Entertaining  a big-top life

Three local high school students preparing  to head out on tour with Circus Smirkus

  • Bekk MacGowen of Wilton hopes to use his skills as a juggler, handbalancer and acrobatics base to become a professional circus performer after he finishes school.
  • The youth that make up the traveling circus troupe Circus Smirkus gather in a circle before going into a performance under the big top.
  • Emma Rogers of Peterborough, center, performs during a recent tour of Circus Smirkus, a traveling circus troupe that only features performers under 19 years of age.
  • Sorrell Nielsen, 17, of Temple balances atop her acrobatics partner, Alexandra Adinolfi of Brookline.
  • Bekk MacGowen of Wilton uses his skills as a base to catch his aerialist partner, Sonya Gurwitt of Norwich, Vt. during a Circus Smirkus performance.
  • Emma Rogers of Peterborough, center, performs during a recent tour of Circus Smirkus, a traveling circus troupe that only features performers under 19 years of age.
  • Bekk MacGowen of Wilton hopes to use his skills as a juggler, handbalancer and acrobatics base to become a professional circus performer after he finishes school.

It seems like every kid dreams of running away to the circus at one time or another. But how many form a career plan around it? Well, there’s at least two from these parts.

For Bekk MacGowen of Wilton and Emma Rogers of Peterborough, the circus isn’t just a dream — it’s what they want to do with their life. And next year they won’t be applying to traditional colleges, but to circus schools to become professional performers. And Sorrell Nielsen of Temple will be testing the waters this summer, as all three prepare for a summer on the road as circus performers.

They won’t be going in blind. MacGowen and Rogers have spent the last three summers touring with Circus Smirkus, a nonprofit based in Vermont that puts on a youth circus tour every summer. This year, MacGowen and Rogers will be on the tour again, and for the first time Nielsen will be joining them.

The kids have to audition to join the troupe, spend three weeks in intensive training to learn a two-hour show, and then for the rest of the summer they’ll be on an 80-show tour across New England. But the kinds of acts these kids do can’t simply be locked down with a few weeks of training. They spend multiple days a week learning their craft throughout the year at New England Circus Academy in Brattleboro, Vt., in preparation of the summer tour.

It’s hard work, said Rogers in a recent interview at her home. Rogers a ConVal High School senior who expects to graduate in June, said she knows it’s going to be a tough world out there for her after high school. She’s applied for the National Circus School in Canada, and the competition is stiff there — much stiffer than applying for a traditional two- or four-year college because only perhaps 20 new students a year are accepted.

MacGowen is also applying to the same school, as well as the Quebec Circus School. And while the odds are against him, it’s been his career plan for years, ever since he got hooked on learning circus skills as an elementary school student at Pine Hill School in Wilton. Pine Hill, as well as High Mowing School — where MacGowen is a senior and Nielsen is a junior — integrate circus skills as part of the curriculum.

“The main thing is that it’s something I have fun doing and love, and I can do it for a job,” said MacGowen in an interview Thursday, about his decision to pursue the circus as a career. “When I was younger, jobs always seemed like something you were forced to do. This was something I wanted to do. It could be my hobby and also the way I earn my living.”

MacGowen does some juggling and handbalancing, but his focus is on being an acrobatic base, both on the ground and in the air.

“I throw all the women around in the air, and have to be at the bottom of the pyramid,” MacGowen said with a laugh. In fact, for several years he was the base for Rogers, who also does a lot of work with partnered acrobatics.

But Rogers also specializes in aerial fabric routines, in which she performs acrobatics on thick strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling.

While a career under the big top isn’t strictly conventional, it’s not unheard of either. Nielsen’s siblings, both Circus Smirkus alums, have continued their training in college, and her brother, Tristan Nielsen, works as a professional circus performer .

And all three Nielson siblings have the support of parents and friends who just want them to follow their passion, said Nielsen.

She got bit by the circus bug early on, watching from the crowd as her brother and sister performed in Circus Smirkus and while getting thrown around as a kid by her brother when he was practicing.

Like her brother, Nielsen started out learning two-person acrobatic skills, but got more seriously involved with her second focus — the tightwire — as a way to separate her own skill set from that of her brother’s, and found has her own passion in doing so.

“I like the focus you have to have to do it,” she said of her tightwire work. “It’s almost a form of meditation for me.”

And while she knows that she likes the performance aspect of circus, having exercised her skills with another local youth circus, Flying Gravity Circus — a touring youth circus based in Wilton — this summer will be her chance to see if the circus lifestyle is really what she wants to pursue seriously, Nielsen said.

She’ll get to experience the whole
tour and be a fully involved member of a performing circus, before entering her senior year of high school at High Mowing .

“It’s a definite big decision to make, whether to go to circus school or college,” Nielsen said. “But I know that if I went to a regular college, I’d still find time in my day to do circus. If I go to circus school, I don’t know that I would find time to do other studies.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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