‘Circus Kids’ highlights St. Louis Arches trip to Israel

Kellin Hentoff-Killian is a young performer with the Circus Harmony group featured in “Circus Kids.”

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Light

The documentary “Circus Kids” throws a spotlight on one of our hometown Circus Flora’s favorite acts, the St. Louis Arches. The children’s acrobatic troupe traveled to Israel in 2007 to collaborate with Galilee Circus, another children’s circus troupe whose members are both Jewish and Arab Israelis.

The film was created by director Alexandra Lipsitz, who is herself a “circus kid.” She grew up in the Big Apple Circus, the New York-based European-style circus that has so much in common with St. Louis-based Circus Flora.

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Lipsitz hit on the idea for her film after attending the True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, Mo. with her first film. Following the “do what you know” rule, she contacted Jessica Hentoff, the guiding force behind the St. Louis Arches, which make its performing home at the downtown City Museum.

Hentoff told the filmmaker about the Arches’ upcoming trip to Israel, as part of her non-profit foundation Circus Harmony’s outreach for peace.

“She completely changed the focus of the film,” said Lipsitz, who traveled to Israel with the troupe at her own expense.

As Hentoff says several times in the film, the Arches were peace ambassadors. The aim of her non-profit foundation is to reach across community barriers through circus performance.

“First of all, you would not believe how many youth circuses there are, not just in America but around the world,” Hentoff said. A growing number of them are social circuses, built around the idea of building bridges across social divides through circus arts, she added.

“Circus is a great tool because it is so appealing across ages and races and religions,” she said. “There is something truly empowering about being in the circus.”

Hentoff, who is Jewish and a member of Central Reform Congregation, said the trip to Israel was about tikkun olam, repairing the world.

“Social circus is tikkun olam. My theory about tikkum olam is it’s our job to repair the world and people use different kinds of grooves (to do so). Some people use music or medicine or politics. I use circus. That is the glue I use to perform tikkun olam,” she said.

Hentoff was not born to the circus life; in fact she is the daughter of longtime Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff. But she certainly has a long string of circus accomplishments. She began her circus career training in a circus arts program in New York before turning pro and performing in a number of different circus acts. She has ties to both the Big Apple Circus and Circus Flora.

“I happen to be the only person who was around for the founding of both of those,” she said. Hentoff founded the St. Louis Arches, the Circus Harmony non-profit and is on the board of the City Museum, where she runs a circus school. The crowd-pleasing professional troupe of child acrobats includes her three children.

The St. Louis Arches are a diverse group, with members from various socioeconomic, racial and religious backgrounds. Over time and with a lot of practice, the group has become a polished professional team of performers. The much-newer, less polished troupe in Israel faced even more obstacles when it united Jewish and Arab Israeli kids into a performance unit.

“Circus Kids” begins by introducing the Arches, Hentoff and the plan for the trip, then follows them as they prepare. Not every parent grants permission to travel – some object because of safety concerns in conflict-torn Israel. Some of the America kids are excited about the trip while others express doubts, especially voicing concerns about the food.

The film does not shy away from showing conflicts and emotional outbursts. When the Arches arrived in Israel, mental adjustments were needed, with a language barrier and a strange landscape. At first, each of the circus groups huddles with his or her own troupe, until someone starts juggling, which breaks the ice. There is a bit of a performance culture clash between the very professional Arches and the less-experienced Galilee Circus kids, but as they develop a performance together, friendships form.

Both groups of kids learned from the experience. The Israelis have their eyes opened to being part of a wider circus community and to a new level of performance professionalism. The Americans discover the diversity of other cultures, and gain a sense of history. Hentoff noted that the American kids went from not being able to pronounce names to some understanding of the conflict in Israel. “Those are real people to them now, and how they look at the news is different,” Hentoff said.

Since the film was shot, Galilee Circus has visited the Arches here and the St. Louis troupe made a return trip to Israel this past summer. Lipsitz said that she shot so much footage of the Arches and the trip that she has enough material for another film or another project.

“She shot 500 hours of footage,” Hentoff said, speculating on the potential for a TV series.

The film made its debut at the recent Chicago Film Festival, where the kids got to walk the red carpet, according to Hentoff. And Sunday, many are expected to be in attendance at the St. Louis Film Festival, where the film will make its local debut at the Hi-Pointe Theater.

St. Louis Int’l Film Fest

WHEN: November 11-21

WHERE: Plaza Frontenac, Tivoli Theatre and Hi-Pointe Theater, with additional screenings at Washington University’s Brown Hall and Webster University’s Winifred Moore Auditorium

HOW MUCH: $12 each or $10 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with current and valid ID



‘Circus Kids’

WHEN: 1:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Hi-Pointe Theater

MORE INFO: Director Alexandra Lipsitz, Circus Harmony founder Jessica Hentoff and members of the St. Louis Arches will attend the festival’s screening of the film. A performance by the Arches at a benefit gala at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard, follows the screening.