Students learn the circus arts

Kathryn Nelson

The big top was filled with movement last Thursday as two spinning performers dangled delicately on ropes high above onlookers.

One girl swung from a trapeze bar and suddenly fell with a scream, only to emerge from the safety mat laughing.

Toward the back, there were a handful of jugglers, including first-year theater student Sam Finkelstein, tossing dozens of pins in the air, all while weaving in and out of the circle of other students.

Although his performance Thursday at Circus Juventas school in St. Paul occurred in the background, he and his performance partner will take center stage in Italy this weekend.

Circus Juventas currently trains 750 full-time students in the circus arts and acrobatics.

Finkelstein and his performance partner, high school student Anneliese O’Meara Eckhardt, were the only performers in the country chosen to participate in an Italian youth circus arts competition starting today.

“It’s like being asked to be in the Olympics,” said Dan Butler, the founder of Circus Junventas. “You don’t need a medal to know your excellence.”

Finkelstein, who once had a fear of heights, said he and his partner would perform on a French trapeze, a hanging apparatus which enables two people to flip, spin and transfer together.

Finkelstein has been a student of the school for eight years and said he became interested in the circus arts when he attended a Circus Juventas show when he was 10 years old.

Finkelstein’s first circus act was pogo sticking and juggling simultaneously, a skill he invented himself, Butler said.

“(He) started juggling scarves, now he’s juggling knives and fire,” said Finkelstein’s father, Bert Finkelstein.

After practicing juggling for an hour each week, Finkelstein said he began dedicating time to more complicated circus acts such as the shoot-through ladder and teeter board.

The shoot-through ladder combines balancing on a revolving metal ladder while a partner performs aerial tricks on a trapeze. The teeter board is similar to a teeter totter and throws one performer in the air when his or her partner jumps on the opposite end.

Finkelstein said he continued practicing circus arts throughout high school and spent one or two hours at the gym three times a week.

Butler said this was the first time Circus Juventas submitted a tape to the International Circus Festival, despite the number of talented students.

Graduate student Doug Petty is a coach and parent of two circus students. He said his family went to one show, “and that was it.”

Petty said the circus is unique because it has an international staff of coaches who have practiced with theater companies such as Cirque du Soleil and the Ringling Brothers.

While many students were relaxing after their summer show, Finkelstein said he has kept busy practicing for the competition.

A week before boarding a plane for Italy, Finkelstein said he and his partner were confident in their upcoming act.

He said he was nervous to compete in Italy and doesn’t really know what to expect.

“We’re proud of him for working so hard,” his father said.

In the future, Finkelstein said he plans to try out for Cirque du Soleil, an international traveling circus show.

Despite the excitement surrounding Finkelstein’s competition, Butler said the ultimate goals of the St. Paul circus are community- and confidence-building.

It’s more about “youth development, not competition,” he said.