Leaders of the Circus Arts Conservatory gave us a recap of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival — and how it’s cementing the future of the circus arts.
After nearly two-and-a-half years of research and planning, it finally happened.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival included the circus arts in its programming — and Sarasota’s own Circus Arts Conservatory was right at the center — literally and figuratively.
The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage runs the annual event, which “honors contemporary living cultural traditions and celebrates those who practice and sustain them,” according to its website.
This year, after 50 years, the organization decided that the circus arts is one of those traditions. The Smithsonian invited seven youth circus groups to come to Washington, D.C., to perform under the big top and give public demonstrations on the National Mall.
One of those seven was America’s longest-running youth circus: Sailor Circus.
Preston Scott, curator for the circus arts section of the festival, turned to CAC CEO Pedro Reis in 2015 to help plan the circus events, and Reis ended up managing the big top for the entire 10-day festival.
He coordinated rehearsal times for the youth circuses, made sure lighting and sound was taken care of and organized both the youth shows and the professional show, the latter of which was made up of 12 of the world’s best performers (including CAC Co-Founder and Associate Director Dolly Jacobs) that he personally selected.
“Coordinating the opening ceremony and having all of that go seamlessly shows we kind of know what we’re doing,” Reis says. “Having achieved what we did, with the big top as the main stage and having everyone be thrilled and satisfied is very rewarding.”
CAC Managing Director Jennifer Mitchell says from June 29 to July 4 and July 6-9, the 31 Sailor Circus members who traveled to Washington, D.C., interacted with students and coaches from circus schools across the U.S., sharing training techniques and learning from one another.
Mitchell said many of the interactions took place during activities in which groups of performers from the same discipline but different circus schools came together to share skills and tips for that particular act.
The students also got several chances to interact socially because the Smithsonian planned nightly group activities for the young performers, including a karaoke night and talent show. Although they stuck together at the beginning of the festival, Mitchell says by the end, Sailor Circus performers could be found sitting with the other performers during breakfast and dinner.
One special surprise for the students was the chance to perform for the royal family of Monaco, who attended the Salute to Youth performance on the final day of the festival. Monaco is home to The Monte-Carlo International Circus Festival — often considered the most recognized circus competition in the world — and recently started its own youth circus, so several members of the royal family came for a look at how American youth circuses work.
Reis says one of his favorite parts of the festival was seeing the thousands of people walk by and realize there were free circus performances going on. The big top was full for every show, he says — they had to turn people away.
Four one-hour shows were performed in this one-ring venue, including Sailor Circus and other youth groups Circus Juventas and UniverSoul Circus, along with Reis’ professional show.
Watching the Sailor Circus kids excel was magical, Reis says.
“Standing ovations like we’ve never had before,” he says. “The energy was over the top.”
Mitchell notes the timing of the festival was perfect, particularly in light of the recent closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May.
“Circus Arts Conservatory and Sailor Circus represented the heritage of our community at a very, very high level and it’s really just the beginning of the mark we intend to make on the international stage,” Mitchell says. “The Smithsonian helped Circus Arts Conservatory and other organizations show that the circus is vibrant and it’s growing and it’s adapting.”