St. Paul's Circus Juventas brings a new twist to the Old West in its latest summer show.
As we exited the big top in Highland Park on Thursday, I heard seven words that struck fear in this father's heart:
"Dad," my 9-year-old said, "I want to join the circus."
In my fantasies, I see Adisa, as most parents see their children, winning Olympic medals or the Nobel Prize, not wearing a big clown nose or flying high on a trapeze. But I totally understand why she and her friend -- who said, "Me, too!" -- were captured by the idea.
We had just seen "Showdown," the latest summer extravaganza from the St. Paul-based circus arts school Circus Juventas. The production, under the guidance of company founders Betty and Dan Butler, is an elaborate and entertaining piece set in the Old West. In this world, cowboys and cowgirls hope to strike gold and saloon girls and mail-order brides navigate a dangerous world.
All of this is related through aah-inspiring somersaults and ooh-some acrobatic feats. This is the circus, after all.
The production, from the period costumes and props to the accompanying live music, taps all the tropes and types of an era well-documented on film. Even if the images are cliched, though, it's thrilling to see how the Butlers and their creative team marry the Old West to the circus.
There is athletic tumbling in the town of Tumbleweed, and gung-ho gunslingers leaping like pronghorn sheep as they go for gold. There are people flying on silks and stagecoaches being robbed. All the while, the air is full of catapulting performers and trapeze artists.
The performance company, which consists of two dozen-plus junior high and high school student-acrobats, puts its collective heart into what is one of the better shows staged by Juventas since its 1994 founding. Acrobats launch like missiles from the Russian swing -- which has a bigger base than the playground variety -- landing with sure feet on balance beams. The grimacing of a strongman, who holds three people atop his shoulders, is a reminder of the great effort being made to enthrall the audience.
So what if some elements are incongruous, like the French-style songs accompanying the saloon girls? The circus is about engaging our imagination, and while Juventas does not have the skill level of, say, Cirque du Soleil, its show captures the child's heart in all of us.
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