Big top magic
Teenagers’ circus brings wide smiles to kids, and cheer to summer months
HANOVER, N.H. — For a few fleeting moments, they are just kids again. No clown noses. No pancake makeup. No stilts or silly pratfalls. No calliope music. And no enraptured audience to please.
Just kids with athletic bodies under a hot July sun, splashing in the Connecticut River and having the time of their lives between shows under the big top that has become their itinerant summer home.
“The feeling you get knowing that you put a smile on a child’s face is something that only a few people can experience,’’ said 15-year-old Ariana Wunderle. “I’m a trouper. I’m a wire walker. I’m a clown. We become a tight family.’’
In other words, she has run off to join the circus with 29 of her new best friends in a traveling youth circus that is winding its way through New England this summer, performing 69 shows in 51 days in five states and 16 towns.
That’s a lot of cotton candy. And plenty of popcorn kernels. And memories for a lifetime that still stretches to a distant, eventful horizon.
“We definitely get really close over the summer, seeing that there are  teenagers all squished up together in one little ring,’’ said Serafina Walker, 16, of Greenfield, who has been doing this for four years now.
“We make some excellent bonds. Honestly, I don’t get homesick. My mom comes to a lot of shows. During the year, I actually get homesick for this place.’’
Look around, and it’s easy to see why.
Talented kids. Professional coaches. Life on the road. Adoring 5-year-olds, sitting around the ring just feet from the stars of Circus Smirkus, where big kids have been the stars of the show of this Vermont-based company for 32 years now.
Ariana Wunderle’s dad, Troy Wunderle, is the artistic director of this little empire. He’s a native of Bellows Falls, Vt., whose father taught him how to juggle in the fourth grade amid the dairy farms of his hometown.
When he informed his mother he had been accepted into clown college in Wisconsin, her reaction was straight out of vaudeville.
“Clowns!’’ she cried. “I hate clowns!’’
She was only kidding.
Good thing, because her son has made the circus his livelihood. He toured with the fabled Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus throughout the United States and Mexico. And then he headed for Greensboro, Vt., to Circus Smirkus, where he has crafted two-hour thematic shows in which he has performed atop impossibly tall stilts for 23 years now.
“I’m selecting kids as much for their talent as for their personality,’’ he said. “They have to have a talent pool that is relevant to that year’s show. They have to have grit. They have to work hard inside and outside the ring and on top of that. They have to connect with their audience.
“We are an extremely intimate show. Our farthest audience is 25 feet away, and our closest audience is as close as a foot away.’’
What does that look like?
A riot of tumbling clowns. Unicyclists and jugglers. Zany antics and pantomimed outrage. Acrobats on a trampoline.
Eva Lou Rhinelander, a 14-year-old from Melrose, is dressed as a rag doll and stands under a giant claw, the circus version of a prize ready to be plucked for a lucky winner.
“I’m the world record-holder for the longest amount of time nose-hula-hooping,’’ she tells me a couple of hours before it’s time to get back into costume. She’s too young for her place in the Guinness World Records, but an online website has enshrined her feat.
She’s proud of it. And so is her mom, Genevieve Martineau, who sits with us outside the circus tent during rehearsals for the day’s two scheduled performances.
Eva, who begins ninth grade in the fall, is a clown, a contortionist, a tight-wire performer — and an evangelist for the circus life.
Her family is paying $7,000 to send her on this summer’s 10-week tour, an investment expected to pay dividends. That includes three weeks of rehearsal.
“She’s getting experience you can’t buy,’’ Martineau said. “She gets to train with world-renowned coaches, coaches who have been in all the major circuses. It’s a lot of money, but it’s worth every penny just to send her on tour and to train all year long.’’
At 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds, Eva is already a tour veteran. She has been doing this for four years. And her green eyes fairly sparkle when she talks about life on the road.
“After the first show, we go back and get out of costume and we clean up all the trash from the bleachers,’’ she tells me. “All of the troupers are assigned to clean a section. So I have section 7, which is obviously the best section. We get ready again. We touch up our makeup. We touch up our hair. And then we go and do another show.’’
They say the show must go on. But for some circuses it hasn’t.
In 2017, the owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ “Greatest Show on Earth’’ called it quits after 146 years, a victim of dwindling attendance, high operating costs, an ever-changing entertainment appetite, and protracted opposition from animal rights groups.
Circus Smirkus, too, has had to navigate through rocky economic times. It briefly suspended operations in 2005 because of operational losses and a lack of cash reserves. An anonymous donor stepped up to allow the doors to reopen.
Jennifer Carlo, the circus’ executive director, said finances have stabilized. The operating budget is $2.7 million.
“It’s stable and healthy,’’ Carlo told me.
That’s welcome news to performers like Chase Levy, who at age 18 is the circus’ oldest performer this summer. He was bitten by the circus bug 10 years ago when the circus arrived in Waltham and three troupers stayed with his family.
“It just kind of changed my life,’’ said Levy, who just graduated from the Cambridge School of Weston and is headed to École de Cirque de Québec in mid-August.
“Seeing one of the troupers practice juggling in my backyard and then seeing him do it on stage, it was sort of magical,’’ Levy told me the other day. “That’s where I fell in love with Smirkus.’’
Levy said he applied for film school. But only half-heartedly. He has his eyes on the big top.
“For professional circus artists, it’s a pretty sweet gig because you get a contract for a year or two,’’ he said. “Your room and board is paid for. Travel is paid for. And you get to travel to all these amazing places. I’m in love with it. And there’s nothing else I’d rather do.’’
And with that, it was time for Levy to get into costume.
An audience awaited in a green field. Just like the audiences he performed for over the past week in Marshfield and Waltham.
By early August, he’ll be in Newbury, and then he will be off to Maine: Freeport and Kennebunkport.
Then Levy will set himself on a course that will mean life under the big top as a professional circus performer.
It’s an act he has been perfecting now since a juggler, an acrobat, and a clown showed up on his doorstep in Waltham eight years ago when he was just a wide-eyed 10-year-old kid.
It was a private performance that changed his life.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.