Circus students find good jobs at sea

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BRATTLEBORO — Circus performers who have trained in this community have set sail to take their tricks around the world.

"It's been a really amazing experience to wake up in a new country every single day," said Doug Stewart, a featured aerialist on board the AIDAmar cruise ship. He graduated from the professional training program at New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA) in Brattleboro in 2015.

AIDA offers cruises to North America, North Europe, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, Dubai the Canary Islands, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Baltic Sea the Red Sea and the Black Sea. Circus performers are part of onboard entertainment.

Stewart said some of his highlights include performing a solo rope act to a full crowd on Valentine's Day, working as an ensemble to create a show and premiering nine shows in 10 days.

"One of my favorite memories is when we were sailing through Norway in June," he said. "We were so north, the sun never set. We would be performing outside at 11 p.m. and it would be the most beautiful sunset all night."

A lot of the NECCA's graduates end up getting hired by AIDA, Stewart said, "so there's a whole Vermont community. ... It's amazing to have that sense of community when you're all over the world."

He said circus performers, dancers and singers should all aspire to work for the cruise line because "it's a good way to see the world and put your skills to good use."

Shows are scheduled almost every night, but not every performer is in each one, said Stewart, who performs about four times a week. He described an "intense" rehearsal schedule where the entire cast gets flown to Germany two weeks before embarking on the sea and puts in eight to 10 hours a day in preparation.

Stewart auditioned with AIDA Cruises at NECCA in March 2018. His first contract began in November that year. He's performing on his second cruise ship, on which he was recently heading to Portugal. His work has taken him to the Caribbean, Germany and more. At NECCA, he studied aerial rope performing in the professional training program.

"I credit NECCA with so much of my circus education, if not all of it," he said. "Without NECCA, I wouldn't have heard of this opportunity or had the opportunity to audition."

The connection

Serenity Smith Forchion, co-founder and producing director at NECCA, recalled teaching Michael Lanphear, now casting supervisor for the cruise line, with her sister Elsie before they started the center. Lanphear credits the sisters with being his first circus coaches.

Lanphear toured with Britney Spears, choreographed for Justin Bieber and was lead coach for Cirque du Soleil. He has worked for AIDA since 2013. He previously was the cruise line's talent scout.

"I really saw NECCA as the ideal place on the East Coast to be hosting the auditions," he said. "Their facility is pretty state of the art for a circus school. Also, the graduates coming out of there are really well prepared, especially for a company like AIDA."

This marks the third year NECCA will host auditions for the cruise company.

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"They do auditions all over the world, very few in the United States," Forchion said, anticipating about 10 to 15 students from the professional training program or about half of the class would be auditioning this round.

The students had to apply to get an audition. They show samples of dance and theater work, interview with the company and then put on live performances at the center during auditions. The auditions here also bring in other performers not connected to the center.

Lanphear is not sure exactly how many graduates from the center's professional program have been hired by AIDA, but he said the majority of artists hailing from the United States have passed through the center — either for private lessons, workshops or the professional program. He estimates the company is hiring about two or three NECCA graduates a year.

"I benefit greatly from my connection with Elsie and Serenity," he said.

Forchion regularly receives photos of her former students doing handstands on a beach in Greece or visiting places such as Norway. She described herself as being "a little bit jealous."

"Cruise ship life can be claustrophobic, but you get to see the world, so there's a big plus to it," she said. "And AIDA cruise lines, they treat their artists very well. They're treated like special guests as opposed to workers. They're given a different status. So they can come mingle with the guests. They can use the gyms."

Lanphear said the majority of contracts for acrobatic artists start at six to eight months. Artists receive the full payment during the two-month rehearsal period, whereas other companies might provide a reduced rate.

AIDA believes the rehearsal sessions are "the most demanding part of the job so you should be fully compensated," Lanphear said. Forchion said two- to three-month contracts are more standard in the gig economy.

Students in the center's professional training group prepare for performances that happen in May or June. But time is set aside for working on pieces to show in auditions for the cruise line.

"I think emotional support, nudging them to be confident, that's probably the biggest thing we do this time of year," Forchion said. "Sometimes, [AIDA] will request specific acts. Sometimes, they're really looking for the next innovative thing that they can set their teeth into in a good way and make a new show."

Forchion said the cruise line looks not only for acts but "upbeat and outgoing" attitudes.

Auditions at the center happened Feb. 13. Other auditions were scheduled for Feb. 9 in San Francisco, Feb. 15 in Montreal and in Ukraine, April 4.

Lanphear said he is usually booking boats with casts six months before the cruises. He compared the process to "a gigantic puzzle."

"Right now, I'm actually booked way ahead," he said. "I'm booked until September."

Lanphear anticipates bringing on 10 new artists this year and offering 75 contracts for acrobatic acts for the end of 2020 until halfway through 2021. He said if a contract is successful, the company will try to offer the performer another one within six months of the completed contract. He noted one performer has started an 11th contract.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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