Standing in front of 100 high school students, Greg Milstein’s eyes always drift to the loners — the nonathletic, the uninspired, the last-to-be-picked-for-the-team-type kids.
At age 16, he was one of them.
“I really do see the little me out there,” the Levittown native said. “And I think to myself, ‘Wow, the difference between feeling like you can’t do it, and you can, is just one success away.’ And, hopefully, I can provide that through circus. Circus, to me, has always been home. And circus skills are always home.”
Almost 40 years since his high school days, Milstein is the executive director of the National Circus Project, a non-profit organization that performs and teaches workshops at 350 schools and venues across 15 states in the Northeast every year — including, on Friday night, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. Two members of the group will perform, followed by a mini workshop where participants may try their hand at circus skills including juggling, western rope spinning, and feather balancing.
Since 1984, that equals more than 12,000 performances, 67,529 workshops and 1,133 Student Circus programs for nearly 6.9 million participants.
“That number is really staggering to think about,” Milstein said. “If someone told me, ‘Hey, you — you, that nerdy fat kid who sits in the corner and cries because you don’t want to play basketball because you’re afraid you don’t know how to shoot a basket — you’re gonna grow up and you’re gonna travel around the world and spend your life using your physical excellence as a way to inspire others, and that will be your career,’ I would have been like, ‘Are you crazy?’”
What has defined Milstein’s life is thanks to a random box of blue rubber handballs in his friend’s backyard. What followed was a complete accident, he recalled with a laugh.
“We were all challenging each other to juggle and I don’t know what happened that day, I don’t know what happened that night. All I know is I got obsessed,” he said. “It was like my brain focused on the juggling and I just kept trying so hard. I just had to do it; I had to succeed.”
His next memory was a tap on his shoulder. He startled, looking around the ball-speckled yard. The sun was almost down, and all his friends were gone. His friend looked concerned.
“He says, ‘My mom wants to know if you’d like to stay for dinner. She’s inside, worried about you, because you’re still here,’” Milstein said. “I was standing out there for hours, trying to juggle. It was like I time-traveled, like, what happened? It was the strangest experience.
“But then he went up to his room, came outside and handed me this pamphlet that he had from an old birthday gift, with a guideline on how to juggle,” he continued. “And that gave me the pattern. By the time I left, I was making several throws with three balls. I taught myself how to juggle that night.”
From high school and into his early 20s, Milstein practiced his skills for at least two hours a day, every day. He graduated from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, officially becoming a full-time circus performer — not to mention a ringmaster, balloon and trapeze artist, magician, master unicyclist, tightrope and stilt walker — ever since.
But gone are the days of the anachronistic, three-ring, multi-million-dollar circuses. Now, the United States has adopted a more European- or Russian-style affair, adopted from countries where circus popularity has soared for centuries.
“There, circus people are not only respect, but circus is high art — opera, ballet, theater, circus, all on the same level,” Milstein explained. “It’s so special and so high level. In America, they’re like, ‘What are you, a clown?’ It was, for many years, disheartening. Unfortunately, Americans were not aware of what circus was.
“But there’s an evolution happening,” he continued. “Circus is changing — think Cirque de Soleil, but in a way, they did not bring something new. The theatrical artistry of Cirque de Soleil was similar to what was already being done at the Moscow Circus and other avant-garde circus shows in Europe. But what Cirque du Soleil did was make it accessible.”
That is precisely what National Circus Project does, too, by bringing circus arts into the classroom and beyond, teaching children to juggle with scarves, balance with feathers and spin plates — giving them gratification and fanning their self esteem in the process, Milstein said.
“In your career, you wonder what you contribute to the world,” he said. “National Circus Project staff members absolutely go to bed at night knowing they do tremendous things for others. They empower kids to have success, and the crowd goes wild. These are memories they will have for the rest of their lives.”
The National Circus Project will give an interactive performance and teach a workshop on Friday, February 15, at 6 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum, located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill, as part of Family Month. Admission is free for students and children, and included in admission for adults. Reservations are recommended. For more information, call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.