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Circus Smirkus Coming to Hanover

  • Circus Smirkus performers Troy Wunderle and Patrick Chikoloma in a moment together at a performance in Greensboro, Vt., on July 2, 2017. (Circus Smirkus - Rachel Thompson)

  • Liam Ryan-O’Flaherty rides a unicyle while performing on the tight rope in Greensboro, Vt., on July 2, 2017. (Tamra Biedrzycki photograph)

  • Patrick Chikoloma performs at a Circus Smirkus show in Greensboro, Vt., on July 2, 2017. (Circus Smirkus - Diane Zeigler)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2017

Watching the young acrobats and jugglers of Circus Smirkus perform last summer, Patrick Chikoloma dared to dream about someday returning to the United States to join the troupe.

At the same time, the then-17-year-old from a slum in the Zambian capital of Lusaka couldn’t help questioning his qualifications to do so.

“It was a great show, a wonderful show,” Chikoloma remembered on Tuesday night, during a telephone conversation after the company’s second show of the day in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Last summer’s tour was on the theme of “The Invention of Flight” and Chikoloma was struck by the talent on display. “There was one little girl in the aerial act who was just amazing. It really inspired me.

“But I thought I wasn’t good enough to be in Circus Smirkus.”

As it turned out, he was alone in that view. Upper Valley residents who hosted Chikoloma and his fellow members of the Lusaka-based Circus Zambia last summer (see www.vnews.com/Circus-Zambia-Tours-Valley-3528881), encouraged him to audition for Circus Smirkus. He is now the first resident of Africa in the circus’ cast, both performing and working behind the scenes on its 30th Big Top Tour, which arrives in Hanover on Thursday and Friday to perform on the theme of “Midnight at the Museum.”

In the eyes of three-year Smirkus veteran Liam Ryan-O’Flaherty, a tightrope artist and juggler from Norwich, Chikoloma showed his fitness for the tour during a Circus Zambia exhibition last summer.

“Before our own show, we opened the ring up to them, and they put a little show on for us,” Ryan-O’Flaherty said on Tuesday night. “Lots of tumbling. It was a very different style, very high energy. Patrick was the youngest of the troupe, but he was already so good — and just the right age to tour with us.

“After that, we were keeping our fingers crossed that he’d audition.”

Brooke Ciardelli, the Norwich resident and Northern Stage founder whose production company brought Circus Zambia to the Upper Valley through an exchange program last year, led the community effort to help Chikoloma make his case. And they stayed on the case after his selection.

“Out of the thousands of young circus performers who auditioned … Patrick was one of nine who was cast,” Ciardelli said earlier this summer. “His Upper Valley family stepped up with bake sales, fundraising events and generous donations to make it possible for him to accept the offer and travel back to America to train.”

The pre-tour training at Circus Smirkus’ summer camp in Greensboro, Vt., far surpassed what Chikoloma and his Circus Zambia partners picked up last summer, when they attended and taught at the Van Lodostov Family Circus Camp at Marion Cross School and staged performances around the Upper Valley.

“It’s really a great opportunity for me,” Chikoloma said. “It’s like a dream come true, to hang out with people who have a passion for what they do. I had to learn about the rigging for the aerial acts. Rigging, we don’t do that much in Zambia. It was challenging for a day or so when we were in training, but I learned a lot.”

Ryan-O’Flaherty has been impressed with how quickly Chikoloma is picking up new skills.

“I’ve been doing circus since I attended the Van Lodostov camp as a second-grader, and kept practicing on my own,” said Ryan-O’Flaherty, who graduated from Hanover High School the day before training camp began. “I started training seriously after my family hosted Smirkus troupers four years ago, and they told us what the tour was like and how fantastic the coaching was. … My first year with the troupe, I auditioned for the tightrope and juggling, but didn’t get to do that much on tour. I had to work to catch up with the other people.”

Chikoloma, meanwhile, had been working on his skills for years in the streets and alleyways of Chibolya, the Lusaka slum that in the Nyanja language means “abandoned.” It began with friends daring each other to outdo their impromptu acrobatic feats, and went to the next level with performances by the Barefoot Theatre Company in Lusaka, where Ciardelli met them.

“To get what you want, you have to work hard,” Chikoloma said. “Ever since my childhood, I have always worked hard. We never give up, no matter what. We push ourselves harder.”

On tour, that work is paying off for Chikoloma in the form of a routine in which he juggles as an astronaut. Two weeks after the tour ends, he’ll rejoin two of his fellow Circus Zambia acrobats at a 12-week international arts festival in Japan.

“I can’t wait to see them again,” Chikoloma said. “I have a story to tell when I get back.”

Circus Smirkus performs at Fullington Farm Field in Hanover on Thursday and Friday, with shows at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. both days. For tickets ($16 to $22) and more information, visit smirkus.org. The circus’ Big Top Tour also stages shows at 1 and 6 p.m. today at the Green Mountain Mall in St. Johnsbury and on Monday and Tuesday at the Cheshire County Fairgrounds in Keene.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.