By Douglas Yu
About 200 kids this year entertained Somerville residents by riding unicycles, juggling, miming and walking stilts. It was the first time for OPENAIR Circus kids to show off their skills at Conway Park in Somerville.
Peter Jehlen, one of the founders of the Circus played various upbeat songs as the young talents hit the stage with their flamboyant costumes, standing in a row and playing around with shaker cups in their hands. Not everybody can do what they did.
“This is the 28th summer of our performances,” Jehlen said. “The kids are having a great time with their families. And we enjoy it a lot too.”
The Circus was much smaller 20 years ago, said Pat Jehlen, the original founder of the Circus and a current state senator. It started as a neighborhood circus, which involved 10 to 15 kids in total.
“We are now mostly funded by individual donations. I’m glad the program maintains very well and it keeps growing,” Pat Jehlen said. “What really makes me love the Circus is that I love teaching kids. They look very strong and confident. The kids who grew up in the circus are taking leadership roles now.”
Not many volunteer organizations have survived as long as the OPENAIR, said Pat Jehlen. It would never have been able to continue without the help of dedicated families and a firm community.
Ian Thal, the instructor of commedia dell’arte and miming, has been participating in the Circus program for nine years. There are many kids who literally grew up with him. He is proud to see their skills improving over the years.
“Most kids in my class are from seven years old to their mid teens. I’ve been with them every summer since 2004,” Thal said. “We had the performance at Nunziato Park last year. This year is even more exciting.”
Thal is confident about the popularity of his class and is happy to see a lot of families continuously support the show.
“There are many kids coming to my particular class,” Thal said. “Most of my students participated in last year’s performances too. The program is actually expensive in comparison to how much support we get from the tuition fee. A lot of families are actively involved. They are behind the scenes, helping raise the money and keeping program changing.”
As a highlight in Somerville, the Circus attracts people from many other places as well. In Thal’s class, there are kids from Boston, Cambridge and other neighboring cities.
“People even drive up from Rhode Island to take the classes, because we are unique,” said Pat Jehlen.
The OPENAIR Circus provides a variety of classes, including Acro-balance, Devil sticks, Hat-manipulation, Hula Hoops and so on. It costs $20 per person and $30 per family, according to Jehlen.
Kids interacted with their parents in a lot of the performances. They climbed up their mothers’ or fathers’ backs and posed as flying birds. Parents put their kids upside down and shook them as clock pendulums, in a performance called Tumbling for Two.
Watertown native Jennifer Aucoin was not ashamed to be the only adult in a crowd of kids and have a good time. “We are in the same performance, Hula Hoops,” she said. “My daughter is 13 years old and she’s been doing this for five years. It’s always interesting being an adult and trying to interact with kids. You stay young a little longer.”
Aucoin said her daughter was excited about the circus every summer and couldn’t wait to come, even though it takes hours to get to the performance area because of the rush hour commute.
The Circus performs on the first weekend of August every year in Somerville. In addition, the staff also marched in the ArtBeat parade this summer.
“Juggling looks easier than it is, stilting looks harder than it is,” Pat Jehlen jokingly said. “The kids are growing in the Circus and improving their skills. We have a fabulous show this year.”
For more information about The OPENAIR Circus, check out the website: http://www.openaircircus.org/index.asp.