Cue the clowns - Page 3

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

Unfortunately, it didn't go very far," Dominique Jando, a noted circus historian who has written five books on the circus and whose wife teaches trapeze at the Circus Center, told the Guardian.

Still, the Pickle legacy lives on in the Circus Center and Acrosports, making San Francisco and Montreal (birthplace of Cirque du Soleil, whose influence has also propelled the indie circus movement) the two major hubs of circus in North America. Unlike Europe, Russia, and China, where circus training is deeply rooted and often a family affair passed from generation to generation, Jando said, Americans don't have a strong circus tradition.

"We are really the poor children of the circus world. There is not the same tradition of circus here that there is in Europe," said Jando, a native to France who now lives in San Francisco. "Learning circus is like ballet, and it's not really in the American psyche to work and train for seven years for a job that offers modest pay."

Homegrown spectacles like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus commercialized the circus and transformed it into the three-ring form that sacrificed intimacy and the emphasis on artistry and narrative flow. Traditionally in Europe, the clowns and music structured a circus performance, with the punctuation and interludes provided by the acrobats and other performers of the circus arts.

"It's the superhuman and the supremely human, who are the clowns," is how Raz defines circus. "Clowns are becoming more central to the circus, the supremely human part, and that has a lot to do with our times."

Raz, Jando, and Parkman all pointed to the sterile excesses of the televised, digitized, Twittering, 24/7 world we live in as feeding the resurgence of circus. "It points to a demand by the audience to see something more down to earth and real," Jando said. "There is a need to go back to basics."

"It's a response to the overly technological world we're living in. People want to go back to what the human body can do and be in the same place as the performers," Parkman said. "One of the concepts of the Pickles was that it was drawing on the European model. I'd say what's going on now in San Francisco is an offshoot of what the Pickles did."

Raz said the rise of Indie Circus and its influence on the local arts scene is consistent with his own experiences as an actor and clown. He used to keep two resumes, but performers today are often expected to be steeped in both disciplines, letting one inform the other and opening up new forms of creative expression.

"That melding that you're looking at, from the club scene to Burning Man, is seeping into a lot of the world," Raz said. "Circus is very much a living art form."

Somehow," Jando said, "it has become a sort of counterculture on the West Coast."

INDIE, THE NEW NEW CIRCUS

Boenobo and Vegas haven't done any real training to become clowns. They're performers who use the clown shtick to build a fun and fantastical world off their solid musical base.

"There has to be whimsy. People take themselves so seriously," Boenobo said, noting that it was in response to the serious-minded Winter Music Conference in 2001 where he had the idea of having the members of his new band, Gooferman, dress as clowns. It was a lark, but it was fun and it stuck, and they've been clowns ever since.

"The clown thing floats my boat. It is a persona I really dig. And the band kicks ass. We're all just super tight. The Bohemian Carnival is just a bunch of friends, like a family ejected out of different wombs," he said.

The band does kick ass. Setting aside the clown thing, their tunes are original and fun, evoking Oingo Boingo at its early best, particularly since the summer, when Boenobo and Vegas brought in a strong new rhythm section.