Cue the clowns - Page 6

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

"We looked around for the place that would be most accepting of what we were doing," Mike said.

San Francisco was known to be accepting of their kind, and there were groups here that were edging toward similar kinds of parties, including Infinite Kaos and Xeno (and its predecessor, Awd), as well as the band Idiot Flesh, not to mention the more serious circus being done at the Circus Center and Teatro Zinzanni.

"San Francisco, in this country, is a real hotbed for circus. So we were like, 'Now we can bring in legitimate circus performers," Mike said. Shannon got a job teaching at Acrosports, allowing her to be immersed full-time in her art and to help grow her community.

Serendipitously, in August 2001, indie rocker Boenobo of the band Chub — a funky ska outfit whose members would wear different costumes to each of their performances — formed Gooferman, which wasn't originally the clown band it is today: "The idea was you had to be in a costume and you had to be stoned." They morphed into a full-blown clown band, and began collaborating with circus performers.

"But it never coalesced until recently," Boenobo says.

That process probably began around Halloween 2004 at the Vegoose Festival in Las Vegas, when Vau de Vire Society was asked to fill eight hours' worth of programming and turned to their San Francisco brethren for help, Mike said. They drove or flew about 100 people to the event.

It was also the year Boenobo staged the GoofBall in San Francisco, drawing together a variety of entertainment that helped change the nature of the traditional dance party. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the year that reviled President George W. Bush won a second term and when longtime Burning Man artists staged their ill-fated revolt against the event (see "State of the art," 12/10/04).

"When people get too serious, they need this shit even more," Boenobo said of the increasingly irreverent, naughty, and participatory parties he was throwing.

Meanwhile Fou Fou Ha was developing its act. Culbertson and Raymond Meyer were waiting tables at Rose Pistola in 2000 and decided to put their big personalities to work for them, bringing in other performers such as Slim Avocado and setting up routines to perform at CellSpace and other venues.

"We're sort of like the children of Cirque du Soleil in a way, but we wanted to give it an edge," Culbertson said. "It's sort of like the second wave vaudeville ... now with more of a rock edge."

Fou Fou Ha's shows play off the dark and surreal kind of performance that is more European than American, a style Culbertson was exposed to while studying choreography during her Fulbright scholarship in Holland in the late 1990s. When she returned to the United States in 2000, "I wanted to form a [dance] company." But she wanted it to be fun. "People really like the idea of serious dance combined with comedy, where you can fall out of your pirouette," she said.

"We're kind of like guerilla circus," Slim, a trained ballerina, said. "It's a whole new movement. It's like '30s cabaret, but edgier."

Boenobo started the Red Nose District on the playa at Burning Man in 2006, drawing together his Bohemian Carnival friends, a local group of stilt- walkers known as Enhightned Beings of Leisure, installation artist Michael Christian's crew from the East Bay, the Cirque Berserk folks from Los Angeles, and others from the growing circus world.

"It's a safe environment to be and do what you want," Gaines said of Burning Man, noting how those breakthroughs on the playa then come back home to the city. And that ethos carries into Vau de Vire, which is truly a collective of like-minded friends, one that eschews hiring outside performers for their shows.