Norwich siblings Sonya and Sam Gurwitt are running off to join the circus this summer—with their parents’ blessing. Sonya’s skills as an aerialist and contortionist, and Sam’s in clowning, juggling and Chinese pole, have won them spots on tour with Circus Smirkus, the award-winning, international, traveling youth circus based in Vermont. From early July through mid-August, the troupe will travel with its European-made Big Top tent to 15 venues throughout the Northeast, and will perform nearly 70 individual shows. Circus Smirkus will not appear in the Upper Valley this year, but it will be coming to the Vermont Agricultural Business Center in Brattleboro on July 19 and 20, Pico Mountain in Killington on August 14 and 15, and Montpelier High School on August 16 and 17. Sonya, 17, and Sam, 15, first learned about the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus when their father, writer Rob Gurwitt, was assigned to do a story about the troupe 12 years ago. “One day I took them up to Greensboro, where Smirkus is based,” Rob recalls, “and they hung around the tent while the troupers were rehearsing. At one point, Smirkus’s founder, Rob Mermin, asked the troupers if anyone wanted to juggle fire in the show. Sam raised his hand. He was three years old at the time.”
Sonya, meanwhile, figured out that she could bend in half—backwards. After each kid turned eight, they began attending Ted Lawrence’s two-week Van Lodostov Family Circus camp in Norwich each summer, where Sonya discovered her love for performing in the air and Sam his inner clown. Sonya moved on to Circus Smirkus Summer Camp four summers ago; Sam followed a year later, though he also continued with Van Lodostov through last summer.
During the school year, they both train at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, where Sonya has honed her skills on the trapeze and the lyra, or aerial hoop, and Sam has worked on Chinese pole and acrobatics.
“I never imagined sending both my kids off to the circus,” says their mother, Karen Harris, a consultant to foundations and nonprofits. “But we’ve come to love it—the way it combines artistry and athleticism, and how they’re part of an incredibly strong community.” Last fall, the two submitted audition tapes to Smirkus headquarters in Greensboro, VT, and were called for a live audition in January. They and 28 other performers ages 10 to 18 were selected for the 2011 Big Top Tour.
“I’ve been sitting in the bleachers at Smirkus shows since I was four years old,” says Sonya. “It’ll be amazing to actually be in the ring.” Life on the road promises to be fun and exhausting, both siblings say. As “Smirkos,” they will join fellow troupers in such tasks as taking care of props, selling tickets and popcorn, and working with the tent crew, light and sound technicians, equipment riggers, costumer, musicians and others who travel with the one-ring show. The payoff, they say, is being surrounded by other teens from all parts of the country and the world who bring their love of circus to each performance. This year’s troupers hail from 14 states—California, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont and Washington—as well as New Zealand. Troupers’ skills include juggling, wire-walking, clowning, acrobatics, aerials and unicycling, and acts involving the diabolo, trapeze, cradle, Spanish web and lyra. Over the years, Circus Smirkus has become known for its theme-based and “story” shows. Themes have included Pirates, the Wild West, and Superheroes, while stories have included original circus versions of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “Pinocchio.” This year’s tour continues the tradition of theme-based shows with “Front Page Follies: Big Top Big News!” a circus-style look at old-time journalism. It will feature juggling paperboys, paparazzi clowns, a wacky weatherman, and all the news that fits….in center ring. When not hanging in the air, Sonya and Sam are students at Hanover High School, where Sonya is a junior and Sam is a freshman. Sonya helps to organize Operation Day’s Work, which raises money for Selamta, an orphanage in Ethiopia; Sam plays the violin and skis on the school’s Nordic ski team. “Circus is like my home away from home,” says Sonya. “So in a way, leaving for an entire summer doesn’t actually feel like running away.” Adds Sam, “Maybe now my parents will let me juggle fire.” For information and tickets, log on to www.smirkus.org, or call 1-877-SMIRKUS (1-877-764-7587)