Circus of the youngby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
This summer, St. Paul will have its own Cirque du Soleil-style production. For more than a decade, Circus Juventas has trained hundreds of young people of all ages each year to do sophisticated acrobatics and choreography. This year's production will take audiences to a haunted mansion in New Orleans.
St. Paul, Minn. — About two dozen young people ranging in age from 8 to their early 20s are rehearsing a jump rope acrobatic act. It's part of their big summer circus production called Raven's Manor.
After they do a few double-dutch jumps, some twirl in the air, while others roll and tumble on the ground. The show doesn't have any dialogue, so coaches are directing the kids to stay in character.
"If you can find a way to present your way to the audience. They know you just did the trick and they're going to clap for you, but present yourself in a different way," said one coach.
Owners Dan and Betty Butler say Circus Juventas is like a youth version of Cirque du Soleil -- there are no red-nosed clowns or animals.
The kids' acrobatic movements rival those of professionals. Young girls climb up high on ropes, wrap their arms and legs around the ropes, and carefully twirl in the air as they wind and unwind themselves.
Others rely heavily on each others' upper arm and leg strength as they swing on flying trapezes.
The Butlers started this circus back in 1994 when it was called Circus of the Star. It first started at a local recreation center, where the Butlers taught workshops once a week for fun.
As more students enrolled, the Butlers knew it was time to get their own space. A successful capital campaign seven years ago helped them build their own big top in St. Paul.
"What we like to do ... is the introduction of the story to tell, so that the fabric is woven throughout the whole show from the very beginning to the end," said Betty Butler.
Betty Butler says this storytelling sets Circus Juventas apart from other youth circuses. There are several dozen around the country, but the Butlers say none develops its own story lines from scratch.
Past productions have explored mythology and historical events, so the Butlers say this experience becomes educational for the kids.
"All of these circuses in America have still to this day followed along Ringling and Shriner's ... No animals, but very traditional," said Dan Butler. "And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a part of the culture of America, but we've always focused on the arts side from day one."
The kids study character development and choreography. One of the performers in this year's production is Martha Kirby, who's been a part of the circus since she was 10.
Now 16, Kirby says she'll take these skills with her when she outgrows the circus.
"I do want to go to college, possibly for dance, so it's really helpful for the acrobatic things that you learn and different character acting type things," she said.
Kirby plays a housekeeper in the haunted mansion in Raven's Manor, which is inspired by a Disney World ride.
Kirby and her sister Gemma will perform aerial work, for which Circus Juventas is most well-known.
Kirby's father, Jon Lurie, has paid close attention to how his daughters and their other young colleagues have developed throughout their time at the circus.
"They build such strong skills here, and such strong mental and physical capabilities that when they transfer them elsewhere, they really kind of tend to outshine all the other kids they come into contact with," said Lurie.
The productions at Circus Juventas keep getting more sophisticated. Each year, the Butlers add show dates because of the growing number of people who attend. Dan Butler says the organization has been growing 18 percent a year for the past three years.
For the first time, some of the acts will have their own original score by solo performer Peter Ostroushko. In the past, Ostroushko played music to connect scenes.
Betty Butler told Ostroushko she wanted traditional Louisiana bayou music. Ostroushko describes one of the pieces he composed.
"There is this scene where someone takes a boat through the swamp, and they are going to meet the witch doctor that lives in the swamp, and I came up with this piece of music for it," said Ostroushko.
The Butlers say more than 50,000 people see their shows each year. Raven's Manor runs from July 31-Aug. 17.
- All Things Considered, 07/14/2008, 5:24 p.m.