Minneapolis performer explores circus history, finds community at Circus Juventas

The floor under the Big Top was a swirl of activity — spinning hoops, turning unicycles, twisting ropes, bodies hurtling through the air — sometimes carefully coordinated, other times featuring so many moving people that it looked like chaos but was, in fact, tied together by subtle choreography.

Participants in Circus Juventas, a program that offers circus arts training for young people, were practicing for their upcoming summer show, “Confetti,” running through Aug. 12 at the organization’s big top home in St. Paul.

The summer show is an annual event featuring performances by the circus’ most advanced students, including 20-year-old Rose Dunn-Wright of Minneapolis, who plays the ringmaster in “Confetti.”

“This will be my last show,” said Dunn-Wright, who has been participating in Circus Juventas since she was 9. Although she intends to keep riding a unicycle, she is headed for college with a plan to major in environmental science. She’d like to get into rock climbing.

Over her 11 years with Circus Juventas, Dunn-Wright has found friendship and a sense of community, she said. She was interested “in doing acrobatics and all that stuff.” But also, in school, she “felt like a misfit,” said Dunn-Wright, the daughter of a Black mother and white father.

At Circus Juventas, Dunn-Wright was inspired by two legendary ringmasters, Johnathan Lee Iverson, the first Black ringmaster, and Kristen Michelle Wilson, the first woman ringmaster. Both were ringmasters at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it closed.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of friends at school, but when I came here I always felt like this is my home,” Dunn-Wright said.

“Confetti” combines traditional circus performance — flying trapeze, acrobatics, tightrope, juggling — with an overarching theatrical narrative.

The tale begins in 2017, depicting the real-life end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years. The circus’ performers, uncertain about their future, travel back in time, visiting highlights in the history of circus development, beginning in the 1400s with juggling street minstrels in Renaissance Italy.

They visit 18th-century England, where an equestrian named Philip Astley, known as “the father of the modern circus,” introduced the concept of a circus ring combining music, acrobatics and animals.

“Confetti” has no live critters, but it does feature an amusing life-size horse puppet.

Other segments include the invention of the flying trapeze in 19th-century Paris, famous American showman P.T. Barnum, and a look at cirque nouveau, the theatrical style exemplified by Cirque du Soleil and by Circus Juventas itself.

“We decided to sort of jump through the centuries … to all the iconic moments in circus history,” said Betty Butler, who founded Circus Juventas with her husband, Dan Butler.

Now in their 60s, the Butlers were teenage circus performers when they met in Sarasota, Fla., in the 1970s. In 1994, the couple moved to Minnesota and started Circus Juventas. The organization has since trained thousands of young people, ranging from toddlers to young adults, in a wide variety of circus arts. Some start from the beginning, Betty Butler said. They gain strength, flexibility and confidence through the program.

“Most of the kids here, you’d be surprised, had never done anything like this” before joining Circus Juventas, she said. “We’ll take kids that have literally never done a thing.”

“I have to admit to being so in awe” of people who learn circus skills without having a family background in the business, said Gena Cristiani, a circus performer and costume designer. She made 55 of the costumes for “Confetti,” including Dunn-Wright’s ringmaster costume.

Cristiani researched so the costumes would resemble their historical counterparts — except the new ones use Spandex for extra comfort and flexibility.

“These people have to work so much harder than people born in the business,” said Cristiani, a native of Russia whose family’s circus performing goes back five generations. Whereas members of circus families just practice the skills, newcomers have to learn from the beginning, she said. “My respect for these people is quite large.”

Iverson is now ringmaster and chairman of the board for Omnium Circus, a New York City-based company that celebrates diversity with multiracial and multi-abled performers. He described his circus career as “one of these incredible adventures you don’t plan for” and the best time of his life.

“There’s no performing arts entity that presses you like it,” Iverson said. “It’s not prepackaged, it’s not even familiar. You’re surprising your audience. That’s the adventure and, to me, that’s the height of art, that you’re putting something out there that’s new to the world.”

Dunn-Wright said Circus Juventas has helped her grow in a number of ways. She’s made lasting friendships bound by trust — people who throw and catch each other hundreds of times really have to have trust.

“I feel like I’ve gained a lot of physical strength and just confidence to do certain things I never would have been able to do if I hadn’t joined circus,” she said.

A previous version of this story misstated the home location of Omnium Circus.