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With the aid of HVAC, Circus Juventas defies pandemic to launch inaugural holiday shows

After months of canceled classes and shows, Circus Juventas is hosting its first ever holiday show, with safety precautions.
Photo submitted by Circus Juventas

Photo submitted by Circus Juventas

After spending much of 2020 on hiatus, Circus Juventas is learning a new trick: pandemic-proofing its performances. 

From Dec. 8-13, the youth circus arts nonprofit will be putting on one of the very few live performances — let alone circus shows — across the state. 

The peanuts, intermission and many of the classic stunts will be absent. In their place will be HEPA filters and an HVAC system swapping indoor with outdoor air, mandatory masks, and social distancing rules for both the performers and the audience. 

The 90,000 cubic-square-foot, 40-foot high dome in St. Paul with a capacity for 2,000 will be seating up to 250 people – the state maximum during COVID-10. Each party will be seated in every other row, and with a distance of at least three seats (at least six feet) from others. 

"It was important for us to get our building back open again to make sure we’re here for another 25 years, and to give our students some hope in this scary time," says Dan Butler, who co-founded the organization with his wife, Betty Butler, in 1994. 

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health said that while they are unable to comment on specifics, the safety precautions listed by Circus Juventas on their website "seem appropriate." 

"In general, this would be considered an indoor seated entertainment venue/event and would be subject to the Seated Entertainment & Meetings guidance," they wrote. 

The decision to hold an inaugural holiday show during a pandemic came after months of closures and planning.  

First, Circus Juventas canceled spring classes and summer shows, forfeiting more than $1 million in revenue and forcing them to furlough more than 70 employees.

"For us, the pandemic couldn’t have hit at a worse time," Butler said. "We came to the conclusion we had to reinvent ourselves. We had no idea if this was going to last for a year — what could we do?" 

Next, they launched a series of Zoom classes. When they weren't coordinating virtual classes, they concocted a hybrid safety plan, combining Minnesota Department of Health guidelines for outdoor sporting events and fitness centers, Butler said. 

The team came up with four kinds of classes, categorized by risk based on level of collaboration and shared equipment. Students stay socially distanced in each category, with the exception that in the third, highest-risk category, students may come within six feet of each other.

In category one, performers have no shared equipment; in the second, students share equipment that is cleaned after each use. In category three, students may not always be six feet away from each other, and may sometimes be using the same equipment either at the same time or soon after each other. The organization is waiting for safer conditions before opening a fourth category, which includes more physical contact.

Students are required to answer questions regarding possible symptoms and have their temperature taken at arrival. 

Fall registration is down from the usual 1,000 students to 580 students, Butler said. About 40 performers will be in the holiday show. 

"Some of our population is still concerned, and that’s OK. They'll be back," Butler said. 

Eighteen-year-old performer Emme Martini says she's feeling "pretty good" about pandemic safety while at Circus Juventas. 

"They’re cleaning all the time; we’re all super aware of each other and everyone’s boundaries," she said. "We’re all totally respectful of each other, spaced out, trying to follow the guidelines," Martini said. 

The performers and coaches have found ways to reinvent tricks to avoid close contact, she said.  

"It’s definitely hard," she said. "It’s a challenge for sure."

Luckily, circus performers are used to being flexible. And the extra caution towards each other's boundaries builds on a foundation of trust the students regularly build through their circus work, Butler said. 

"There’s something about the physical and artistic side of circus  and the bonding that comes with trusting each other in what they do, that is unsurpassed in programs for young people," Butler said. 

'A Hygge Holiday'

After several drafts, the Circus Juventas team settled on an intermission-less, 70-minute production with eight showtimes.

Audience members will buy digital tickets, making the transaction contactless, and will be given staggered time slots for arrival and exiting, Butler said.

"The revenue stream is not going to be great, but everything helps right now," he said. 

The show, named "A Hygge Holiday," will "transport audiences to the beautiful and bewitching North Woods," the press release reads, and the storyline includes a pre-recorded narration by award-winning Kevin Kling. 

"[Kevin Kling has] just got a way about him that is magical, and we thought, what a perfect person to help us raise money and for our holiday show," Butler said.  

Betty Butler shed some more light on the show in the press release: “It is filled with humor and warmth, with unicycling elves, daredevil lumberjacks and a tree-decorating attempt that goes hilariously wrong on high swinging aerial ladders. We want to leave the audience with that cozy feeling that the Danish call ‘hygge’ with a side of adrenaline, brought to life by our talented performers as they do backflips off a wall trampoline and spin high above them on silks.”

Tickets went on sale Monday and cost $30 for children between 3-10 years old, and $40 otherwise. Children two and younger have free admission. More details are available on the Circus Juventas website

"I’m just so excited to perform again," Martini said. 

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