By AMY FORLITI
The Associated Press
Saturday, July 7, 2007; 7:57 AM
ST. PAUL -- Zach Morgan sits on the edge of a plank nearly 40 feet in the air, terrified by what he's about to do. He has no safety net, just a specially rigged bungee rope looped around one wrist. But when he gets his cue, he'll count to three and step into space _ free-falling more than 20 feet until the rope catches, leaving him hanging by one hand.
Morgan is among the advanced students at Circus Juventas, a performing arts circus school that teaches young people how to tumble and twist through the air, while also learning the self-confidence, discipline and teamwork required to do amazing high-flying tricks.
"It freaks you out," said Morgan, 18, of the free fall stunt. "You are sitting on the edge going, 'Why am I doing this? What am I doing? ... ' And then you jump, and you get to the ground, and you go, 'Oh THAT'S why _ 'cause it's awesome!'"
The stunts are performed under the "Big Top," a state-of-the-art facility in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. Each summer, the elite students put on a dazzling show that has been described as a youth version of Cirque du Soleil.
The stunt Morgan describes, which he calls "The Drop," is the opening scene in this year's summer production, Atlanticus. Morgan plays one of two undersea explorers who stumble across a lost civilization while searching for treasure. As the plot unfolds, the students of Circus Juventas will use circus tricks, theater arts and elaborate costumes and sets to tell the story.
Circus Juventas, named for the Roman goddess of youth and rebirth, is a nonprofit organization founded in 1994 by Betty Butler, the circus' artistic director and co-founder, and her husband, Dan, the circus' executive director.
The couple met as teenage performers in the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Fla., and both went on to perform with the Flying High Circus at Florida State University. They eventually ended up in Minnesota after Dan Butler spent time at Hazelden, where he was treated for alcohol and drug abuse.
"We really wanted to do something to give back to the community, and our newfound life," Dan said.
The circus school began as Circus of the Star, an after-school program for 30 children in a neighborhood recreation center.
After a major fundraising campaign, the Big Top was built in 2001. Now, Circus Juventas offers camps and classes year-round for students ages 3 to 21. Adult classes are also offered for the young at heart, but as the organization's Web site says, the spotlight is reserved for kids.
The Butlers say Circus Juventas is a place where every student can be in the spotlight and boys and girls can train as equals.
"There is a special bonding that happens because of the safety involved, and they have to work together in a very different kind of way than probably any other extracurricular activity that I know of," said Betty Butler.
She described a group practicing a seven-person pyramid on the high wire, a complex trick that involves intense precision and teamwork. If one person messes up, the safety of the team is at risk.
There was a slight squabble before the group began practicing, she said, "but then all of a sudden they have to tune it all out and focus on what they're all about _ which is moving safely across the wire. ... They can't just storm off the field and say 'The heck with this.'"
The Butlers say Circus Juventas is inspired by international circus models, which focus on athleticism and artistry. Some of the Circus Juventas coaches come from as far away as China or Mongolia. There are no animals and no ringmaster.
On a recent summer night, the Big Top buzzed with energy. The advanced students rehearsed the opening for their summer show, while three girls flipped through the air on bungee trapezes nearby. Meanwhile, some coaches worked with 5-year-olds on a trampoline.
Cheryl Ober, of Minneapolis, watched as her 9-year-old daughter, Jenna, trained in an advanced acrobatics class.
"It's just amazing the upper body strength that these girls have," Ober said of the older students. "These kids can scale these ropes in nothing, and there are Marines that can't do that."
Morgan, the free-faller, was home-schooled until high school and his mom got him involved in the circus as a sort of physical education class. He stuck with it over the years, he says, because he loves performing cool tricks, and he's grown attached to the community of performers.
"If you are falling, you have to trust that you know everybody well enough that they are going to catch you, and that makes for a really tight knit group of people," he said.
On the Net: http://www.circusjuventas.org