Cue the clowns

San Francisco's burgeoning indie circus scene revives and updates an old-time antidote for trying times
Photo by Tracy Bugni

The circus doesn't come to San Francisco, but its performers do, sexy and talented dreamers who bring a creative energy that has transformed the city's nightlife and counterculture. Spinning aerialists and dancing clowns now proliferate at clubs and parties, and their number has more than doubled in recent years.

They come from towns across the country — often via Burning Man, where they discover their inner performers, dying to burst out, and other kindred spirits — to a city with a rich circus tradition, which they tweak and twist into something new, a hybrid of the arts and punk sideshow weirdness. It's the ever-evolving world of Indie Circus.

One of the biggest banners these performers now dance and play under is Bohemian Carnival, which draws together some of the city's best indie circus acts, including Vau de Vire Society, the clown band Gooferman, and Fou Fou Ha, acts that fluidly mix with one another and the audience.

Last Saturday, as families across the country shopped and shared Thanksgiving leftovers, this extended family of performers rehearsed for that night's Bohemian Carnival. Fou Fou Ha was in the Garage, a SoMa performance space, working on a new number celebrating beer with founder/choreographer Maya Culbertson, a.k.a. MamaFou, pushing for eight-count precision.

"Do it again," she tells her eight high-energy charges, who look alternatively sexy and zany even without the colorful and slightly grotesque clown costumes they don for shows. I watch from the wings as they drill through the number again and again, struck by how the improvised comedy at the song's end changes every time, someone's new shtick catching my eye and making me smile.

"That's what we love the most, the improv element to it," Culbertson tells me. "We see how far you can take it and not break character."

As Fou Fou Ha wrapped up and headed home to get ready for the show, Gooferman and Vau de Vire were just starting to rehearse and set up over at the party venue, DNA Lounge. Reggie Ballard was up a tall ladder setting the rigging, the dancers stretched, Vau de Vire co-founder Mike Gaines attended to a multitude of details, and Gooferman frontmen Vegas and Boenobo the Klown played the fools.

"I feel like I'm on acid," Vegas said evenly, his long Mohawk standing tall.

"Are you?" Boenobo said, perhaps a little jealous.

"No, I wish," Vegas replied. "But that's why it's weird."

"Huh," Boenobo deadpanned. "Weird."

Fucking clowns. I decide to chat up a dancer, Rachel Strickland, the newest member of Vau de Vire, who stretched and unabashedly changed into her rehearsal clothes as she told me about why she moved here from North Carolina in July 2007.

"I waited a long time for this. I always knew I wanted to come to San Francisco and work on the stage, doing something in the line of Moulin Rouge, with the costumes and that kind of decadence and debauchery," Strickland said, oozing passion for her craft and the life she's chosen, one she said has met her expectations. "I danced as much as I could my whole life and I have an overactive imagination, so it's hard to shock me."

Not that Vau de Vire hasn't tried. Shocking people out of their workaday selves is what the performers try to do, whether through vaudeville acts, dance routines, feats of skill, or just sheer sensual outlandishness.