Death-defying heights, acrobatic feats and thrilling spectacle are in the works for the latest offering by Circus Juventas, the performing arts school in St. Paul. “Confetti!” takes audiences on a journey through circus history, with high-flying trapeze, floating umbrellas, 90-foot wire walks, fire jump ropes and puppets telling the story.
“This really is going to be the biggest and best production we’ve ever done,” says Dan Butler, who co-founded the circus with his wife, Elizabeth Butler in 1994. The two met as teens at a different youth circus in Sarasota, Florida.
“I’d never ever, ever dreamed that we would become who we’ve become and what we do,” Butler says. “I come in in the morning and I turn the lights on in this 21,000-square-foot, custom 45-foot high ceiling, and it’s still hard to believe it is here.”
For Dan and Elizabeth (Betty), the circus is a family affair. Their daughter, Rachel, is associate director. Danny, the youngest, is in his last year in the program and plans to continue as a professional next year.
“It’ll be the first time since 1994 that I’ll not have a child in a Circus Juventas performance,” Betty says. “That’s kind of like, wow — 28 years later. They’ve all gone through and now that chapter is ending.”
Unlike the spring show, which is announced by Ringmasters that train all year long, Circus Juventas’ summer show is more a contemporary-style circus. “It is through the narrative that the story and the plot unfolds and is explained by way of choreography and theater,” Betty says.
Working with program director Katy McEwen, a Brave New Workshop veteran, on the script, the story follows 600 years of circus history. The show is held together with a narrative arc about a group of circus performers who travel through time. They visit jugglers and fire breathers of Renaissance Italy and the first 42 center ring with equestrian horse riding in London, England (with two performers operating a horse puppet riding on a wire walk). They also visit Jules Léotard, inventor of the flying trapeze, in Paris in the 1800s. The journey continues in New York in the 1900s, where Circus Juventas has created a replica of PT Barnum’s Emporium Museum.
By the end of the show, the characters end up in modern times, feature more abstract, theatrically based circus like that of Cirque du Soleil. It all concludes with the school’s Wheel of Steel Act.
“We have performers that go on the outside of the wheel, which in the professional circus is called the ‘wheel of death,’” Dan Butler says. “The performer goes outside the wheel, and he also does it blindfold. You can hear a pin drop when we do it in practice.”
Among the performers is 25-year-old Vincent Geruntho, who first got interested in circus arts at 16. “My neighbor down the road, she had like this old rickety unicycle with cobwebs and stuff all over it,” Geruntho recalls. “It was in her attic. I saw it one day and I asked if I could borrow it, to try it. I started going up and down the halls of my house.”
When he had made enough holes in the wall, his mom decided it was time for her to help him find somewhere else to practice. He went to a summer camp at Circus Juventas. Now Geruntho’s talents include bicycling on a wire, and doing the “skywalk.”
“You go from the floor, up at an angle, in an incline,” Geruntho explains. “There’s no net.”
But he doesn’t get nervous. Rather, Geruntho sees the act almost as a meditation practice. “You’re just completely in the zone,” he says.
When asked if he’s fallen on the skywalk, he says: “We don’t use the ‘f’ word.”
Marcus Dillarreal performs in the show as well, and is also an instructor at the school. One of the acts he performs is on a table, and involves roller skates. His partner climbs on top of him like a jungle gym. He also performs with straps and silks, but is taking some time off of the “web,” after being injured and taking seven months to recover.
Dillarreal was a student at Washburn High School in Minneapolis when he first decided to take a circus class. He had run track and cross country, and had done some dance and cheerleading.
With circus, he founded a form where he could express himself. “It’s a really great outlet for me to be my most creative self,” Dillarreal says.
He also found a supportive and accepting community at Circus Juventas. “There really isn’t any judgment or anything like that,” he says. “You really learn to trust one another, and to rely on one another to make things happen.”
As a coach, Dillarreal finds it easy to translate what tricks should feel like to students. “I love helping kids get to where they want to be, or get the tricks they’ve been wanting to do for so long,” he says.
Some of the teachers at Circus Juventas come from all corners of the world, after establishing themselves as performers in places like Mongolia, Russia or Europe.
Chimgee Haltarhuu attended circus school in Mongolia before moving to the United States and working for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. As a young mother, she’d perform with her son, Tamir, who would perform on her shoulders. Later, she’d stand on his shoulders to enact acrobatic moves. Now they both teach at Circus Juventas.
“This is the best job ever,” Haltarhuu says. One student, she says, went on to work at Ringling Bros, just like herself. “It’s amazing to watch their achievement. It’s like a magical place for everybody.”
Confetti! runs from July 29 to August 14 at Circus Juventas ($25-50) More information here.