PORTLAND, Maine — The country’s first circus college is a year ahead of schedule in getting established on the Thompson’s Point peninsula, and one industry veteran says the school could make Portland a destination in the booming circus arts market in the same way that New York City is a magnet in the theater world.
On Tuesday afternoon, a group of about 25 interested Casco Bay High School students visited the Circus Conservatory of America’s training facility, where organization officials fielded questions about careers in the performing arts.
“This makes [America] competitive with the international market,” said Stuart Richie, a stage manager for Cirque du Soleil, perhaps the world’s best-known modern circus troupe. “No longer do you have to go to summer camp or learn hand stands on YouTube.
“A lot of people who wanted to learn this industry, they had to leave the country,” she continued. “It used to be when you wanted to learn theater, you had to go to London. Now you go to New York City. In circus arts, you no longer will have to go to Montreal or Belgium or Germany. There will be a place in America where people can go closer to home to learn the craft.”
Richie, who owns a home in Portland but spends most of her time on the road with Cirque du Soleil, visited the conservatory facility for the first time on Tuesday, along with the students.
The training facility is slated to open to the public on Jan. 12, and will hold myriad courses for all experience levels and age groups while other facilities on Thompson’s Point are constructed to accommodate the larger conservatory.
The Circus Conservatory of America is an anchor tenant of the more than $100 million development of Thompson’s Point peninsula, which will also feature an arena for the Maine Red Claws professional basketball team, office buildings and an outdoor concert venue, among other things.
“When we arrived in August of 2013 to say that we intended to build a circus school on Thompson’s Point, we anticipated arriving here with a building facility in about a year from now,” conservatory President Peter Nielsen told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “So we are a full year ahead of schedule in arriving with circus training facilities on Thompson’s Point. That’s been due to the overwhelming reception we’ve had locally from people who wanted to support us and make it happen, [as well as] the confidence we’ve received from the international circus community, which has entirely embraced everything that we’re doing here.”
On Tuesday, the training facility featured a wide open space with structurally reinforced attachment points in the rafters for aerial performances. Plain white sheetrock walls were offset by exposed brick in the converted warehouse space.
Still to be installed by the building’s public opening will be a spring-loaded floor for acrobatics, mats underneath the aerial rigging and a cafe overlooking the spacious training room. Finishing touches on a locker room and a trampoline will round out the facility.
The 30-plus feet of overhead space will allow aspiring performers to swing as high as necessary or get air on their jumps.
Nielsen said the school will begin offering niche classes for people like stay-at-home parents with toddlers, as well as a variety of recreational circus courses for different ages and skill levels, from classes designed to help people get fit to others for people looking to hone juggling or acrobatic hobbies.
Nielsen said the school will provide courses geared toward everyone from children to young adults training for a career in the circus, and once the conservatory is fully operational, will provide full, high-level professional training in a college atmosphere.
Cory Tabino, a former Cirque du Soleil performer who will head the conservatory’s college-level program, said he was encouraged by Tuesday’s turnout by local Casco Bay High School students.
“We have an active teenage program here, so I’d love it if these kids were inspired here and decided to learn the circus arts,” Tabino told the BDN, adding, “I started gymnastics at 19 — before that, I was a book worm.”
The students watched an aerial performance by conservatory technical director Joshua Oliver, then peppered a group of school representatives with questions about how to get into the industry.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you can’t make a living in the circus,’” Tabino told the students. “You can make a living in the circus. You can make money and travel the world performing in the circus. You have to work hard, but what don’t you have to work hard for?”