August 16, 2013

Portland 'best place' in world for circus college, founder says

The Circus Conservatory of America hopes to convert a building on Thompson's Point into a school for up to 120 students.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – A founder and future president of a circus conservatory planned for a building at Thompson's Point said the nonprofit chose Portland because of its creativity and entrepreneurship.

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Kia-Melinda Eastman performs Thursday after the announcement that the fledgling nonprofit Circus Conservatory of America plans to open a college-level circus school in 2015 at Thompson’s Point in Portland.

Photos by John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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Peter Nielsen, president of the Circus Conservatory of America, left, joins developer Chris Thompson. The school’s uniqueness will be well worth the wait, Thompson said.

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"It's the best place for it in the world," said Peter Nielsen, a founding officer and president of the nonprofit Circus Conservatory of America, a fledgling nonprofit that hopes to open a college-level circus school in 2015.

Nielsen said the 120-student conservatory would offer bachelor of fine arts degrees in circus arts, which means they will be subject to the same general education requirements as other college students.

He said the nonprofit is in the process of being accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the nation's oldest accreditation institution. That effort, which requires several rigorous steps, is still in the early stages.

The conservatory would be housed in a historic, 33,000-square-foot brick building on the 28-acre former industrial site adjacent to the Fore River near Interstate 295 and the Portland Transportation Center.

Nielsen has declined to discuss some details of the program, including startup costs, funding sources, number of faculty and whether students would live on campus.

Degree programs in circus arts exist in other countries, such as Canada, but Nielsen, city officials and the developer of Thompson's Point touted the school as the first degree-granting institution of its kind in the U.S.

"I can't tell you how happy I am -- and how excited I am -- to be here to announce the formation of the country's first circus conservatory in the United States here in Portland, Maine, on Thompson's Point," Mayor Michael Brennan said at news conference Thursday.

There are many circus training programs in the United States, most of them weekend or weeklong training workshops for children.

The announcement marks the first new tenant for the $100 million Forefront at Thompson's Point development since it was first rolled out in 2011 with the promise of the Maine Red Claws playing their home basketball games at an arena also proposed for the site.

The proposed conservatory reflects the evolution of the circus business, which now supports youth camps and training schools around the country and the world.

Over the past 25 years, contemporary circus performances have become popular in Europe, Canada and, more recently, the United States. Performances rely on theatrical, acrobatic and artistic elements, rather than old-fashioned clown acts and animals doing tricks.

High-flying, gravity-defying outfits such as Cirque du Soleil and Circus Smirkus have helped fuel interest in contemporary circus in the United States.

Developer Chris Thompson of Forefront Partners said he was excited to welcome the circus conservatory. Often developers think only of square feet and speedy development, but Thompson said the uniqueness of the school will be well worth the wait.

"That's finding a tenant that's making history," said Thompson, who donned a red clown nose for Thursday's news conference. "That's not something we did. That's something Portland did."

While those at the news conference were excited about the school choosing Portland, the conservatory has a long way to go before it meets its goal of being an accredited degree-bestowing institution.

The conservatory must first receive its degree-granting authority from the Maine Department of Education -- a nine-step process involving the Legislature and presidents of existing higher education institutions.

The conservatory would need to produce a report about its missions, objectives and financial resources, among other details. That would be reviewed by a committee, which would report to the education commissioner.

(Continued on page 2)

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The Circus Conservatory of America chose Thompson's Point in Portland as home to its accredited degree program.

  


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