When I was a boy, I was in awe of kids who could swing along the monkey bars. It seemed almost as good as flying, to be able to hold on with one hand while swinging to the next rung…and then do it, immediately, again and again, seemingly without tiring. Me? I could hang there with two hands, for a few seconds, and that was about it. Had I seen Circus Juventas at that age, I might have sincerely doubted whether I was actually of the same species as the remarkable performers under the big top in Highland Park. (Actually, I have my doubts even now.)
Circus Juventas, now celebrating its 15th anniversary, is a nonprofit organization working to enrich youths’ lives by teaching them to perform sundry feats of dexterity and amusement; the director of St. Paul Parks and Rec opened Sunday afternoon’s performance by noting proudly that the success of Circus Juventas is squarely in line with Mayor Coleman’s goal to keep kids constructively occupied while out of school. The feats on display clearly demonstrate that the Juventi have been kept constructively occupied, but my guess is that if they weren’t training under the big top, this particular group of youths wouldn’t be out on the streets making trouble—they’d be trying to see how many kids they could fit into a Civic hatchback.
|yulong: the jade dragon, presented through august 16 by circus juventas, 1270 montreal ave., st. paul. for tickets ($15-$25), see circusjuventas.org.|
This year’s summer show is called Yulong: The Jade Dragon, and it tells the story of a young girl who, like a cross between Mulan and Joan of Arc, leads the Emperor’s forces in battle against an invading army of wolf-worshipping Huns. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the good guys’ trapezing somehow prevails against the Huns’ trampolining, and the girl is hailed as a heroine. There are a couple of loud and clanky swordfights, which the Emperor’s forces are lucky to win given how much time they must have spent rehearsing their victory jumproping instead of their swordsmanship. (The Huns’ fatal mistake, I surmise, was the amount of time they dedicated to perfecting their cartwheels of mourning.)
Yulong is a circus performance in the manner of Cirque du Soleil—which is also, as any billboard in town might have informed you, performing in St. Paul this summer. Both Circus Juventas and Cirque du Soleil jettison the ethically questionable animal performances in favor of feats of human dexterity and the over-the-top showmanship that it wouldn’t be a circus without. There is a Chinese theme to Yulong’s sets and story, but though it features traditional Chinese circus acts and was developed in association with the Chinese American Association of Minnesota, the show is less an education in traditional Chinese culture than a Vegas-style multicultural pastiche; most of the costumes could have come from Richard Simmons’s pajama drawer circa 1989. The thundering music evokes a kind of pan-Asian Riverdance, the Emperor’s entertainment from distant lands includes hoop-jumpers from “the kingdom of Africa,” and at the end of the show, Circus Juventas co-founder Dan Butler sent us off with a “God bless you.”
As with Cirque du Soleil, though, the plot and theme just provide a thin (though glittery) wrapping around hugely impressive performances by expertly trained circus artists. The fact that these particular artists happen to be amateurs ranging in age from 7 to 21, clearly working at the furthest reach of their abilities (and occasionally stumbling), adds excitement and human interest that more than make up for the gap between their really amazing skills and the Cirque du Soleil performers’ ludicrously amazing skills. Really, though, what’s most impressive about Yulong is that only in the “dramatic” interludes does it feel like an amateur production; as you enjoy the performances, you almost forget that you’re watching kids who might still have Legos and Bratz dolls lying under their beds.
With Circus Juventas, you don’t just get quality entertainment—you also get quantity entertainment. Multiple acts include different Juventi onstage simultaneously, performing different stunts; and the show is long. The matinee performance I saw began at 1:00 p.m., and it was well after 4:00 by the time we made it back to the car to drive away past golfers on the Highland course, there as if to remind us of our own struggles to get our bodies to perform feats of dexterity. Maybe I’ll take up fire juggling once I can hit a five-iron straight.
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
|Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.|