San Francisco's burgeoning indie circus scene revives and updates an old-time antidote for trying times
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The circus doesn't come to San Francisco, but its performers do, sexy and talented dreamers who bring a creative energy that has transformed the city's nightlife and counterculture. Spinning aerialists and dancing clowns now proliferate at clubs and parties, and their number has more than doubled in recent years.
They come from towns across the country often via Burning Man, where they discover their inner performers, dying to burst out, and other kindred spirits to a city with a rich circus tradition, which they tweak and twist into something new, a hybrid of the arts and punk sideshow weirdness. It's the ever-evolving world of Indie Circus.
One of the biggest banners these performers now dance and play under is Bohemian Carnival, which draws together some of the city's best indie circus acts, including Vau de Vire Society, the clown band Gooferman, and Fou Fou Ha, acts that fluidly mix with one another and the audience.
Last Saturday, as families across the country shopped and shared Thanksgiving leftovers, this extended family of performers rehearsed for that night's Bohemian Carnival. Fou Fou Ha was in the Garage, a SoMa performance space, working on a new number celebrating beer with founder/choreographer Maya Culbertson, a.k.a. MamaFou, pushing for eight-count precision.
"Do it again," she tells her eight high-energy charges, who look alternatively sexy and zany even without the colorful and slightly grotesque clown costumes they don for shows. I watch from the wings as they drill through the number again and again, struck by how the improvised comedy at the song's end changes every time, someone's new shtick catching my eye and making me smile.
"That's what we love the most, the improv element to it," Culbertson tells me. "We see how far you can take it and not break character."
As Fou Fou Ha wrapped up and headed home to get ready for the show, Gooferman and Vau de Vire were just starting to rehearse and set up over at the party venue, DNA Lounge. Reggie Ballard was up a tall ladder setting the rigging, the dancers stretched, Vau de Vire co-founder Mike Gaines attended to a multitude of details, and Gooferman frontmen Vegas and Boenobo the Klown played the fools.
"I feel like I'm on acid," Vegas said evenly, his long Mohawk standing tall.
"Are you?" Boenobo said, perhaps a little jealous.
"No, I wish," Vegas replied. "But that's why it's weird."
"Huh," Boenobo deadpanned. "Weird."
Fucking clowns. I decide to chat up a dancer, Rachel Strickland, the newest member of Vau de Vire, who stretched and unabashedly changed into her rehearsal clothes as she told me about why she moved here from North Carolina in July 2007.
"I waited a long time for this. I always knew I wanted to come to San Francisco and work on the stage, doing something in the line of Moulin Rouge, with the costumes and that kind of decadence and debauchery," Strickland said, oozing passion for her craft and the life she's chosen, one she said has met her expectations. "I danced as much as I could my whole life and I have an overactive imagination, so it's hard to shock me."
Not that Vau de Vire hasn't tried. Shocking people out of their workaday selves is what the performers try to do, whether through vaudeville acts, dance routines, feats of skill, or just sheer sensual outlandishness. 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."
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. 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."
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. 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 (www.bigtopmagazine.com ) 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. 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. "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. "They're all just part of it," he said.
What they're all part of Vau de Vire, Gooferman, Fou Fou Ha, and the rest of the Indie Circus folk has begun to make a strong imprint on San Francisco nightlife and counterculture. From a performer's perspective, Boenobo said, it feels good. "Our local family is super comfortable with one another," he said, something he's never felt before after 25 years as a indie rocker. "It's rare to not have a lot of ego to deal with, and it's super rare with this kind of high-quality performance."
But they want more. As Flux said, "We want to take over the world."
Slowly, the circus collective members are moving toward becoming full-time freaks. Already, Mike Gaines said most of the 12 to 15 regular Vau de Vire performers practice their art full-time, subsidizing their performances by being instructors in dance or the circus arts.
That's not to say the parties, with their large number of performers, are lucrative. "With circus, you get a million more people on your guest list, so circus is complicated from a promoter's perspective," Joegh Bullock of Anon Salon, which incorporates circus acts into its parties, including the upcoming Sea of Dream party New Year's Eve. "But we love it and wouldn't do a show without it."
To pay the bills, "we also do a lot of corporate gigs," Gaines says, not proudly. Fou Fou Ha does as well, including performing at the Westfield San Francisco Centre this holiday season. They're all dying to take their show on the road, but that, too, takes money. "Sponsorship is the key if we're going to tour with 60 people," said Mike, who's been working hard on a deal and said he feels close.
