WINDOM — If you are a polite, unassuming high school student from Southwest Minneapolis, you might get a funny reaction the first time you tell someone you’re in the circus.
At least, that’s been 16-year-old Lisa Rawlins’ experience.
“First of all, it’s hard to explain in general,” Rawlins said, “and then you have to deal with people who might not believe you.”
They start with the typical questions: Are there animals? Do you travel? Are you paid?
The answers are: no, no and no.
For the past five years, Rawlins has trained in St. Paul’s Circus Juventas, one of a very small number of youth circus schools in the country. For three weeks beginning July 26, she and the school’s other advanced students perform in Atlanticus, a show that combines theatre with circus thrills.
Founded in 1994 as Circus of the Star, Circus Juventas has grown from a small after-school program to a school of more than 600 students. Under its permanent big top, opened in 2001, youth performers train in five circus arts: acrobatics, juggling, aerial, balance and circus theatre.
It’s more Cirque du Soleil than Ringling Bros., said Betty Butler, co-founder of Circus Juventas with her husband, Dan Butler.
In the spirit of the Canadian performance group, the nonprofit school’s twice-yearly productions emphasize artistry and theatricality over death-defying spectacle. Students hone athletic skills in a noncompetitive environment and experience performing in front of a crowd.
And there’s nothing like mastering a routine to build self-confidence, Butler added. “When you’re going to fly from your ankles 20 feet in the air, you’re really putting yourself out there,” she said.
Busy big top
On a Wednesday afternoon in June, the 21,000-square-foot big top in Highland Park was a hive buzzing with activity. Youngsters who had just finished practice sped into the parking lot on unicycles, arms outstretched for balance as they pedaled toward waiting parents.
Inside, another hour of classes was just beginning.
A flurry of pins passed among six teenage jugglers warming up beneath the dangling trapeze rigging. Children climbed on top of three-foot round rubber globes and started walking. Girls hung upside down from a trapeze bar. A young man flipped in the air above a trampoline.
Amid all this, Rawlins and the other women in her advanced silks class sat on the floor and stretched before practice. Three long sheets of fabric rigged to the 40-foot-high ceiling swept the floor nearby.
Rawlins, like the other young women, could pull herself up the silks in just few, quick moves. Once in the air, she wrapped the fabric around her body, released her grip and leaned back in a pose that resembled a dancer
Then, suddenly, she dropped. She spun toward the ground as the fabric unrolled, catching herself just a few feet from the floor.
It’s a thrill, but one Rawlins has grown used to.
“It was [scary] at first,” she said. “And, to be honest, sometimes I still do get nervous when I’m really high. [But] it’s more fun than scary now.”
Silks Coach Risa Cohen said the act isn’t without some danger.
“You can get burned,” Cohen said. “You can fall. You can get bruised.”
But safety is emphasized in every aspect of Circus Juventas training. On its website, the school claims its circus acts have better safety records than many high school sports.
And in most cases, Circus Juventas performers are working just as hard as their peers in competitive sports.
Cohen said the grace and speed of her students belie the strength and endurance their routines
“We’re here once a week for silks, but they’re encouraged to take other classes besides silks,” she said. “… If they only took silks once a week, there’s no way they could last.”
Like most other students, Rawlins studies multiple disciplines.
For Circus Juventas’ August show, Rawlins will perform both silks and Spanish web, a similar act involving a cloth-covered rope. She also takes classes for the triangle trapeze and hoops, two other aerial acts.
Atop the pyramid
Also practicing for the August show is 12-year-old Sora Samejima, one of Rawlins’ neighbors in Windom. Rest assured, all eyes will be on Samejima during the high-wire act.
Samejima was training to stand atop a seven-person pyramid. It is a high-wire act Betty Butler said has only been performed a handful of times in the past 50 years.
But Samejima, who was still working up to the trick in practice, acted nonchalant.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get on there,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and smiling as she talked about the act at her home.
Kyle Samejima, her mother, seemed a bit more nervous than her daughter.
“I’m going to cry when she does it,” Kyle Samejima said, not altogether serious.
A circus mother learns to laugh off these things, as Kyle Samejima did.
“The reality is, it’s probably more dangerous walking to school and the risk of getting hit by a car,” she said. “[Yet] it looks so scary, and it’s very impressive to see.”
Like many Circus Juventas parents, Kyle Samejima has seen the transformation that occurs between the first day of class and one of the school’s performances.
“It’s just amazing, watching what these kids can accomplish so quickly,” she said.
Still, as skilled as many of the young performers become, Circus Juventas remains strictly a recreational program. It is not meant to train professional circus performers, and few students ever attempt to turn their act into a career.
Sometime before they hit 21 years old, the school’s age limit, most students move on.
Rawlins, who first joined Circus Juventas nearly five years ago, said she might cut back on classes when she heads to college in a couple of years. But it was hard to imaging quitting.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I think it would be kind of hard to give up. If I quit, it’s like a part of my life would be gone.”
Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.