Acrobatic gymnast Jerome "J.T." Scott, 18, has a story that sounds like an inspirational film script. As a fearless 5-year-old growing up in the Twin Cities with four siblings and a single mother who juggled work and school, Scott saw an older cousin do a back flip. The boy was desperate to learn the move, but his cousin declined to instruct him. Scott decided to teach himself, ignoring all of the "do not try this at home" warnings.
Using his mother's bed as a springboard, he eventually perfected his flip. Scott went on to master other gymnastic routines that he saw on TV, and was so bold as to nurture Olympic dreams.
Cut, several years later, to Hamline University, where gymnastics coach Doug Byrnes gave Scott access to the gym based on his talent. As he practiced one day, the self-taught phenom caught the eye of Gretchen Wenzel, a former gymnastics judge who coaches at the Hamline gym and at Circus Juventas in St. Paul.
"He has the purest, most gorgeous line I have ever seen," she said. "It's innate. It's beautiful. And if he develops it some more, he can do anything with it."
Wenzel talked to her bosses at Juventas and they offered Scott a chance to train, on scholarship, at the 17-year-old youth-circus school with its big top near the Highland Park golf course.
Scott said yes, and he is now aiming for both circus school in Canada and the Olympics.
"The feeling that it gives me, the happiness, when I'm in my body like that, is out of this world," said Scott before he worked out recently at Juventas, his words tumbling out like his moves. "This is all I've ever wanted to do, and I am glad to have a chance to do it."
Scott's is one of myriad stories at the St. Paul-based company that serves about 2,000 students annually with its after-school and summer youth training programs. Students learn aerial skills, acrobatics, gymnastics and juggling at Juventas, which had a scare two years ago when, on the final night of its summer show, a seating area collapsed, sending seven patrons to the hospital. (Claims are still pending.)
As it prepares to open its latest show, "Grimm: Happily Ever After," the circus school is back on its good foot, with a new $200,000 seating system that accommodates 940, and an irrepressible spirit.
"Something like that strengthens you and you come back stronger, with a clearer mission and a desire to surpass everything you've done before," said Betty Butler, the company's co-founder, artistic director, stage manager and Jill-of-all-trades. She spoke from her office, a working backstage area and costume shop full of mock-ups of designs, fabric swatches and wigs. A little dog ran around as her assistant tried on wigs.
Each summer, Juventas puts on a themed show. Butler has used the circus to tell stories of pirates, carnivals and Atlantis. "Grimm," their latest offering, features more than 70 elite students, including Scott, who plays a villager.
"We are an after-school program training for kids from 5 to 18, but we have the demands of a full-time program," she said. "It's a balancing act."
Jazzed by circus
That's true and literal for many of the performers, including Anwar Hassouni, 11, who is training on the floor of the 21,000-square-foot big top with his Moroccan father, Mostapha, himself an experienced circus acrobat and performer. The son holds his father's hand, flips upside down and does a handstand. Anwar, a fifth-grader, plays a frog prince in "Grimm."
Anwar's mother, a Mongolia-born circus performer, also coaches at Juventas.
"I hope to follow my dad and my mom into the circus," he said. "It's fun."
White Bear High School student Libby Ulm, 16, has no familial history with the circus. But she was hooked early, at 3, when she saw a contortionist perform.
"I was like, wow, how'd they do that," said Ulm.
The two years that she waited before she could start taking classes at Circus Juventas could not go by fast enough. Now, it has been 11 years, and she is skilled at tumbling, the flying trapeze and other acrobatic and gymnastic moves. In "Grimm," she will let down her hair when she plays Rapunzel.
"There's nothing like the feeling of being in the air," she said before a recent rehearsal, her joy clear from her giggles. "And I can do anything with my body. It's thrilling."
Unbidden, she demonstrated her eye-popping flexibility for a visitor, getting on the floor, chest down, then swinging her legs up and over her head. She smiled as she made the word "spineless" into a compliment.
"Circus Juventas is my family and I come here as often as I can," she said. "I'm not sure what I'll do later in life, but right now, there is nothing I love better than this."