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Circus Juventas postpones shows, adapts programs to stay afloat

Dan Butler is used to being nimble and flexible. As executive director of Circus Juventas, he’s been teaching trapeze and teeterboard for 25 years.

Being nimble and flexible during a pandemic is a whole different act.

“We have rescheduled and reimagined so many things, only to find out two weeks later we can’t do it.” he said. “It’s almost impossible to plan anything.”

“The unknown is just too great,” Butler noted.

Normally, spring and summer months are some of the busiest at the circus’ home in St. Paul’s Highland Park. With two shows and summer training programs, the months also provide a big chunk of Circus Juventas’ revenue.

The coronavirus pandemic shut that all down. When Gov. Tim Walz announced the shelter-in-place orders in March, Circus Juventas temporarily close its doors. Both the spring and summer shows, which usually rake in about $750,000 each, were postponed.

A FINANCIAL BALANCING ACT

Over the course of the past five months, the nonprofit youth circus took a $1.4 million blow. As a result, Butler furloughed up to 70 employees.

Dan Butler, President and Co-Founder of Circus Juventus, works with Lia Lemieux as she practices on the high wire at the Big Top in St. Paul on Wednesday July 29, 2020. Lemieux, a 2020 graduate of Eagan High School, continues to keep her skills sharp despite Circus Juventas having their spring and summer productions canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Cutting employee hours and pay was painful, especially since so many of them have been with Circus Juventas for years, Butler said. But the organization needed to conserve as much money as it could to stay afloat.

The circus was one of over 7,000 small businesses that received a $150,000-$350,000 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, according to data released the Small Business Administration. They also raised $200,000 during its 25-year anniversary fundraiser in May. Still, as his fiscal year comes to a close, Butler expects a huge loss of revenue that he can’t get back.

“For the past four months, I feel like someone is sitting on my chest,” he said.

CIRCUS SCHOOL GOES ONLINE

After closing their training facility in March, Circus Juventas staff started to brainstorm new ways to teach their students. They launched a series of online classes.

“If someone would’ve asked me a year ago to teach circus online, I would’ve said it wasn’t possible,” said Rachel Butler Norris, coach and artistic department manager at Circus Juventas.

But this spring, Butler Norris hosted weekly virtual classes for her students. Over Zoom, she was able to lead at-home workouts, and talk through different aerial silk techniques while her students took notes.

“I would have my assistant demonstrating the movements while my students watched from home,” she said. “It’s not ideal, but we did the absolute best we could do in those circumstances.”

INCREASING SAFETY MEASURES

Before the circus could reopen its doors to its students in June, they then had to reimagine in-person circus training altogether.

Dan Butler, President and Co-Founder of Circus Juventus, works with Lia Lemieux as she practices on the high wire at the Big Top in St. Paul on Wednesday July 29, 2020. Lemieux, a 2020 graduate of Eagan High School, continues to keep her skills sharp despite Circus Juventas having their spring and summer productions canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

“There’s no guidelines for opening a circus school during a pandemic,” said Butler. “We had to combine guidelines for day camps, gyms, and sport teams.”

The result? Students are only allowed to practice circus acts that don’t involve physical contact with others. Many acts that require touching others, like the double trapeze for example, have been cut.

During summer camps, some students are choosing to wear face masks. But this presents a new concern for coaches — the masks could move and obscure the students’ vision during stunts. Students are welcome to wear masks, but they will be limited from doing high level tricks that coaches deem dangerous, Butler said.

Coaches will bypass social distancing guidelines if they need to step in and physically prevent a student from getting injured during a stunt, even if the student is not wearing a mask, he added.

“We have to maintain COVID-19 safety. But we also have to maintain circus safety,” he said.

But even with new safety measures in place to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the Circus Juventas big top is emptier than usual. Reducing capacity to 25 percent means up to 400 students could train in-person this summer. Only 180 students came back.

THE LAST BIG SHOW

For students in their senior year, the spring and summer shows are often the last time they’ll get to perform in a large-scale circus production.

Lia Limieux, 19, has been training with Circus Juventas since she was two years old. She just graduated from Eagan High School this spring, and this summer would have been her last circus performance.

Pre-pandemic, Limieux was training for up to five hours every weeknight, preparing for her role as one of the leads in the summer show, Galaxium. But with the production postponed until the summer of 2021, Circus Juventas is inviting this year’s senior class to return next summer to take their final bows.

“Theoretically, next summer I will do what I was supposed to do this summer. Except, I won’t be able to train for most of the year,” says Limieux.

Until then, she is back to training in the big top this summer for the first time since March, and plans to be there for three hours a night until she has to leave for college.

“It’s odd to be back, because everything feels different from before. But it feels really nice to be around these people who I’ve been missing for three months,” she said.

Now the trick is keeping Circus Juventas afloat long enough so that the seniors have something to come back to. In an attempt to generate some revenue, the circus hopes to put together its first holiday show ever in December. But Butler is anxious to plan anything as other Twin Cities theaters are postponing their seasons until as late as next spring.

“Optimistic is probably not the right word. We’re hopeful,” he said.

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