July 18, 2019 — Maia Castro-Santos is spending her summer mostly in the air.
She is touring with Circus Smirkus, the country’s only traveling youth circus, in which 30 international “troupers” between the ages of 11 and 18 perform for two months around New England. Maia performs in the hula hoop act, the aerial silk act, and the aerial chair act, and says it’s thrilling to put on shows for up to 750 people at a time under the European-style big-top tent.
“I saw my first Smirkus show when I was about 2 years old, and after that my family went back regularly,” she said. “It was always a highlight of my summer.”
Maia has attended a circus camp for children run by Circus Smirkus in Greensboro, Vermont, as well as the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vermont. At NMH, she is a member of the Senior Dance Company, which she says has helped her hone her technique and movement quality. She tried out last year for the Circus Smirkus tour but didn’t make it, so was thrilled to be chosen this year.
“I really loved watching the performers but I didn’t actually think I’d make it on tour because of the level of performance and how professional they are,” she said. “I was really, really excited. I cried, I was so happy.”
Maia’s acts often take her 30 to 35 feet up in the air and require her to trust both her fellow performers and her equipment.
“Being in the air is a unique sensation,” she said. “There is definitely a feeling of excitement and risk. A lot of the time, I am so focused on what I am doing that I forget how high up I am. Even when I am in a position where I can see the ground beneath me, I am usually spinning, so it is hard to gauge how high I am.”
The Circus Smirkus tour opened in late June and will hit 16 venues in five states, performing 69 shows in 51 days. It’s a rigorous schedule that began before the tour kicked off, with nearly three weeks of 12-hour days to create the show and train and rehearse.
Not only do the troupers perform, they’re also responsible for helping to set up and tear down each show. They unpack and arrange props, set up the dressing room, place the bleacher pads, and assemble the ring, while a tent crew sets up the big top. After performing several shows over two or three days at each location, the troupers pack up and load out, working late into the night.
“Smirkus helps cultivate a lot of independence,” Maia said. “We’re all treated as professionals. We are responsible for taking care of ourselves, and we’re trusted to do what’s best for the show.”
Maia loves performing in front of large audiences, but says what she most appreciates about the circus is the camaraderie.
“The work ethic is strong, and it’s a strong community,” she said. “There’s a lot of teamwork and trust among us. Because sometimes quite literally you are putting your lives in the hands of your friends.”
Photo: Marvin Wang