Matt Greenfield wasn't the first 12- or 13-year-old to go to the circus and quickly figure out what he wanted to do when he grew up.
His, though, wasn't a typical adolescent ambition, one fueled by bulbous noses and floppy shoes. Greenfield fell in love with the intricacy, not the lunacy, of the performance.
The show was Mystere, by Cirque du Soleil, and Greenfield, a 2006 graduate of Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, began a dream that never faded. Barely a decade later, it might become quite real.
The Villanova resident, who just completed his fourth year as a Penn State gymnast, will head to Montreal later this month to start a five-month training session with Cirque du Soleil, a possible prelude to becoming a Cirque performer.
"I loved how creative it was," said Greenfield, 22. "I loved how they mix sport with art, which you don't see that much. They were really the first company to do that that I've seen.
"Gymnastics is a sport. There are many rules and there's a code of points and there's a structure to it. With Cirque du Soleil, they take what you learn in these sports, like gymnastics or trampoline, or diving, or even extreme sports, and they just make them into something completely their own, where there are no rules involved, and you just create. Whatever looks aesthetically pleasing to the eye, you use it, and I love that aspect of it."
The Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil produces shows internationally, mixing circus arts and entertainment such as acrobatics and dance. In the United States, the company puts on regular productions in Las Vegas, New York and Orlando, and has touring shows.
The five-month training will include both artistic and acrobatic work, said Marie-Noelle Caron, spokeswoman for Cirque du Soleil, and participants are not guaranteed performance contracts upon completion.
Greenfield started in gymnastics when he was about five and living in Chappaqua, N.Y. His family moved to Villanova when he was 10, and he joined Macey's Academy of Gymnastics in Feasterville. When the owner, Macey Watson, relocated, Greenfield switched to Temple Boys' Gymnastics before his sophomore year at Shipley.
All along, he competed in Junior Olympics meets - he finished 25th in the all-around in 2005 - and other national events. He was in Las Vegas for a competition when his father took him to his first Cirque show. He since has seen a number of Cirque performances, in Florida as well as Pennsylvania and Vegas.
In 2008, after his sophomore year at Penn State, Greenfield attended a summer program at the National Institute of Circus Art in Melbourne, Australia. The Institute, he said, was next to a gym owned by a former coach of Kevin Tan, a Nittany Lions assistant coach. The gym owner helped put him in touch with a Cirque du Soleil talent scout.
That contact eventually led to an audition last September in Las Vegas. About a month and a half ago, Greenfield received the invitation to train.
"I went to school starting out as a kines [kinesiology] major, thinking that I might want to get into sports medicine," Greenfield said. "Then I switched to neuroscience psychology, thinking that I still wanted science but I really liked the psych route, and I thought that it would be a good major to have.
"But I always told myself I would, even if it was for a couple of years, always try for Cirque du Soleil after college."
His growth spurts, particularly one when he was in his mid-teens, made him more intent on that.
Greenfield, at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, was bigger than most NCAA gymnasts. In fact, the website StickItMedia surveyed the rosters of Division I men's programs and had Greenfield tied with two others for tallest gymnast.
His size wasn't an advantage in competitions. As Greenfield put it, it's a lot tougher to lift 195 pounds than 150 pounds on the various apparatuses. He said his height was troublesome especially on the parallel bars.
"When I hit my growth spurts," Greenfield said, "I knew the Olympic track wasn't going to be my track. So this [Cirque du Soleil] gave me another option to continue my sport."