The accolades keep piling up for Circus Juventas, the circus school in St. Paul’s Highland Park that was recognized by the Smithsonian this summer. On Thursday, Circus Juventas will be honored by Circopedia for Excellence in the Circus Arts.
It is the first American circus group to be honored by Circopedia, an online project begun in 2015 that seeks to deepen understanding of circuses.
To Dan Butler, who founded Circus Juventas in 1994 with his wife, Betty, the national and international recognition signals more than Juventas performers’ prowess on the trapeze or in tumbling. It’s an embrace of how the circus arts help young people from all backgrounds find a more confident place in the world.
“We accept everybody for what they are and where they are at,” Butler said. “And, before they know it, they can do extraordinary things.”
More than 2,500 young people ages 2 to 21 participate each year in classes, workshops and camps. Its summer show — this year “Nordrsaga,” about Norse mythology — spotlights some of the circus’ best students. It has a cast of 73; the youngest performer is 10.
Brauc Eckman, 19, an acrobat and tumbler, is playing his first lead role as Thor in “Nordrsaga.” It’s his third show for Circus Juventas after joining the school three years ago.
“It’s a lot different than my life has been,” Eckman said. “I’d never been in the spotlight.”
Instead, he’d been in trouble. Drugs, fighting and stealing had Eckman homeless and hopping from friend’s couch to friend’s couch. Then one of those friends introduced him to the Butlers.
“I’d always been a lot different from everybody — head shaved, wearing a biker jacket,” Eckman said. “But I’ve also been the one who tries something new.”
He tried the circus and he found acceptance, friendships and a work ethic he said he’d never had. “I feel a fire in my heart when I’m tumbling,” he said. “I forget all my problems.”
Paul Resell, a Juventas alumnus who is working as a rigger with Cirque du Soleil in Paraguay, said when he took his first class in 1997 he immediately felt a sense of teamwork he hadn’t experienced in high school sports. “I had never seen kids doing circus,” he said. “I felt compassion and trust.”
He added: “It gave me a path to a career and to life.”
Butler, who met his wife when they were teenagers at the Sailor Circus Academy in Sarasota, Fla., said circus arts can be a path to success for children who struggle finding their place in other activities. He said he sees a lot of himself in Eckman, a young man who has found a way to shine.
“This really is a place where kids can be safe, physically and mentally,” Butler said. “That is the heart of what we do. We’re always available for those kids who are looking for something different.”