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  • Down the Rabbit Hole with Circus Juventas

    Producer: Helen Lehrer

    Synchronized aerialists carve ever-evolving geometries out of empty air. On the ground, weaving bodies become the morphing landscape of a strange and imaginary realm.

    This was Circus Juventas’s Wonderland, a magical interpretation of the timeless Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. With bold costumes, dramatic music, and massive props, the young students of this circus school fully embraced their whimsical characters under the Folklife Festival’s Big Top. After the performance, Dan Butler, the school’s cofounder, Makenna Cook (Alice), and Piper Gibbs (Cheshire Cat) shared their personal transformations within the circus.

    Dan first reminisced about how he met his life partner, Betty, at Sarasota High School, where circus arts existed naturally alongside football and soccer. He had just moved from Chicago, where he was a devoted hockey player. Discouraged by Florida’s eternal heat and lack of ice rinks, he was forced to pursue a new sport. With circus, Dan said, he found something that he wasn’t just good at, but great at.

    Fast forward a decade, and Dan and Betty were both graduates of the renowned Sailor Circus Academy and Florida State University’s collegiate circus, one of only two in the country. Despite their accomplishments, they pursued traditional career paths in Minnesota until they returned to Florida for an alumni show. The circus spark was rekindled within them.

    “Circus was in our blood,” he said.

    Together they founded Circus Juventas in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1994 as a traditional circus school with thirty kids and some handmade pieces of equipment in a local park and recreation center. After Cirque du Soleil came through town in 1999, the emerging school shifted toward nouveau cirque, a contemporary movement that combines spectacle with narrative theater. Rather than a ringmaster, acts are led by “cirque masters,” main characters who use pantomime, acting, and dance to tell a story.

    Circus Juventas Wonderland
    The Cheshire Cat aerial act.
    Photo by Joe Furgal, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    To formulate upcoming shows, Betty draws inspiration from the personalities of her students. It allows the performers to more genuinely embody a character, Dan explained.

    “Whether it’s the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, Alice, or any other show we’ve done, the kids are in character all the time,” he said. “The audience and our students feel that.” After the first weekend of shows, the kids are encouraged to elaborate on their characters. “We tell them that it is their show now. They own the show. It’s important for us, then, to really live it and feel it and become that character. It’s pretty magical to see.”

    Circus Juventas teaches us that when we celebrate differences, real magic happens. Dan described the miraculous “aha!” moment when a student decides to embrace community over competition.

    “It’s not just, ‘I’m going to do it my way,’ or ‘it’s all about me,’ and for young people to see that unfold in their lives, that’s the most powerful moment.”

    Helen Lehrer is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of University of Florida, where she studied digital arts and sciences.

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