Cue the clowns - Page 5

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

People get stuck in their jobs and there's this great week when you can let go and be what you want to be."

That's also how the talented aerialist and hooper who calls herself Shredder got into this world, which she's now explored in both the traditional circus and the indie variety, preferring the latter.

"I didn't even know it was possible, but I just love it," said Shredder, who worked as a firefighter, EMT, and environmental educator before getting into performing through Burning Man, where Boenobo set up the Red Nose District in 2006 for all the many offshoots of the indie circus world that attend the event.

Shredder developed hula hoop and aerial routines, training hard to improve her skills and eventually was hired by the Cole Brothers Circus in 2006 to do aerial acrobatics and hooping. Founded in 1882, Cole is a full-blown circus in the Ringling Bros. tradition, with a ringleader, animals, and trained acrobats. Shredder toured 92 cities in 10 months until she felt the creativity and joy being snuffed out by the rote repetition of the performances.

"We did the exact same show everyday. It was like Groundhog Day but worse; same show, different parking lot," said Shredder, who later that Saturday night did a performance with more than a dozen hula hoops at once. "Then I heard about Vau de Vire through some fellow performers and I just heard they were doing really well and I wanted to be with a group like that ... I was just so happy that they were willing to help me design my vision as an artist."


The Bohemian Carnival name and concept was actually an import from Fort Collins, Colo., where Mike and Shannon Gaines created the Vau de Vire Society as part of the performance and party space they operated there in a 100-year-old church that they purchased.

Mike's background was in film; Shannon was a dancer; and the world they created for themselves was decidedly counterculture. So was their space, the Rose Window Experimental Theater and Art House, which they operated from 1997 to 2001 and lived in with 20 of their bohemian friends.

"It allowed us to really get to know ourselves. We had all day to just rig up any kind of performance we could imagine," she said. "If you had a crazy idea, you could just come on over at 3 a.m. and do it."

Their signature events were themed parties that would open with performances of about 30 minutes, usually combining music, dance, and performance art, followed by a dance party that was essentially an all-night rave. Initially the performances just drew off of the creativity of their friends, including those Shannon danced with. The themes were often risqué and sometimes included nudity.

The performances evolved over time, bringing in talent such as Angelo Moore of the band Fishbone, who is still a regular part of their crew. They were all attracted to the freaky side of performance art, which drew them toward sideshow, vaudeville, and circus themes and expanding what was technically possible. "We ended up getting a rigger in and just flying around the theater," Mike said.

In 2000, they did their first Bohemian Carnival event. "That's when we started dabbling in the circus," Mike said.

While the events gained regional acclaim in newspapers and were supported by notables figures, including the town's mayor, there was a backlash among local conservatives, including some who objected to how a traditional church was being used for raves by these bohemian freaks.

In 2001 they decided to search for a new home.