St. Louis’ Circus Harmony, a social circus group that trains kids and teens in tumbling, acrobatics, juggling and the rest of the circus arts, now boasts four graduates touring with the elite international circus Cirque Du Soleil. The largest contemporary circus producer in the world, Cirque Du Soleil is known for its surreal and death-defying acts – which have been viewed by approximately 90 million people worldwide, according to their website.
Four young men from St. Louis – Sidney “Iking” Bateman, Melvin Diggs, Chauncey Kroner, and Tarrence “T-Roc” Robinson are now part of Soleil’s cast. The first three are all part of their touring show, Luzia, while Kroner is currently in rehearsal for a new (and as-yet secretive) holiday show called “‘Twas The Night Before.”
“It’s rare to find black circus performers,” Jessica Hentoff, director of Circus Harmony, noted. In the Luzia show, there are only four black people out of a large cast – but three of them came from St. Louis. Circus Harmony – and its elite group, the St. Louis Arches – is producing more and more performers who go on to be world-renowned circus artists.
“What’s really unusual is that most youth circuses don’t have professional aspirations,” Hentoff said. “Very, very few social circuses have that at all, and that’s what’s extraordinary, and to have a school as small as Circus Harmony have four young men, all from challenging backgrounds, who would never have thought they would be touring the world with Cirque du Soleil. It’s almost unbelievable.”
All four of the former Circus Harmony students, who are now in their 20s, went through the St. Louis public school system and took different paths from there to circus performance. Melvin Diggs started with an internship from a local Boys and Girls Club, where he worked in the snack bar next to the circus ring, then decided that doing flips inside the ring looked more interesting. Iking Bateman was assigned a mentor at his middle school who found out he liked to tumble and brought him to see a show. Tarrence Robinson was found tumbling outdoors by Hentoff as she was driving to work, and Chauncey Kroner started at the circus because he liked jumping on a backyard trampoline and needed a place to go during the summer.
Circus Harmony’s approach is based on intense technical training and focus, and is unique in that it requires performance, in front of a live audience, several times a week. That’s because of where the circus is located: It has a permanent performance ring on the second floor of the City Museum, where admission to Circus Harmony shows is free with the price of museum entry. Last year, according to Hentoff, the circus performed 741 separate shows. “That’s a special opportunity that we have.”
After training with Circus Harmony until the end of high school, all four gained acceptance into circus college. As many circus colleges are based in Quebec, where the primary spoken language is French, adaptation was tricky. Cirque Du Soleil is also primarily a French-speaking circus company. For Kroner, who attended circus college in the United States, moving into Cirque Du Soleil meant learning another language. “Chauncey, who did not go to school in Quebec, said the other cast members in rehearsal mostly speak French to each other, even though they speak English,” Hentoff recalled.
Though Kroner is not allowed to divulge details of his as-yet unreleased act, the three Circus Harmony alumni in Luzia were able to give us some details of what they are expected to do. They dive through hoops in various configurations and rhythms – all while on top of a rotating platform. That platform itself, meanwhile, is on a moving conveyor belt. It’s a far cry from the small circus ring in the city museum. “We never had a rotating floor!” Hentoff said. “But their skills are at such a high level that they can adapt there.”
Bateman, now 27, hopes to serve as a role model to kids from St. Louis like he once was. He joined Circus Harmony at 11, as an afterschool program, and is now performing professionally. “You’re not a product of your environment,” Bateman said. “You can honestly do whatever you want. And you might not know what you want to do, but you can’t be afraid to go through those different doors, walk those different avenues, because you never know what’s out there. You have to have the courage to do what you want no matter where you come from and what people are saying about you. That’s the only thing that matters in the end.”
For more information about the organization, visit www.circusharmony.org.