THERE ONCE WAS a time when kids dreamt of joining the circus. Remember Toby Tyler, the freckle-faced orphan who enjoyed life under the big top? For a lucky and skillful few young Brooklynites -- members of the Russian American Kids Circus -- they live that dream, touring from Toronto to Florida, entertaining audiences of all ages with slapstick antics and flashy tricks of stunning dexterity. But don't worry. Their parents know where they are. In fact, they enrolled them in circus school to learn the ropes . . . and the juggling and the unicycling it takes to be a circus star.
This week 11 child performers ages 8 to 16 from the Kids Circus return for their third consecutive year to Cheverly's Publick Playhouse, bringing with them circus skills that rival those of mature performers. Although there's no big top sheltering these little people, no outlandish New Agey Cirque du Soleil displays and no animals, there are good old-fashioned acts drawn from the grand tradition of Russian theatrical circus.
In Russia, circus people are revered performers who begin training at a very early age. Often skills are rooted in the family, with parents passing on knowledge to their offspring, who thus grow up with sawdust in their veins and bright lights in their eyes. But for a number of Russian emigres in the United States, the tradition of the Russian circus was becoming a distant memory. That is until former Moscow Circus acrobat and juggler Alex Berenchtein and his wife, Regina, along with her mother, Olga Partigul, founded the Russian American Kids Circus a decade ago in Brooklyn.
Their venture began modestly as a nonprofit academy enrolling children of all ages who demonstrated an interest in learning circus tricks and techniques. "We wanted to create a unique program for children," Regina Berenchtein said recently describing their New Way Circus Center, which is developing a full-fledged circus school and museum on Coney Island in the heart of Little Odessa, home to a huge number of Russian emigres.
"We think that circus presents a unique combination of sport and art," she says. "When children come to us . . . we teach them in two different directions: We build them up in circus skills and in sport."
Berenchtein favors the noncompetitive environment of the circus, extolling the fact that there are no winners and losers on stage unlike on a soccer field or basketball court. "This helps them in real life to gain self-esteem, concentration and focus." She adds: "Most are coming for fun. We do not push anyone to make a commitment. Whoever wants to be in the advanced group knows they have to work very hard."
And indeed they do. This cadre of highly dedicated youths rehearses three hours daily and four hours on Sundays throughout the year. To keep up school attendance, the children tour and perform mostly on weekends and school holidays and during the summer. They are paid a stipend, and their costumes and touring costs are paid for by the company. Additionally, when the kids reach this high level of performance, they no longer pay for their training.
Touring, Berenchtein says, provides as much education as the circus school itself -- the children travel to new cities, participate in meet-and-greets with the audience and learn how to get a show up and running in a new theater with just one day of rehearsal.
Alex Berenchtein and senior teacher Igor Loktev travel and perform with the children, and with two other adult chaperones, who manage the complexities of costume and equipment changes backstage.
Berenchtein has tutored the performers in the theatrically based Russian clowning tradition. "It's a very difficult genre," notes Regina Berenchtein. "We spend a lot of hours with the children to develop the skills for clowning. In the Russian tradition we do not use any makeup or masks to hide the face. This makes the children work harder because there is no mask. They have to learn a different kind of theatrical skill."
Aside from clowning, the kids learn a bevy of other skills and then specialize according to their ability and talent. They also become expert jugglers, tossing balls, plates on long dowels, pins and hoops through the air. An audience favorite features glow-in-the-dark balls that seemingly float, eliciting gasps from the crowd.
While many kids in America know how to ride a bike, the circus kids have finessed their pedaling skills on standard unicycles and long-necked "giraffe" unicycles. Bicycles carrying pyramids of up to eight kids provide plenty of athleticism.
Amid the spangles and flash, Regina Berenchtein emphasizes that the Kids Circus represents a unique opportunity. "In the circus we don't have a first place, we work together as a team to entertain everyone."
RUSSIAN AMERICAN KIDS CIRCUS -- July 22 at 7 p.m. Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. $8. 301-277-1710.