PORTLAND, Maine — The start date for a fledgling circus college on Thompson’s Point is still up in the air, but in some respects, the circus has already come to town.
Several times a week, young students at Circus Atlantic learn how to juggle, tumble and swing through the air with the greatest of ease.
Now in its second season, the youth-oriented offshoot of the planned Circus Conservatory of America offers four general circus-arts classes at three locations in Portland and Freeport. Circus Atlantic also offers a host of other Portland-based classes, including acrobatics, aerials and advanced circus arts.
Roughly two dozen students are enrolled in winter classes, which began earlier this month. It’s a modest start to a vision that, organizers say, will eventually grow to create a $12 million facility at the planned Forefront at Thompson’s Point.
Circus Atlantic’s business manager and coach Blain Tully said he’s undaunted by the modest initial enrollment.
“We’re working through things and building it all from the ground up,” he said. “A lot of the things we’re doing now are experimental and built on faith.”
The Circus Conservatory of America made a flashy debut in August during a well-attended media event at Portland’s waterfront Thompson’s Point, where developers see the college as a key tenant in a $100-million mixed use project that is also slated to include a sports arena, office buildings and restaurants, among other things.
Amid speeches by Mayor Michael Brennan, CCA President Peter Nielsen and others, the event featured high-flying acrobatic routines by two graceful performers. The event attracted a lot of attention and buoyed an effort to raise about $17 million dollars for the college, Nielsen said.
“Everything is going very well,” he said last week. “I’ve been very impressed with the amount of momentum we picked up immediately out of the gate. It was a lot stronger than I really anticipated on all fronts.”
The start dates for construction and initial classes are still unknown, but they will be determined by the end of the first quarter and announced around April 1. Nielsen said he’s eyeing two potential dates for the conservatory’s grand opening: August 2015 or August 2016.
The plan hinges on the ability of two separate entities to raise funds, Nielsen said. Over the next four years, the nonprofit conservatory needs to raise about $5 million to cover operating costs, equipment and other expenses for the school. In the meantime, Nielsen needs to to gather a group of “socially responsible investors” who will create a for-profit partnership to fund construction of the $12 million facility.
Nieslen’s role is to serve as the conservatory’s president and “advocate for the creation” of the limited liability partnership, he said.
The LLP will own the building for a period of about 10 to 20 years, at which point the Circus Conservatory anticipates conducting a capital campaign to purchase the facility, Nielsen said.
He noted this is a relatively new model of fundraising, and one he believes will grow in popularity.
“I think it has national relevance as a model of social entrepreneurship and social innovation,” he said. “This is a very progressive and forward-thinking way for a community to create an international institution.”
Nielsen wouldn’t say how much money has been raised so far.
“We’re still in the silent phase of that [effort],” he said. “We’ve met our goals, is all I can say.”
Nielsen said there are a number of other goals to be met by March 31, the end of this quarter: Form the LLP of investors, create a curriculum for the school and complete the first round of fundraising for the conservatory. Those efforts will dictate the start date, he said.
If a start date of August 2015 is chosen, construction of the facility will begin this summer, he said.
Nielsen said he has no doubt the vision will eventually be fulfilled.
“I’m quite convinced,” he said, “Portland will watch as this gets done.”
On a recent Thursday night, three teenage girls stepped onto a mat at Portland’s YMCA and began high-kicking under the direction of Tully, a 23-year-old recent graduate from University of Southern Maine.
Tully, the program’s business manager and coach, is a relative newcomer to circus. He took gymnastics at an early age but strayed from it at age 12 to pursue football and other sports.
At 17, however, the Wells native had an epiphany when he saw the Cirque du Soleil production “La Nouba” during a trip to Orlando, Fla.
“I was really intrigued by the circus,” he recalled. “As I was watching, I kept saying to myself, ‘I can do that. I can do that. I can do that.’”
Tully decided to take up gymnastics again, but he quickly discovered it was an expensive pursuit through private gyms. The least costly way to learn would be to enroll in a program at USM, where he was studying international business and sports management, he surmised. But the school didn’t have a team at the time.
Undaunted, Tully rounded up some gymnasts attending the school and created the USM Gymnastics Club, where he served as a captain, coach and manager. The club competed at institutions like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University and University of Vermont, and in three national events through the National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs.
Tully said he plans to bring that same entrepreneurial spirit to Circus Atlantic.
Student Sarah Norden, 14, of Yarmouth said she has been taking circus classes for the past seven years at summer camps in Vermont and elsewhere, but Circus Atlantic is the “first opportunity to do it near home.”
Norden, who is enrolled in the advanced class, said she “will certainly consider” attending the conservatory if it is built. She said circus arts are appealing for several reasons.
“I like the people. Circus people are 100 percent themselves,” she said. “Also, it feels like flying. It’s really magical.”
Student JoJo Zeitlin, 15, of Cape Elizabeth said she has been taking circus classes around New England for five years, but her long-term goal is to study neuroscience. Still, she might consider enrolling in the conservatory.
“If everything else went wrong,” she said.
Circus Atlantic holds classes at the YMCA and Reiche Community School in Portland and at Merriconeag Waldorf School in Freeport. Enrollment is still open for the current session and drop-in classes. Classes run through April. A summer session will begin in June. For more information, visit circusatlantic.com.