Cue the clowns - Page 2

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

Vau de Vire choreographer Shannon Gaines (Mike's wife of 19 years) also teaches at the local indie circus school Acrosports and, with beatboxer and performance artist Tim Barsky, directs its City Circus youth program, which combines hip hop and other urban art forms with circus.

Gaines has been a gymnast and dancer all her life, skills that she's honed into circus performances she does through five different agencies, often doing corporate events "that involve wearing a few more clothes" and other more conventional performances.

"The other seems like work to me. But this," she said, a wry smile coming to her lips, "is like dessert. This is what excites me."

She's not the only one. With their growing popularity, San Francisco's indie circus freaks are juggling an increasingly busy schedule and developing even bigger plans for the new year, including a national tour and an extravaganza called Metropolus that would reinforce San Francisco's reputation as the best Big Top in the country.

As Boenobo told me, "It's a moment in time when there's something big developing in San Francisco."

MIMES AND PICKLES

The circus arts are ancient, but San Francisco's unique role in morphing and perpetuating them trace back to the 1970s when Make-a-Circus arrived here from Europe — where circus traditions are strong — and the local, organic Pickle Family Circus was born.

Wendy Parkman, now a board member at San Francisco Circus Center, the circus school she helped develop in conjunction with the Pickles and legendary performer Judy Finelli, worked for both circuses and described how they derived from San Francisco's vibrant arts scene and its history of grassroots activism.

"It was just a wonderful, spontaneous bubble, a renaissance of circus activity," Parkman told the Guardian. "It was an outgrowth of the fabulous '60s and the involvement of people with community and politics and art."

Parkman and many others trace the local lineage of a renaissance that came to be known as New Circus back to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which in 1959 started doing political theater that incorporated comedy (or more specifically, Commedia dell'Arte), music, farce, melodrama, and other aspects of clowning.

"It really started with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and it flourishes here because of the rich arts culture that we've always had here," Jeff Raz, a longtime performer with both original SF troupes who started the San Francisco Clown Conservatory and recently had the title role in Cirque du Soleil's Corteo, told the Guardian.

"San Francisco felt like a place where things could happen that were socially and politically relevant," Parkman said. "Circus has always been a people's art form. It's a great way of getting a lot of people involved because it takes a lot of people to put on a show."

Perhaps even more relevant to the current indie circus resurgence, both Make-a-Circus and the Pickle Family Circus reached out to working class neighborhoods in San Francisco, where they would do parades and other events to entertain the people and generate interest in the circus.

"It was happy, healthy, and accessible to people of all ages, classes, and backgrounds," said Parkman said, who noted that things began to change in the 1980s as funding for the arts dried up and Pickle hit hard times.

"The Pickle Family Circus was a grassroots circus that was part of a real renaissance.