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Circus atmosphere in Charles Village

Hula hooper's show, featuring giant puppets, aims to raise money for community space

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

6:25 AM EDT, June 5, 2013

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The circus is coming to town. No, it's not Cirque du Soleil, or Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, but the Baltimore Circus, a group of amateur acrobats, jugglers and hula hoopers that will perform at a church in Charles Village as a fundraiser June 7.

The circus at St. John's United Methodist Church, 2640 St. Paul St., will benefit 2640 Collective, a community arts group that operates the church's former sanctuary as a public space for events, political causes, speakers and private events, including weddings. St. John's holds its Sunday services in a meeting room on the West 27th Street side of the building.

The goal of the circus is to raise funds for the collective and for Red Emma's, a downtown bookstore that closed its location in the 800 block of St. Paul and is moving this fall to larger quarters at 30 W. North Avenue, in Station North, a budding arts and entertainment district.

The former sanctuary, still illuminated by stained glass windows, came alive at a circus rehearsal May 28. A small mouse scurried off an equipment bag, as organizers Jes Raschella and Regina Armenta set up an aerial rig for an acrobatic dance routine.

Armenta, 39, of Charles Village, is founder of Independent Practice, a group that meets Mondays at the church, to work on anything its members want to, from juggling and unicycling to photography and yoga.

"I had a vision of sharing knowledge in the community," said Armenta, a circus jack of all trades, who can juggle, hula hoop, walk on stilts, act like a clown and do acrobatics.

Raschella, 33, and Andreas "Spilly" Spiliardis, 46, both of Arcadia, run Baltimore Hoop Love, which offers lessons in hula hooping and juggling, and gives street performances. Raschella is also a licensed massage therapist.

Spiliardis, known as "the hoop man," is a fixture on Saturdays at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly, hula hooping on a nearby median strip and selling hula hoops. He's also an urban farmer and an announced candidate for mayor.

These days, they are focused on the circus as a way to raise money for the collective.

"We're very thankful for this space that we're allowed to practice in each week," Raschella said. "We want to give back."

She said advance ticket sales have already raised $500 and organizers had expounded the number of tickets they are selling.

Spiliardis rehearsed a circus routine in which he will play guitar and sing while balancing a hula hoop in his nose.

"It is ridiculous," he admitted cheerfully.

Also rehearsing were jugglers, musicians and other performers, ranging from children to retirees. Max Wylie, 10, of Charles Village, practiced his juggling, while his father, Sam Wylie, played guitar in the band.

"I've always wanted to be in the circus," said special education teacher and amateur juggler Marlin Ballard, 55, of Cockeysville, who has been juggling since he was a child.

Jennie Herb, 32, of east Baltimore, watched the rehearsal intently. She wears a giant puppet costume in the show, with a giant head made of papier mache.

"You won't be able to see my face," Herb said. "That's a good thing. I'll get to hide behind the puppet and pretend I'm someone else."

Rehearsing their acrobatic routine on stage were Amy Longcrier, 32, of Ednor Gardens, a biosystems engineer in Woodberry, and Kelly Marburger, 24, of Charles Village, an artist for a production company. Both are involved in Independent Practice.

Marburger, dressed as a rabbit, stood on the shoulders of Longcrier, who wore a green print unitard and said her role in the show is to be "grass."

Longcrier said the circus is "creative and athletic and a great way to meet people."

Audrey Kovacevich, 9, of Lauraville, planned to hula hoop and balance beanbags on her head in the circus, while her sister, Scarlett, 5, would "fill in" as needed.

The circus emcee is Sarah Jennings, who read from a script she was seeing for the first time. She fell into the role as a friend of Armenta's.

"They were looking for an emcee," she said, shrugging.

"This is the story of the creative learning process and the emotional adventure that comes with it," said Jennings, 32, of Hampden, reading from the script.

But she couldn't quite explain the abstract plot, which includes a dream sequence and people holding signs that denote emotions and beliefs, ranging from fear to faith to insecurity and courage.

"We must make friends with our emotions," said a bemused Jennings, still reading uncertainly from the script. As an aside, she joked, "I feel really emotional about this whole experience. It's gonna make me a star."

Kidding aside, Jennings is excited about her role in the circus, and noted that her professional job is making ads that are tailored to cell phones and their applications.

"It's not as exciting as this," she said.

Tickets for the circus cost $5 to $15. For more information, call 443-831-8189 or go to http://www.redemmas.org/2640.