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Jessica Hentoff: Circus lady, circus teacher

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 18, 2010 - Sometimes it takes an accident to discover a life passion, but rarely does discovery require a 30-foot fall from a circus trapeze. It did for Circus Harmony director Jessica Hentoff, whose circus troupe and its trip to Israel are the subject of new motion picture documentary "Circus Kids" showing Sun., Nov. 21 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival.

"When you're young, you don't think about those things (accidents), but anything is possible for good or not so good," Hentoff said.

The fall happened in Kansas City a few years after Hentoff graduated from college in New York state, where she had begun studying circus. She was touring with an outdoor circus company, and it was beginning to rain.

"The girl in the ring next to me, her stepfather called up to her not to do her last trick because the stakes were pulling from her outdoor rigging."

Hentoff's two friends who were serving as clowns spotting Hentoff above them were momentarily distracted by the girl's stepfather. "And in that second, I missed the trick. My partner hung from one foot on a bar. I was supposed to fall backward and catch the bar with my foot, and I missed."

While Hentoff broke some bones and fractured her pelvis, she was lucky to have no permanent injuries. Her accident made her decide that circus was what she wanted to spend her life pursuing. The accident "made me go 'Do you really want to do this?' The answer was yes, but if I was going to go back, I was going to do something exceptional."

Exceptional is what she became in two ways.

First, she created a never-since-replicated trapeze act with aerialist Kathie Hoyer. In the trick, Hentoff hung from the trapeze bar by one arm. With her leg extended and her foot pointed, she held a steel circular hoop around her heel. Then her partner descended to the bottom of the steel ring, dropped herself down and after extending her leg up and pointing her foot, hung upside down by her heel.

Ed Bishop writing in People St. Louis magazine in 1990 described the act. "Slowly, gracefully, both women turn their bodies into geometric shapes, into lovely lines of the female body. Then, for a moment they freeze in their positions to let you take in the full scope of what they're doing.

"The terror of high places is being defied right before your very eyes. The barely possible has become reality. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, the human spirit is being reaffirmed," Bishop wrote. The act earned Hentoff and Hoyer a Wall Street Journal engraving of the act that was printed with a column about the Hentoff maneuver by Nat Hentoff, Jessica's father. "It's nice to have something real that you can be proud of."

But Hentoff has been equally exceptional behind the scenes as circus director and innovator. In the late 1980s, Hentoff joined Circus Flora to begin teaching circus classes at St. Louis Public Schools. The approximately dozen-member St. Louis Arches was formed in 1989 to exhibit the skills of the most dedicated students. In 2001, Hentoff and her troupe formed the independent Circus Harmony. The Arches troupe puts on hundreds of shows each year and tours regularly. The Arches perform twice a day every Saturday at the City Museum.

Numerous students have passed through Circus Harmony's ring. Mei Ling, who has been a student of Hentoff's for nine years beginning at age 6, said that Hentoff is like a big mother to all her students.

"I love (circus). I can't stay away from it even if I wanted to. I have always felt the need to come back and continue." It's the people, especially Hentoff, who continues to draw her back, Ling said. "She's the one who puts everything together, makes everything possible for us, gives us these wonderful opportunities. She really helps us grow in our work."

One of the most adventurous episodes in Circus Harmony's and the St. Louis Arches' history is the subject of the documentary premiering at the St. Louis International Film Festival. "Circus Kids" follows the St. Louis Arches during its 2007 tour of Israel with the Jewish/Arab Galilee Circus. The St. Louis Beacon got the chance a few weeks ago to sit down with Hentoff and talk about her own passion for circus and the best moments of the 2007 trip.

How did you first become involved in the circus?

Hentoff: When I went to State University of New York at Purchase, I was going to keep my job in New York City at Warner Brothers Record Co., working in the publicity department on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Through an odd series of events, I lost that job, which freed up my Tuesdays and Thursdays, which was when circus class was. So I just decided to take circus. Had I had my plan of working gone through, I would have never had circus classes, and you and I would not be having this conversation.

I started taking circus classes. You're talking about a girl who grew up in New York and didn't even climb a tree until I was 10. I started taking circus classes, and it was "Oh my gosh! I can juggle! I can do trapeze!" And this had never even occurred to me as an option of something I could ever do. I started reading everything I could about circus, and I fell in love with circus.

My first year, I wrote to 50 circuses looking for a summer job saying "I'll do anything. I'll water the elephants. I'll clean up after them. Anything at all." None of them wrote me back except one, which happened to be a Methodist youth circus (named Circus Kingdom). I am Jewish, and I didn't answer them. The guy called me up and said, "Why didn't you answer me?" I told him I am Jewish and you're a Methodist youth circus. And he said, "I know, you're Jewish, that's great! This circus is about people from all backgrounds." So I ended up going on that circus for the next two summers.

What is a social circus and where did that idea come from?

