America’s first circus college on why they picked Portland, and how they’re ‘serious about education’

Mikeal Van Mierlo, 11, (from top) Danika Hluska, 10, Anneke Van Mierlo, 7, and Matheo Van Mierlo, 11, perform an areal stunt at a Circus Atlantic class in Yarmouth on Thursday. Circus Atlantic is the recreational arm of the Circus Conservatory of America. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Mikeal Van Mierlo, 11, from top, Danika Hluska, 10, Anneke Van Mierlo, 7, and Matheo Van Mierlo, 11, perform an areal stunt at a Circus Atlantic class in Yarmouth on Thursday. Circus Atlantic is the recreational arm of the Circus Conservatory of America. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

On the latest edition of the Ink & Pine podcast, we talked with Peter Nielsen and Alisan Funk, president and academic program director, respectively, for the Circus Conservatory of America. The conservatory will be America’s first circus college, and is an anchor part of the $100-plus-million redevelopment of Portland’s high visibility Thompson’s Point, potentially one of the most transformative projects the city has seen in years.

Cirque du Soleil performers practice and rest in Portland Monday Oct. 8, 2012. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Cirque du Soleil performers practice and rest in Portland Monday Oct. 8, 2012. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

The episode is also timely, in part, because perhaps the world’s best-known modern circus, Cirque du Soleil, is preparing to to open its “Varekai” show at Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena on Wednesday. The last time Cirque du Soleil came to Portland, with “Saltimbanco” in 2012, it quickly became the best-selling event in the arena’s history with 20,000-plus tickets sold.

During the length of the podcast interview, we discussed a variety of subjects at great depth, and it’s well worth a listen. Among the many things we talked about were:

  • The resurgence of circus arts and circus popularity.
  • Why the country’s first circus college picked Portland as its home (a hint: A great piece of property was available and everyone, from Mayor Michael Brennan to the property’s developers, was enthusiastic about the project).
  • The programs that will be offered for students of all ages — from kids up to adults — and how you can get yourself on a trampoline there, among many other things.

The following are a couple of Q&A excerpts. Click here to listen to the full podcast.

Question: What can a prospective student expect to encounter at a circus college?

Sarah Huling, an instructor for Circus Atlantic, dangles from silks during a demonstration of aerial acrobatics at the Portland YMCA. Circus Atlantic is a youth program started by the Circus Conservatory of America. (The Forecaster photo by Ben McCanna)

Sarah Huling, an instructor for Circus Atlantic, dangles from silks during a demonstration of aerial acrobatics at the Portland YMCA. Circus Atlantic is a youth program started by the Circus Conservatory of America. (The Forecaster photo by Ben McCanna)

Answer: (Alisan) You’re using your creative nature, using your athleticism, you’re using all of your resources to bring in your individuality, whereas in theater or dance you learn the technique of the trade and everyone learns how to do similar things, and then you get cast according to your uniqueness. In circus you begin with who you are, what your strengths are. Are you very flexible? Are you very strong? Are you good at balance? Are you very good at juggling? Those things will start to build the foundation of what you bring to the circus world. So each person that comes to class is starting to learn about who they are as an individual, set their own challenges, achieve their own goals and have success unlike they would have dreamed of before.

Question: Circuses have trapeze artists, jugglers, dancers, acrobats and even clowns. How do you organize curricula that’s relevant to such a wide variety of performers?

Answer: (Alisan) That’s an excellent question and I think the way to look at that is how you look at other arts programs, so a dancer will go to ballet classes, they’ll go to contemporary classes — they’ll learn a variety of skills — they’ll go to choreography (classes). A painter will learn all the traditional ways of painting. They’ll go through different eras. In circus, you still have tools that you’re using. You have an acrobatic awareness, you have a flexibility, you have an understanding of your own balance. But … it’s like picking a major in circus. So you would major, if you will, in your special technique. And then what we’re bringing to the table that’s unlike anything in North America is a very strong liberal arts component that will make it a [Bachelor of Fine Arts] degree, so we want to educate both the intellectual side and the training, the physical ability side, of circus artists.

Question: People may not realize this, but a circus college education prepares students for careers other than just as clowns and jugglers, right?

Peter Nielsen (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Peter Nielsen (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Answer: (Nielsen) We are looking to complement what they offer in North America, but also offer a program that develops coaching talent, develops educators to go into elementary schools and start circus programs for youth, we also want to be able to educate students who would like to have careers in the production around the circus industry, and get into the interface between the circus and media and things like this. We also want to create people who understand the business of putting on a circus. Because those skills will last them a lifetime and they can make movements throughout all of the performing arts with that set of skills. One thing that we are very clear on is that we want all of our students to graduate with a solid foundation in liberal arts. So we are very serious about education.

… Our students will be able to go out in the world with a college degree, they’ll be what we refer to in education as ‘global citizens.’ They can go anywhere in the world and conduct their own affairs, and that’s critical for a circus artist or any kind of professional.

A Cirque du Soleil performer practices high off the stage in Portland Monday Oct. 8, 2012.  (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

A Cirque du Soleil performer practices high off the stage in Portland Monday Oct. 8, 2012. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.