Serenity by then had been performing with the Pickle Family Circus, a renowned regional circus that no longer exists). They contracted with other circuses across the land, and finally joined Cirque du Soleil. 

Running away to join the circus is up there with going to sea or going West, as a time-honored American means of escape and self-actualization. What was special about the Smith twins was not that they took off, but that they returned. They came back to New England and established a circus school.

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Photo by Dirk Van Susteren
Practicing on the duo trapeze, are, from left Teddy Sipos of New Orleans; Gwynne Flanagan of Washington D.C.; and, standing, Coach Elsie Smith of Brattleboro. The school offers performances of its own, among them the annual "Flying Nut Show," (Dec. 14-16) in which the "Nutcracker Ballet" story is told through acrobatics

The two came back - to Brattleboro - to found in 2002 an organization called Nimble Arts, a production company that still sends them and other specialists across the country, and the world, to perform with other circuses, and at big corporate and civic events.
A few years later the sisters with help from Serenity's husband Bill Forchion, a circus performer, stunt man and filmmaker, founded the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro. The school is not far from sisters' childhood home of Huntington, Mass., and just up the road from their father's farm and logging operation in Guilford, Vt.

NECCA, located in the "Old Cotton Mill," a converted century-old textile factory, draws budding circus performers from across the country, and the world, but also people of all ages and walks of life, who hanker for circus skills.

At the school one can try or improve on anything from juggling, to clowning, to dancing with stilts, to tightrope walking, to swinging on the trapeze.

"We have children who come for birthday events, teenagers who take classes with their friends, and people in their 70s, who come for exercise," says Serenity, who during a recent visit was on a coaching break and sitting on a wooden bench in an anteroom cluttered with the street shoes and fleece belonging to the 20-somethings practicing in the cavernous next room.

Elsie is out on the floor coaching two women struggling on the trapeze suspended from a beam 14 feet overhead.

"We had a grandmother from Vernon who was tired of buying material things for her grandchildren, so she decided to enroll three generations of the family, the kids and her own children, and herself and husband in one of our programs," says Serenity.

The school is also working with a young woman with cerebral palsy, developing a fabrics' routine for her that she can perform with the help of two caregivers.

NECCA, employing six regular staff and some two-dozen auxiliary coaches uses several rooms in the renovated mill. They've expanded a few times, says Serenity, picking up more space as an artist, business or non-profit group move on.

The school also has a few satellite venues nearby, including a converted truck garage in Brattleboro and the twins' father's Sunrise Farm, where a flying trapeze has been set up over a net.

On any given day, the school's factory rooms are abuzz with circus athletes, stretching; practicing handstands; climbing colorful fabrics to the ceiling; and stepping, with arms thrust outward for balance, across the tightrope strung safely, just three feet above mats.

You might also find students taking trips across the floor on the German wheel, that giant cylindrical contraption that performers ride as human spokes. Each successful venture across the floor prompts a high-five or an expression of "That's awesome!" from Chris Delbaco, a young instructor, who come up from New York City.

As one might expect, the school cross-pollinates with Vermont's Circus Smirkus, the famous youth circus, based in Greensboro, that tours the Northeast every summer. NECCA sends trainers to Circus Smirkus, and teenage Smirkus performers enroll in NECCA courses. 

The school offers performances of its own, among them the annual "Flying Nut Show," (Dec. 14-16) in which the "Nutcracker Ballet" story is told through acrobatics; and the "Circus Spectacular," the fundraiser on March 2 and 3 at the 750-seat Latchis Theater, Brattleboro's downtown landmark.

"Our own professionals and guest performers from Ringling Brothers and Cirque du Soleil will be at 'Circus Spectacular,'" says Serenity.

"I call my friends," she explains.

Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais, Vt., freelance reporter and editor.