Once upon a time there was a circus in Hoboken on Washington Street

Hoboken has a lot of historical bragging rights: the birthplace of small-league baseball, the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, and the location of MutzFest to name a few. But many Hobokenites may be surprised to hear about Hoboken’s role in the circus arts tradition. The Circus Arts Center, which resided in 412 Washington in Hoboken in the late 1970s, spawned a new branch of the American circus aimed at training young performers in the traditions of the Old World. Circus Arts Center student Karen E. Gersch has brought historic photographs and her own celebratory artwork depicting the participants of that school to the Hoboken Historical Museum in conjunction with the exhibit The Avenue: A History of Washington Street. Read on to learn about Hoboken’s role in circus history.

(Photo credit: Karen Gersch)

Rooted in tradition

This prestigious circus school was founded by the married couple Gregory Fedin and Nina Krasavina, former stars of the Moscow State Circus, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974. That’s because Fedin and Krasavina were infused with the most disciplined techniques of circus performance, with a rigid philosophy about their art that formed the school in the first place.

Hoboken circus 6

(Photo credit: Jessica Hentoff)

The Hoboken Circus Arts Center was, in a very real way, a response to and against the prevailing American circus aesthetic and attitude of the time. For Fedin and Krasavina, the American circus lacked content. American circus performances relied more on fireworks, glitz and glamor (think Barnum and Bailey) than the pathos and beauty of the European circus troupes.

In a 1981 article about the Circus Arts Center in The New York Times, Krasavina described the seriousness of the Russian approach to circus as an art form: “When talking about circuses in the Soviet Union, she said that clowns there received the same attention as Bolshoi dancers and earned as much as architects or engineers.”

hoboken circus 2

(Photo credit: Sarah Hermes Griesbach)

Krasavina’s point could be broadened to make a comparison between the American support and respect for circus as an art and the support and respect for circus arts by the majority of European governments where circus, like all other arts, was and is subsidized by the state.

A future-oriented vision

The Hoboken School grew out of Fedin and Krasavina’s message to the professionals who performed with them in the Big Apple Circus that they were capable of more and better. The middle-aged Russian couple was already teaching the majority of the young Big Apple Circus performers at Karen Gersch’s loft in New York City. The students soon became loyal converts to the Russian couple’s cause of bringing more art into the circus arts, and once that decision was made, all that was left was to find a suitable space for a school.

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The Circus Arts Center at 412 Washington Street occupied a 4,000-square-foot room on the second floor of the Queens department store. The open space and 25-foot ceilings allowed trapeze acts, traditional Russian ladder acts, and tall towers of acrobats to balance on bicycles and tightrope walk. In a back room, Fedin built a workshop where he built the equipment needed for each operation, including complex mechanical gears that would have to be broken down for storage and transport between performances.

hoboken circus 5

(Photo credit: Jessica Hentoff)

The school was not only dedicated to the training of young adult professionals. Fedin and Krasavina were consciously developing a youth program for beginning circus students. The youth classes were designed to teach self-discipline through intense training that would result in confidence and grace, while the children choreographed and performed solo and partner acts to be proud of.

A living legacy

Karen Gersch and her fellow Circus Arts Center alumni are currently experiencing the next chapter of the story that began in Hoboken. About 20 professionals within the framework of those who trained together in the 1970s, not only had a famous circus career, but also started their own circus enterprises.

The great legacy of Fedin and Krasavina’s training is in part its emphasis on uncompromising, focused training in the physical expertise that makes circus performers performers. But that legacy also takes shape in the many youth programs that Fedin and Krasavina’s students have developed. And what those students, many of whom are in their sixties, are now learning is a power that can only come from within.

Hoboken circus 4

(Photo credit: Sarah Hermes Griesbach)

Many of the professional interns at the Hoboken Circus Arts School who later formed programs across the country now offer classes on trapeze, rings, trampoline, tightrope, juggling, contortionism, and clowning. The skills-based instruction is only part of what these programs teach. None of Fedin and Krasavina’s students further demanded what Fedin expected of them; “To do circus, you have to steal hours from the grave,” was Fedin’s mantra. Yet they each have their own programs built around the belief that training and hard work are necessary to make magic. In Gersch’s words: “We have learned to find strength deep within the self to find an uncertain balance.”

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Where Karen Gersch describes Fedin as unwavering in his demand that his students train to perfection, she recalls that Krasavina was able to demonstrate 100 handstands, while also being able to tear down the house with her graceful clown improvisation. That emphasis on strength, balance, discipline and reverence for beauty is what fuels Gersch’s one-time balancing act partner, Jessica Hentoff’s, intense training program for her remarkably successful youth circus school, St. Louis’s Circus Harmony, a social circus.

Hentoff has built a program in St. Louis that makes the rigor she learned in Hoboken available to any child interested in “defying gravity.” She has made scholarships a top priority, sending countless young people to professional training programs at Cirques in Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

Hoboken circus 3

(Photo credit: Jessica Hentoff)

That moment in the mid-late 1970s, when Gersch, Hentoff and their colleagues broke out of the Big Apple Circus to train in Hoboken with Fedin and Krasavina, was a pivotal event. But few of the generations of circus students whose programs have sprung from that fortuitous genesis are likely to know that they are the artistic great-grandchildren and great-grandchildren of two Soviet defectors whose very existence was once wiped from the records of their homeland.

For more information about the Circus Arts Center or to view historic photos, visit the Hoboken Historical Society’s exhibit, The Avenue: A History of Washington Street, at 1301 Hudson Street. Karen Gersch’s artwork will be on display from January 9 to February 27, 2022. The exhibition, CIRCUS LIVES: Hovering Above, Balancing Below, reflects Karen’s time at the circus.

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