PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — In a valley between the Ohio and Kentucky hills, a circus group of 250 students thrives in the small city of Portsmouth.
The group has been around for nearly a dozen years and has surprised everyone with longevity, growing numbers, lavish costumes and props, and talents that rival larger cities.
The group is under trained circus and dance instructor, Pegi Wilkes, and her fellow dance instructor, Trisha Schmidt.
The co-directors have spent years training young dancers into becoming teachers who are now handling more students every year. One of their students, acclaimed Sami Matthews, has even studied in an international circus school that often works with future Cirque du Soleil artists.
The group has grown from a small studio into a huge troupe of travelers which puts on three major shows a year, several smaller gigs, performs in dozens of charitable events, and even takes the time to work in Huntington, W.Va., each year to provide extra elements to one of the largest troupes in the area.
“The one response we always get from patrons is shock. They cannot believe our troupe is from Portsmouth,” Wilkes said. “We have a lot of talented dancers and performers. When we take a stage, people are honestly surprised that we are from a small Appalachian town, because they just don’t expect it.”
Wilkes said many of their students put in more than 10 hours a week at the studio, not only rehearsing and preparing for shows, but teaching the younger children.
“People are often surprised that our performers are so young, to be as talented as they are,” Schmidt said.
Its annual production of “Le Nutcracker Cirque” will be the next show the group performs. The directors believe its success comes from the classical elements of ballet being mixed with the extreme crowd-pleasing stunts of circus, from contortion to aerial work. They also love the storyline and the tradition of hosting such a classical show.
“When I was young, there was always a ‘Nutcracker’ performance in Portsmouth and surrounding areas,” Schmidt said. “It has become tradition.
“There was once a time my sister bought me tickets to see BalletMet’s performance of it in Columbus. We went up, shopped for dresses, and then went to see it. When we came back out, it had snowed in downtown Columbus and I remember seeing carriages and horses. It was such a magical time for me. I feel like it is something every community should have the opportunity to be exposed to.”
Schmidt said in order to bring the magic to southern Ohio once again, they decided to make the show an annual performance. She also explained that their version of the story stands as its own entity, not only because of the circus elements, but because of a special dual-meaning ending.
“It is a good story and I like our own spin on it, because we do add our own element to it, involving the true reason for the season and what Christmas is about,” Schmidt said. “It is always so magical to see.
“When those ballerinas come out, I feel like the theater gets a few degrees cooler.”
“Le Nutcracker Cirque” will feature a second-year cast of dancers which is building on what it achieved in last year’s success. The supplemental cast has been updated and moved around, however.
The show is often sold out in early performances. The troupe welcomed around 5,000 guests last year alone.
One of the most impressive features of a Cirque show, according to the instructors, is the aerial work the students do on giant structures they have designed themselves.
Each show is pulled apart and the cast and instructors find elements to highlight through metal aerial equipment. They are then made by local welders to meet their exact specifics.
“Rush Welding has been good to us for many years,” Wilkes said. “They love seeing us bring in designs and sketches, because it is such a unique part of their job. They always blow us away and make them better than we ever envisioned or expected.”
The costumes are also specifically designed for the dancers. Schmidt explained that the costumes are always redone to cut cost and to make them work in their art.
“The costumes can be expensive and we want to save the parents money,” Schmidt said. “Outside of that, even if we buy an expensive costume, it often won’t work in our dance. Costumes for ballerinas aren’t made for a lot of stretching and our style incorporates a lot of contortion and movement. We typically always have to take something apart and alter it so that it works for ballet and costume, but also works for circus stunts.”
“Le Nutcracker Cirque” will be held 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13. There are also two school performances.
All shows will be at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts, 940 Second St., Portsmouth.
Tickets will be available through the Shawnee State University McKinley Box Office. General admission is $15 for adults and $12 for students.
Joseph decided to write for the Daily Times because of his love and devotion to his hometown. Also, in part because of Clark Kent and “Smallville” making journalism seem cool. He is happily married to his best friend, Sara, who enjoys exploring abandoned places with him, and traveling up and down various river cities to taste the flavors of small town life that thrives within these small Appalachian communities. Reach him at 740-353-3101, ext. 1932, or on Twitter @JosephPratt03.