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Circus Harmony continues to bring diverse people together to 'defy gravity'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2009 - With 15 minutes to show time, the hardest act of Circus Harmony’s “Fermata” performance is already underway: the group photo. Artistic director Jessica Hentoff maneuvers in and around the assemblage, making sure everyone’s angled toward the middle and has his or her head in the shot.

“I know some of you don’t like to smile for pictures,” shouts out Hentoff to her troupe, “but pretend like you do. … I want to see teeth! Make your dentists proud!”

Thirty some kids of all ages and backgrounds kneel and stand in the frame. Sequins, eye makeup and tights abound. Most of them are smiling. Flash after flash goes off, capturing the group in all its hodgepodge glory.

For the record, this photo is as still as you’ll ever see them.

As the photo opp winds down, the members of Circus Harmony form a collective circle in the ring and hold hands.

“Breathe in,” says Hentoff. “Breathe out.”

After a few more breaths, the group is ready.

Meet Circus Harmony

About 60 students train at Circus Harmony’s headquarters in the City Museum. The circus puts on a number of shows each week in the space, while outreach programs at local schools impact hundreds more. In all, the members of Circus Harmony put on 400 shows a year.

The performers range in age from 4 to 80. Most are under the age of 18 and come from all over the St. Louis area. Some are from the roughest parts of North St. Louis, some from well-heeled Clayton families and some from places in-between.

Hentoff started performing circus in college and toured professionally after she graduated. She created and has been leading the many outlets of Circus Harmony for 20 years. Over the past two decades, she says the circus has worked with students from all sorts of ethnicities, religions and upbringings. Circus, she says, is the great equalizer.

“It doesn’t matter what neighborhood you come from, what matters is what you do in the ring,” she says.

A story about kids of all ages coming together from disparate backgrounds to train and perform under the big top is sure to give you warm fuzzies. And if the members of Circus Harmony weren’t so gosh darn talented, their story could stand solely on its feel-good factor. But these kids are really good. Like, mouth-hanging-open, how-did-she-just-do-that good.

Showcase Performance

The best of the group’s abilities is being shown off at the annual showcase performance, “Fermata,” this month. Most of the acts have been created specifically for “Fermata.” Many were choreographed by the students themselves.

All the action in “Fermata” takes place under the theme of a day at the office. Cleverly scripted commands from the boss – or ringmaster – usher in each act. For example, the pronouncement “We need to focus on our lines of credit!” heralds a tightrope performance.

The show moves quickly to multicultural tunes played by a seven-piece ensemble led by area musician Adam Rugo. At one turn, the two girls in an aerialist pair gracefully manipulate their bodies into swanlike poses on a suspended hoop.

At another, six boys from the troupe – ranging in age from 9 to 16 – shine in a demanding group Diablo performance. If you’re not familiar with Diablo, imagine advanced yo-yoing – only the yo-yo isn’t attached to the string.

T-Roc Robinson, 16, specializes in tumbling and can be seen flying from a mini-trampoline in checkered pants and suspenders in “Fermata.” Hentoff saw him and his friends doing flips outside of his school a few years ago. Impressed, she left her card with a security guard. Robinson, seeing an opportunity, called her. He says he used to play competitive team sports in middle school, but quit once he got into circus.

“Circus is a lot harder, and a lot more fun,” he says.

An Illusion of Ease

Like any performing art, the best make it look easy. Hentoff and the other Circus Harmony teachers emphasize the performance aspect of circus to the students. Even if you don’t hit a stunt perfectly, you end it gracefully.

“Present yourself,” she says. “Look up and put your arms out in actual circus style.”

At one point in “Fermata’s” contortion act, the strain of the muscle control required for circus briefly breaks across two young women’s faces. The audience – given a brief glimpse into the depth of strength and concentration required by circus – holds its collective breath as one of the girls balances her artfully twisted frame atop the other girl’s chin.

As soon as the pair hits the pose, the girls break into radiant grins. They hold the pose just long enough to elicit cheers and applause and then fluidly move into another arrangement.

In addition to developing a consummate stage presence, circus requires performers to work through their fears and anxieties.

Eliana Hentoff-Killian, 17, is Hentoff’s daughter. She made her circus debut when she was two weeks old and today specializes in aerial performance. In her most advanced stunt to date, she propels herself upside down with her feet across a line of cloth hooks rigged to the ceiling. It’s like the circus’ version of monkey bars.

Hentoff-Killian is the first to tell you that the act is scary.

“I want to do it more than the fear,” she explains.

Hentoff says the fact that her daughter is in control of the stunt diminishes the risk of getting hurt, and that circus has lower injury rates than most competitive sports.

“I’ll tell you something funny,” she says, “ I won’t let my kids play on backyard trampolines; I think it’s dangerous.”

Hentoff says circus can also capitalize on attributes that put kids at a disadvantage in other arenas.

“Kids who are little for their age get picked on at school,” she says. “They come here, and they’re an asset.”

To see just how the little guys steal the show though, you’ll have to stick around for the grand finale.