Portland's The Circus Project shows homeless, at-risk youth how to handle a high-wire act

by: PHOTO BY DAVID ROSE PHOTOGRAPHY  - Local students age 13 to 21 who are part of The Circus Projects Training Company go for high drama at a performance in Seattle. Tickets to Cirque du Soleil's April 18 Totem show benefit The Circus Projects outreach efforts.  Many serve in a soup kitchen or donate coats, blankets or money to help the homeless. The Circus Project takes a more imaginative approach: It teaches them to fly.

It might sound bizarre, but the 6-year-old Portland nonprofit offers free training to the homeless and at-risk youth in the circus arts.

“It’s daring and out-of-the-box, with a focus on community and relationships,” says Jenn Cohen, The Circus Project’s artistic director and a circus coach of 20 years.

When Cirque du Soleil brings its wild new show, “Totem,” to Portland beginning March 27, students from The Circus Project will be in the audience and raising money for their program.

But The Circus Project doesn’t work on a leap of faith alone.

“The acquisition of flight requires an enormous amount of discipline, commitment, awareness, and self-care, which many street and at-risk youth lack,” says Cohen, who earned a graduate degree in psychology to add a therapy component to her work.

“Developing these qualities for the sake of appealing to, or integrating into the mainstream holds little appeal for most youth. Developing these qualities in order to fly, however, is a much more compelling incentive.”

Cohen brought Cirque du Soleil in as the project’s sponsor at their inception. She had been performing in circuses here and abroad, and coached a group of youth with special needs at the San Francisco Circus Center.

“I watched these students thrive in the circus — physically, emotionally and socially,” Cohen says.

Someone from Cirque du Soleil saw the act and offered her a job. She offered them a partnership instead. Today, The Circus Project’s “High Flyers” program, as the outreach effort is called, has worked with more than 600 homeless and at-risk youth from at least 30 social service agencies, including p:ear, Bradley-Angle House, MercyCorps Northwest, Girls Inc., and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

Graduates of the program who meet the demands of The Circus Project’s public classes are awarded scholarships to continue their training.

Tby: PHOTO BY STEVE OLPIN.  - Jenn Cohen, artistic director for The Circus Project, sees circus performing as therapy for the down-and-out.   his spring, Cirque du Soleil’s April 18 show will benefit The Circus Project. All the money from ticket sales to the 8 p.m. show will go toward the local group’s outreach efforts. Tickets must be purchased by March 1 at

Whenever Cirque du Soleil comes to town (10 times in the past 14 years), The Circus Project’s students get reserved seats. The Circus Project sends its coaches to Cirque’s facilities for training. And, of course, the sponsorship lends credibility to The Circus Project’s efforts.

Besides its outreach efforts, The Circus Project offers public classes to children and adults at its studio space in Northwest Portland’s Friendly House Community Center. The group teaches elite aerial, acrobatic and performance training, specializing in modern, theatrical circus, which integrates elements of circus, theater, music and dance.

Winter circus classes are underway though March 22.

The Circus Project also offers an intensive training company of competitive performers who participate in a performance troupe. The troupe books shows around town.

No one in the troupe is involved this year in Cirque’s “Totem” production, but they’ll be watching closely.

Giving back to community

This spring, “Totem” lands in Portland March 27 through May 4 at the Portland Expo Center, 2060 N. Marine Drive. That’s a change from its usual location, the temporary blue and yellow big top near the Marquam Bridge. That site is being used as a staging area for the construction of the new Willamette River bridge.

Since its world premiere in 2010, “Totem” has toured 15 countries and been seen by 2 million people. The show traces the evolution of mankind from its original amphibious state to its ultimate desire to fly.

Characters evolve on stage from a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many civilizations. The 2,700-pound turtle shell serves as the acrobatic equipment as well as the set’s changing stage: a virtual swamp, river source, lake, ocean, volcanic island, pond and starry sky.

The show’s name comes from the symbolic totem, which holds the idea of the order of species.

Even if you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil’s shows once, twice or several times, here are five things you probably didn’t know about the Montreal group celebrating its 30th anniversary this year:

• It brings economic ripples to the cities it visits: In Portland this year, Cirque has hired between 150 to 200 local people to work 20 to 40 hours per week in a variety of jobs, such as ushers, box office sales, hospitality hosts, food and beverage attendants, merchandise staff, kitchen attendants, prep cooks, janitors and a receptionist.

By the time the Portland tour wraps up, Cirque also will have hired dozens, if not hundreds, of local suppliers for everything from food and beverages and dry ice to biodiesel, machinery, bank services, delivery services, recycling and waste management.

• The talent is a virtual United Nations: The show employs 46 acrobats, actors, musicians and singers, hailing from 15 countries including China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mongolia and Ukraine. The 73-person support and technician crew represents nine countries, including New Zealand, Russia and Switzerland.

• Created in 1984 by a group of 20 street performers in Quebec, Canada, Cirque has visited Portland nearly every year since 2000, sometimes twice in one year. Here are the past shows: “Saltimbanco” (2000), “Dralion” (2002), “Alegria” (2003), “Varekai” (2006), “Delirium (2006), “Corteo” (2008), “KOOZA” (2010), “Dralion” (2011), “Michael Jackson” (2011), and “OVO” (2012).

• There’s a silver screen tie-in: Award-winning costume designer Kym Barrett did the costumes for “The Matrix” series, “Three Kings,” “Speed Racer” and for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in “Romeo and Juliet.” The Australian native’s designs for “Totem” reflect her research into animals, plants and birds, as well as traditional cultural and tribal designs.

“Although ‘Totem’ is quite fantastical, there’s also a sense of reality,” Barrett says. “The costumes were inspired in part by documentary film. I wanted them to have a kind of documentary patina, even though we were inventing our own reality.”

• They give back: In 2007, Cirque creator Guy Laliberté started a nonprofit foundation called One Drop, which fights poverty around the world by providing sustainable access to safe water.

According to One Drop, nearly 800 million people lack access to water while 2.5 billion are deprived of access to adequate sanitation. By 2025, 5.3 billion people — two-thirds of the world’s population — could lack access to enough water to meet their basic daily requirements.

Laliberté says his group’s mission reflects the values at the heart of Cirque: the belief that life gives back what you have given and even the smallest gesture will make a difference.

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