Hentoff: The first circus I joined, Circus Kingdom, was run by a man named David Harris. He would bring these high school and college kids from throughout the country together, and we toured the eastern United States. And in every town we did a show in, we would also do a show for people who couldn't come to us -- a senior citizens home, a home for the mentally ill, prison. In many ways that was a social circus. It happened because the man who ran it wanted a Christian focus. The show, even though it had really hard-core, technical acts also had a message: The brotherhood of man and how we can all get along.

I think we, the young people involved, learned more from and got more out of doing those shows for the people who couldn't come to us than from doing the regular shows. And I'll tell you this. That was the first show I was in, and since then I've been with professional shows, one-ring, three-ring, tented, big-building shows, and -- of all the circuses -- that one had the best feel because it was so from the heart why those kids including me were there. I learned the power of doing what you love and how it can affect somebody else. Those people were so thankful for us to be there entertaining them. There was an appreciation unlike paid audiences.

How has the art of the circus changed since you first began performing in college?

Hentoff: In my last year of college, the Big Apple Circus was starting. This was the resurrection of circus in America. Big Apple Circus was started by two young men (jugglers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen) who had been working in Europe and saw how circuses were in Europe. They saw how they weren't the three-ring spectacles that American circus had become, and they came to New York City. They decided to start a circus and a circus school. And I got to be part of that. It was so exciting to be part of something circus that was new. This was a very seminal time in American circus history, and I was lucky enough to be there at that moment when it was starting.

In Europe, circus is considered a higher level art form, people go to opening night in tuxedos. It's not just for kids. It's just more appreciated than it is in America.

In America, most circuses perform in buildings. When you think of American circuses, you think of a big, three-ring show. Those can be interesting, too.

I can tell you as a performer, you'd much rather perform in a one-ring show where everybody is looking at you. Some of the big building (circuses) I was in, even if I was in the center ring, I had people performing on either side of me. I'd look at the audience, and it's like they're at a tennis match.

America has always been about bigger and better. Jumbo-size, gargantuan -- words that have come from circus. Americans like being the best, which gets translated into the biggest. But sometimes that's not actually the best.

In a one-ring circus, there is magic in that one ring. You know how some people say if you put a pyramid over something, it is has power? There is some magic in this ring, and you step into the ring and it's alchemy, you turn golden. I've seen it happen for little tiny kids, our youngest student is 5, our oldest student is 83 and does trapeze. And all of them are transformed by being in a circus ring.

The "Circus Kids" movie documents your trip to Israel. What were some of the most memorable moments of the trip?

Hentoff: That first moment (they met the Israeli circus troupe), they got off the bus and they were standing like it was a school dance with everybody separated into two lines.

One of the Israeli boys thought to pull out some juggling balls and started juggling. Bam. One of our boys -- it's called stealing the ball, you take the balls from the other -- takes the balls, and he starts juggling. And then someone else starts juggling. And that was it. That moment was amazing.

The first public show we did, there had been a riot in the town where we were supposed to do it. So they had to move the show. A guy in a watermelon truck is driving through the Arab town saying the show has been moved. We didn't know if anyone would show up.

They kept coming and coming and coming and coming. Hundreds filled the gym.

We also did a show at a home for people with cerebral palsy, and it reminded me of the days we would do shows for Circus Kingdom when we would go to the homes for the mentally ill or senior citizens homes. And I'm thinking, "This is for you David (Harris), this is for you. I'm paying you back and keeping on the legacy." Those people were so grateful for having us there.

Our last show in Israel was in Tel Aviv in a place called Levinsky Park, and we pull in and it's all homeless people lying around. It's a lot of immigrants. We get out of the bus, and everybody's looking around. When you're in somewhere that's not safe, you pull yourself in closer.

The kids asked, "Who are we performing for here? These homeless people?"

They had booked us to do a show for the children of the immigrants, but we didn't see any children. We started setting up, and there were a few children there. They would run away and come back with more kids. By the time the show started, the audience grew and grew. Behind us there was a building and people were on the rooftop. Kids and their families from all over the world were so enthusiastic.

Having been a teacher for 20 years, what do you think your students get from their time studying under you?

Hentoff: I seriously believe what all the promo material says. That I try to teach them the art of life through circus education. I try to use circus or their being in the circus to teach them how to live a good life.

There is a Jewish concept that when the world was formed something happened and it broke and shattered into a million pieces and it's our job to put it back together.

My theory is that people use different types of glue. Some people use music or medicine. I use circus to make the world better and heal the world.

I teach some things that most would not think is in the purview of a circus teacher, like using appropriate language because I think your image is important. Facebook stuff. I'm their circus teacher, what do I care about what is on their Facebook page? Because I want them to be successful whether it is in circus or in life. If you put stupid stuff on the Internet it will come back and bite you in the butt.

I teach them how powerful they are. When you work in the circus you really learn that, and you learn that people appreciate you for what you can do. Both what you can do yourself and with other people. I see the circus as a microcosm of life.

Alex Sciuto, a former Beacon intern, is now working in New York.

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