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Step right up and earn a degree in circus arts — in Portland

Posted Aug. 15, 2013, at 6:48 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 15, 2013, at 7:20 p.m.

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Peter Nielsen, the founding president of the Circus Conservatory of America, gives remarks at the event announcing the college's launch in Portland, which he said is the &quotbest place for it in the world."
Peter Nielsen, the founding president of the Circus Conservatory of America, gives remarks at the event announcing the college's launch in Portland, which he said is the "best place for it in the world." Buy Photo
Chris Thompson, the lead developer behind The Forefront at Thompson's Point, said he was excited to welcome the Circus Conservatory of America as the project's first anchor tenant. &quotThat’s not just finding a tenant, that’s making history," he said, while sporting a red clown's nose.
Chris Thompson, the lead developer behind The Forefront at Thompson's Point, said he was excited to welcome the Circus Conservatory of America as the project's first anchor tenant. "That’s not just finding a tenant, that’s making history," he said, while sporting a red clown's nose. Buy Photo
Lindsay Culbert-Olds, a member of New Hampshire-based FAQ Circus, performs an aerial straps act in front of the Circus Conservatory of America's future home on Thompson's Point in Portland.
Lindsay Culbert-Olds, a member of New Hampshire-based FAQ Circus, performs an aerial straps act in front of the Circus Conservatory of America's future home on Thompson's Point in Portland. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — The country’s first college for the circus arts has chosen a home, and that home will be Portland.

The Circus Conservatory of America was unveiled on Thursday afternoon as the first anchor tenant for the much-anticipated $105 million development of Portland’s Thompson’s Point, which also will include a 3,500-seat event center that eventually will serve as the new home for the Maine Red Claws professional basketball team, a parking garage, hotel, restaurant and office building.

The circus conservatory will occupy an existing 30,000-square-foot brick building, which in earlier development plans was going to be torn down to make way for the event center.

City officials, developers and representatives of the new school gathered Thursday afternoon at the site to introduce the school and its plans. The news conference ended with aerial straps-and-rope performances by two young circus performers.

Peter Nielsen, the conservatory’s founding president, said the college looked at big cities around the country before deciding Portland was a perfect home. Maine isn’t a random choice for Nielsen, who’s a graduate of the University of Maine and lived in Portland until 25 years ago.

“Portland has a unique blend of creativity and entrepreneurship that in all my travels around Europe, Asia and the United States I’ve never seen, and with the kind of joy that circus knows it needs,” Nielsen said. “As we begin to work here and to return home to Portland to do this, I know from all my professional expertise and all my heart it’s going to happen here and it’s the best place for it in the world.”

Nielsen said circus performing has experienced a renaissance in the past 25 years thanks in part to the rise of Cirque du Soleil in Montreal.

There are colleges around the world that train performers for the circus, but the Circus Conservatory of America would be the first such college of its kind in the United States. Other U.S. organizations, such as the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vt., offer classes in circus arts, but Portland’s conservatory will be the first accredited, degree-granting college for circus performers. It will offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts in circus studies and will seek accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

The nonprofit conservatory expects to welcome its first class during the fall of 2015, though Nielsen said it likely will offer preparatory classes before then in anticipation of what he expects to be a rigorous admissions process.

“The building should be ready within 18 months, but we have two years to go before September 2015, so we’re going to start using it as soon as we can,” he told the Bangor Daily News.

At full capacity, the college will have 120 students, a goal Nielsen said would be worked up to after four years.

Renovations, including the addition of another level, likely will increase the area the school will occupy. The college also may use other spaces on and off the point for classes in the “non-circus disciplines,” he said.

As a nonprofit organization, the conservatory has begun a capital campaign to fund its startup programming, Nielsen said. In addition, it will use “a variety of other entrepreneurial tools to finance the building renovations,” he said.

Nielsen was previously the executive director of institutional advancement, marketing and enrollment at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His son is a performer in Circus Smirkus, a Vermont-based professional circus troupe that performs around the country. His son’s experience in the circus has not only changed his son’s life, “but it certainly changed mine as well.”

Thursday’s event marks almost exactly a year since the first conversation Nielsen had — with a parent of another young Circus Smirkus performer — about starting the country’s first accredited college for circus performers.

Besides the aforementioned “blend of creativity and entrepreneurship,” Nielsen said Portland’s geography, often cited as a detriment to development, makes it a perfect place for a circus college.

“One of the unique values that Portland has geographically is its proximity to Quebec City, Montreal and Vermont,” Nielsen said. “Montreal is essentially the North American capital of circus, if not becoming the global capital of circus.”

Being so close to Quebec City, Montreal and Vermont would allow the new venture to attract the North American circus industry to Maine, he said.

Nielsen said he will move back to Portland, which is a special place for him because it’s where he met his wife.

“We promised we’d be back and it’s a pact we’ve had as a family,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to be here today to honor that.”

The circus conservatory is the first big tenant to be announced for The Forefront at Thompson’s Point, a 28-acre development project that first received Portland Planning Board approval in early June 2012.

Chris Thompson, lead developer on the project, said he was excited by the partnership with the circus conservatory.

“Developers often think in terms of how quickly can you get something done and how many square feet are attached to it. Whether the circus conservatory was 300 square feet or 3 million square feet, I think to be associated with an adventure like that, the first of its kind in the country, that’s not just finding a tenant, that’s making history. And that’s something Portland did; that’s not something we did.”

More tenants are being lined up to join the circus conservatory, according to Thompson, who sported a red clown’s nose during his remarks at the event.

Thompson said his development team, Forefront Partners, is in talks with two potential tenants who could share the planned 175,000-square-foot office building, but nothing is final at this point.

As for the 115-room hotel, Thompson said his team has a hospitality partner in that venture, but he can’t release the name yet. He did say it’s a hotel brand that would be new to Portland.

“That’s becoming more and more difficult to find one that they don’t already have,” he said. “But this one is a great fit for Portland.”

Earlier this month, Forefront Partners secured a deal to acquire an adjacent property from Suburban Propane, which will relocate to another Portland site. That piece of property abuts the Portland Transportation Center, home to the bus and Amtrak stations, and will be where the event center will be built, and where the Maine Red Claws will play in the future.

Construction is scheduled to begin on the point this fall.

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