Boenobo's latest plan is Metropolus, a circus-style extravaganza he's planning (along with Bullogh and Gaines) for next Halloween, hoping to ferry guests (using buses or perhaps even art cars from Burning Man) among several venues in town (such as Mighty, 1015, Temple, and DNA Lounge) and a huge circus tent he wants to erect in Golden Gate Park.
In addition to circus-style entertainment drawn from across the country, he wants to precede the Saturday night finale with three days and nights of workshops and smaller-scale performances. His goal is for Metropolus to because a signature event for San Francisco and the indie circus scene, the equivalent of the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas; the Winter Music Festival in Miami; or the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
The time seems right, with the current financial meltdown creating opportunities even as it makes funding their world domination plans difficult. "Each time you have a crisis like we're having now, it's a ripe time for circus," Jando said, noting that circus boomed during the Great Depression and after each of the two World Wars.
And after going through years of pure absurdity in Washington, DC, and on Wall Street, Raz said the clowns of the world from Stephen Colbert's conservative television character (who Raz says employs clown techniques in his comedy) to a singer named Boenobo now have a special resonance with people. As he said, "One of the things clowns do is they live the folly large."
CLOWN'S EYE VIEW
I've been following Indie Circus for years, intending to add it to the profiles of various Burning Man subcultures (see www.steventjones.com/burningman.html ) that I've written for the Guardian, but my reporting on this story began in May. And at the suggestion of Gooferman frontman Boenobo the Klown, I decided to start from the inside and let him turn me into a clown.
As makeup artist Sharon Rose transformed me into a happy clown backstage at DNA Lounge, I asked Boenobo what I should do (besides interview people). We just needed to clown around, keep the drunks from crowding the performers, help clear the stage between acts whatever needed doing. "We're the scrubs," he told me, clown-to-clown.
As we spoke, the acrobats stretched, a corpse bride goofed off as she prepared for her aria, members of the Extra Action Marching Band started to slink in, clowns applied their makeup, and female performers occasionally came back from the stage and whipped off their tops.
When Gooferman went on, I still didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, so I stood next to the stage, watched, and awkwardly tried to be a little goofy in my dancing. A tall, beautiful blond woman stood next to me, catching my eye. She was apparently alone, so after a couple songs, during a lull, I asked her, "So, do you like clowns?"
"I am a clown," she said with a grin.
"Really?" I said. "You don't look like a clown."
"But I am," she said. "I even do clown porn."
She turned out to be 27-year-old porn star Hollie Stevens, who told me she "grew up as a clown" in the Midwest before moving to California and getting into porn seven years ago. She even starred in the film Clown Porn and still sometimes dons the red nose and face paint for her public appearances, usually just for her own amusement. Stevens once appeared on the Jerry Springer Show as a clown, even getting into the requisite fight on stage with a friend.
"Clowns, you either love them or you hate them," she said, and she loves them.
I asked why she was there and she said that she'd come to see Boenobo. They had talked but never met, and shared a sort of mutual admiration. It was a clown thing. Clowns ... they get all the hot chicks.
While we talked, an acrobat worked the pole on the stage, followed by an aerialist performing above the dance floor, one scene woven seamlessly into the other. The clowns of Gooferman puttered around the stage, removing equipment to get ready for the next act, flirting with the girls, trying to scam more drink tickets, or simply entertaining others and themselves.
The life of a clown is rarely dull.
UPCOMING INDIE CIRCUS EVENTS
Acrosports Winter Cabaret
639 Frederick, SF
8 p.m., $5$15
Auditions for Acrosports' City Circus
Call (415) 665-2276, ext. 103 for appointment
Frolic: CircusDragBurlesque Festival
Featuring Fou Fou Ha, Anna Conda, and more
1310 Mission, SF
8 p.m., $100
Open House and Holiday Carnival
San Francisco Circus Center
755 Frederick, SF
10 a.m.4 p.m., free
Pratfalls and Rising Stars
7 p.m., $12 adults, $8 children
San Francisco Circus Center
Tickets and info at www.circuscenter.org 
Storytime Festival, featuring Vau de Vire Society
47 p.m., "Tales of Enchantment," (G-rated show) 811 p.m., "Storytime for the Inner Child," (R-rated show)
Palace of Fine Arts
3301 Lyon, SF
>>More: Read Marke B.'s club review of Bohemian Carnival