Neighborhood kids put on a three-ring show
By Christina Davis
Photos by Leslie Caraballo/NYCNews Service
Teresa Kochis, right, helps Dimitra Martin on the trapeze.
Ten-year-old Dimitra Martin hangs in the air, her ankles secured by the rope of a trapeze. She drops down, grabs the trapeze bar, and swings out smiling into the crowd.
As Dimitra flips down, Chaneyah Adams, also 10, begins to run on the top of an enormous red ball, called the spinning globe. Later, she hops on a unicycle, riding across the stage. Surrounding the girls are cowboys, baseball players, zombies, ghosts, and skeletons.
The circus has come to Hunts Point.
The performers are part of an after-school program called Cirque du Monde at The Point, This spring, the children performed for a crowd of excited mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and friends.
The students meet twice a week in a small theater at The Point, the community center on Garrison Avenue, to learn the circus arts they proudly displayed.
Cirque du Monde is an outreach program of Cirque du Soleil, a French-Canadian troupe known for acrobatic circus acts using only human performers. Each year it allocates one percent of its revenues to youth outreach programs.
During a recent lesson, with her instructors carefully watching, Dimitra, a thin girl with gentle gestures, climbs back onto the trapeze bar. She is learning how to hang upside down with her legs folded on top of her. As Dimitra struggles to maintain her balance, her instructor, Teresa Kochis, patiently waits while she attempts the difficult move once more. Eventually, Kochis helps her by jumping onto the bar and gracefully demonstrating the acrobatic move herself.
Kochis is a willowy young woman who began her circus career in Atlanta, Georgia. She moved to New York and attended New York University’s Gallatin School of Independent study, graduating with a degree in visual arts and aerial dance.
She and her fellow instructor, Ben Johnson, have their hands full.
Excited students dash about, moving between pieces of equipment. Kochis pulls down another trapeze from the theater’s ceiling and carefully helps two students practice. Beside her, Johnson is teaching two more students a trick involving throwing and catching a series of large tin cups.
Dodging the crashing cups is 9-year-old Jordan Remouns. He has chosen to work with “the diabolos,” or the Chinese Yo-Yo. He moves an hourglass-shaped device quickly across long string, bouncing in time with the music playing in the theater.
On the rare occasion when he drops the diabolo, he doesn’t lose the beat of the music, taking the opportunity to use the string as a jump rope.
When Jordan is not practicing the diabolos, he loves doing flips onto one of the large, plush mats. Asked what he liked about the performance, he replied, “It was fun when were jumping off the trampolines!”
Lena Smith, 9, disagreed. “I’m scared of flips,” she said. A small, quiet girl who hopes to start a newspaper for her friends some day, she prefers the rolling board. In a test of balance, she must stand on a wooden plank that is balancing on top of a ball.
As she recalled performing for an audience, she said at first she “thought it was kinda scary, because I was nervous,” but then she says she got excited when she saw all the people watching her.
Each student offered a different reason for joining the Cirque du Monde class. “It all started in the second grade, recalled Ruben Flores, a soft-spoken boy with thick curly hair. “We thought we were going to a real circus!”
But Ruben liked the class, so he stayed. The spring review was his fifth Cirque du Monde performance. This time he played a stilt-walking zombie moving to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Teresa Kochis and Ben Johnson eventually call out “30 seconds!” signaling the end of class. The circus team must surrender their theater to a graduation.
But no one listens. Children continue to toss tin cups, roll around on the protective mats laid out on the floor, and play with each apparatus they can squeeze in.
Several more increasingly insistent calls finally corral the students, as they reluctantly peel themselves off their last piece of equipment to meet for a group huddle.
Though Teresa Kochis loves working with younger children, she would also like to boost the participation in the teen circus program. She says that experience with circus arts provides children and teens with “opportunities to develop life skills,” such as hard work and patience. She believes those skills will translate into employment opportunities for teens.
Kochis also hopes that the teen program will someday be able to partner with street theater groups. Through their performances, she wants students to be able to communicate about issues in the neighborhood.
Cirque du Monde has enjoyed the enthusiastic support of The Point, because the program “is about the kids, it’s about supporting them in their youth,” said Kochis.
Like many non-profit groups, Cirque du Monde sometimes has trouble finding funding. It must continue to search for financial partners, because it is welcoming a growing number of new and returning students.
As the ever effervescent Chaneyah Adams, puts it, “It’s mad fun!”