Cue the clowns - Page 4

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

But it's the collaboration with Vau de Vire and the other groups that round out Bohemian Carnival and really bring it to life.

"People say it just blew my mind, and that is the immortality of it," Boenobo said. "It's super-fucking gratifying, really. It's just stupid."

They performed last month at the Hillbilly Hoedown inside a giant maze made of hay bales in Half Moon Bay, with the clowns and circus performers creating a fantastical new world for the partygoers. As Gooferman played, Shannon broke the rules and danced atop a hay bale wall behind the band, conveying pure danger and backwoods sex appeal.

"The Gooferman character is called Bruiser or Shenanigans," Shannon said of her performer alter egos. "She does the things that you'd get kicked out of a party for, but I can get away with it."

She considers herself more of a "fluffer" than a dancer, and while Gooferman plays, she gets the band and crowd charged up by pushing the limits of silliness and composure herself and seeing if they'll follow. "So they're thinking, wow, if she can do that, I can do all kinds of things."

Their world not only includes practitioners of circus arts (contortionists, aerialists, trapeze artists, clowns, and the like), but also the fashion scene (including outlandish local designers such as Anastasia), painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, fire artists, and DJs like Smoove who bring a certain zany flair to the dance parties.

"It's hybridized. So it's not just circus arts with some musical backing," Boenobo said. Instead, it creates a fun and whimsical scene that makes attendees feel like they're part of something unusual, fun, and liberating. "Immersion is very important."

That's why the Bohemian Carnival and its many offshoots try to break down the wall between the performers and the audience, who often show up in circus or Burning Man styles, further blurring the borders.

"When you break down that big third wall, there's no pretense," Mike Gaines said. "It's really about the party and the community."

Clowns circulate in the crowd, interacting with the audience while aerialists suddenly start performing on ropes or rings suspended over the dance floor. It draws the audience in, opens them up, makes them feel like they're part of something.

"All of the sudden, people get to realize the dream of running away with the circus, but they get to leave it at the end of the night," Boenobo said with a wink, "which they generally like."

"The line of where circus starts and ends has been blurred," said kSea Flux (a.k.a. Kasey Porter), an indie circus performer who earlier this year started Big Top Magazine ( to chronicle the growing culture. "I love the old-school circus, but as with everything, it needs to be able to evolve to continue to grow."

When he joined the indie circus movement five years ago, performing with the Dresden Dolls, Flux said it transformed his life. He quit his corporate job and started developing his art and trying to make a living in the circus arts, including promoting the culture through the magazine.

"I found the circus and was completely filled with a new life," Flux said, noting that it was through his long involvement with Burning Man that he was exposed to the circus scene. "I think Burning Man gives a platform for it.