1st professional circus school in US coming to Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — No clowning around: The first full-time, professional training school for circus artists in the United States is set to open in Philadelphia next year, officials announced Tuesday.

Circadium will be a three-year, secondary vocational school where students can hone their skills in acrobatics, juggling and aerial acts like the silks. The founders, who currently run the recreational Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, made the announcement atop the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, amid juggling routines and a trapeze performance.

America is home to over 200 recreational circus schools and studios, but unlike in Europe and Canada, there aren't any higher-education schools where more experienced students can elevate their art, said Amy Cohen, executive director of the American Circus Educators Association.

"Circus artists, like any artists, build their value through years of in-depth exploration, the influence of mentors and connections to professionals," she said. "That is what Circadium will provide: a place to incubate these young artists, in the way that schools in Europe and Canada have been doing successfully for decades."

The traditional American circus, with its three rings, trained animals and red-nosed clowns, while still valuable, is becoming less relevant, said Circadium's Executive Director Shana Kennedy.

"Audiences want to not just be wowed but also to be moved," she said. That's where contemporary circus comes into play, mixing theater, dance and music with the standard circus disciplines, she said.

The school is temporarily sharing space with Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, but has launched a Kickstarter campaign to off-set the costs of renovating a historic church in the city's Germantown section. The church will provide soaring ceilings and 22,000 square feet of training space, said Kennedy. Applications for the school are due in November for a September 2017 start of classes, she said.

Nicole Burgio, a 31-year-old acrobat and aerialist who performed on the static trapeze Tuesday, said establishing a school like Circadium is essential for a serious circus artist.

"They teach you how to compose art," through the marriage of theater, circus and dance, she said. But just as important, attendees learn about safety, rigging equipment and lighting, ways to make their performances both secure and beautiful.

Adam Wooley, works with Circadium's aerial program, said the country was seeing an "exciting renaissance in circus arts," both recreationally and as an educational tool for children.

"Circus is starting to step up and prove it has something to offer at a time when arts education is struggling," he said, adding the physicality of circus arts is a way to make the arts accessible, particularly for children in communities that struggle finding art that means something to them.

It's fitting that Circadium is coming to Philadelphia, where some of the first circus performances in the U.S. were held in the late 1700s — one was even attended by George Washington, said Sabrina Motley, of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The Folklife Festival will celebrate the history and current iteration of the circus arts during its 2017 summer season, she said.

"I think we are fascinated by what the human body can do, particularly in this moment when we spend a lot of time looking at computers, big and small" she said. "There is something fascinating about getting back to the essential human body, and seeing how it can push itself to the limits."

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