Gisle Henriet stepped onto the “rola bola” — a flat wooden board supported by a thick, black wooden tube — and rolled side to side.
“The trick is really to stay moving,” said Henriet, as eight teenage girls watched him inside the GE Theatre at Proctors. “Your upper body is not moving. It’s really just your legs, really just the knees.”
Minutes later, the girls were on the boards, rolling and occasionally slipping off. They were learning the circus arts of balance, trapeze, tightrope and juggling at “The Cirque Experience” at Proctors’ School of the Performing Arts.
Cirque Éloize (pronounced El-Waz) is in town. The Montreal-based troupe of acrobats, jugglers and rope climbers began a 21⁄2-week engagement at the theater on Wednesday. During the day, Cirque performers and associates are teaching techniques to teens and adults in weeklong summer camps. Aspiring aerialists between 9 and 14 will finish their lessons on Friday; next week, teens 15 through 18 will be on wires and swings. On Aug. 19, a week of adult day classes will begin.
“It can push your limits in a noncompetitive environment and you can be creative, be physical, think for yourself,” said veteran performer Nicolas Boivin, 31, of Montreal, who along with Cirque acrobat Henriet, 28, of Sweden and Cirque coach Shannon Maguire, 26, of St. Paul, Minn., are instructing students this month.
“Juggling is more mental exercise than physical exercise. Then you have the trampoline, where you learn the skills to be an acrobat and move around and situate yourself into space,” Boivin said.
The tuition for the weeklong sessions is $275 per student and includes a class presentation for parents and friends and a ticket to a Cirque Éloize performance. Adult day classes are $50 each.
The teachers like the gigs. “I love teaching,” said Henriet, who is part of the 12-person Cirque Éloize team on Proctors’ Mainstage. “I have three kids at home and I’m really passionate [about teaching] kids to do fun things like this.”
On Monday, 22 students dressed in shorts, T-shirts, sneakers and sandals — 18 of them girls — had plenty of room inside the theater. Equipment included a trampoline, cushioned mats, a trapeze swing suspended four feet above the floor and a tightrope — actually a thick metal cable — suspended about 2 feet off the floor. Three wide bolts of red cloth ran from ceiling to stage floor, giving the theater some circus atmosphere.
Boivin, as lead instructor, split the class into three groups. He began with juggling and quickly had his kids throwing small red, blue and lime-green scarves into the air. The students caught each scarf and kept all of them moving in front of their bodies.
“Throw, throw, catch, catch,” said Mary Harrienger, 14, of East Greenbush. “Throw, throw, catch, catch.”
Maguire taught her students how to sit up on a trapeze swing. Starting from the bottom, arms went to swing, and legs were hoisted over the bar, bending at the knee. Arms moved to ropes on the sides of the swing, and girls were told to lift themselves up and stretch out both legs. They would bend on one leg at the knee, and then casually throw one arm out to the side, to show off a little style.
“Even if you’re uncomfortable, try to fake it,” Maguire said of moves on the trapeze. “Like, ‘I love being this high.’ ”
Rachel Barkman, 11, of Schenectady, seemed to like being up in the air. “I like to do acrobatics,” she said. “I thought this [camp] would be a good experience.”
Others liked the tightrope experience, although most needed a guiding hand from Henriet. “Ta-da!” said Stephanie Tooley, 9, of Rotterdam, as she stepped off the 12-foot-long wire.
“I do cheerleading,” she said, explaining her decision to learn circus skills. “I thought it would make me better at it.”
That’s one reason Cirque teachers are working day shifts at the theater.
“These artists, while they look young, are phenomenal athletes,” said Christine Sheehan, Proctors’ director of education.
“I think the students in the camp this year are going to learn what it’s like to build your body in a way these professionals do, what it’s like to live like they do. In addition to building their skills, they’re going to learn what it is to be a professional and how you have to discipline yourself — what it’s like to work out all day, every day.”
Proctors is in its eighth year of summer educational programming, the last two as the School of the Performing Arts.
Connecting with pros
“This is giving us an opportunity to connect with real professionals in the industry,” Sheehan said.
“Through our connections with New York artists and touring Broadway and companies like Cirque, we’re able to bring the real deal here. Kids can’t experience this anywhere else and that’s our goal, to give them an opportunity to work with professionals in the industry.”
Anna Wiedman, 12, of Clifton Park, was a quick study. She rolled from side to side on her rola bola and juggled three balls at the same time. A circus career was something she considered earlier in life.
“It was sort of a little kid’s dream,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s really possible.”
For other kids, it might be possible. Boivin moved his jugglers to rubber balls, and was impressed with some of his students’ new skills.
“Everybody’s learning fast,” he said.