St. Paul is home to the largest youth circus arts school in America. Who knew? In the realm of kids’ activities, Circus Juventas is a far cry from piano lessons and Little League. It’s just so much more fabulous. The school, which has been packed to the gills with area kids and growing exponentially since its founding in 1994, lets children of all ages in on the secrets of the flying trapeze and German wheel, teaching them how to dance in the aerial silks and stack chairs along the high wire.
Like the hugely popular Canadian company Cirque du Soleil, Circus Juventas is a departure from the three ring/animal acts fare of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Instead, the school brings together a melange of traditional circus arts from around the world, accented with dance, drama, acrobatics, music and fantastic set design. The result is pure spectacle. The school puts on two big shows a year: One in the spring for its beginner and intermediate circus arts students, and a second in the late summer to showcase the talents of those who’ve graduated to the advanced levels of instruction.
My 5-year-old and I took in this year’s summer production, “Grimm,” a few days ago; it was my son’s first circus and my first time seeing Circus Juventas. I’d heard these folks put on a good show, but we were still both gobsmacked by the experience.
As the title suggests, “Grimm” uses familiar fairy tale tropes and characters — Rapunzel and Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, the Frog Prince and others — to frame the performances of lithe dancers and acrobats, aerialists and high-wire walkers, jugglers and contortionists. The music is dramatic and over the top, as it should be — Euro-pop with a renaissance fair sensibility. The set, a medieval village pastiche, and the costume design are both wonderfully evocative but spare enough to avoid competing with the performers for attention.
The commitment and skill of Circus Juventas’ students, evident in the level of artistry and athleticism on view, is downright formidable. The show is polished but not slick — just rough enough around the edges to be charming. I was smitten as much by the cast’s “let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm as I was by the sprawling cavalcade of student talent.
A note for parents of small children: while the show is sure to enchant them, at two hours and 45 minutes, plus a 20-minute intermission, its run time is an awfully long haul for the smallest circus-goers.
Circus Juventas’ summer show, “Grimm,” is performed by advanced-level students, all of whom are under the age of 21, and runs through August 14. Performances are in the Circus Juventas big top at 1270 Montreal Ave.‚ St Paul, 55116; 651-699-8229. Ticket prices range from $16.50 to $27.50 (student, senior, youth and family-pack discounts available).