San Francisco Bay Area Circus
The 2015 Watershed, Part 2
by Judy Finelli
Circus Center has announced that they’re bringing the illustrious San Francisco Clown Conservatory off hiatus. Founded by the inimitable Jeff Raz in 2000, the Clown Conservatory was directed by Raz for a decade. After Jeff left, his associate director, Paoli Lacy, took the helm until her health concerns forced her to leave, after which a committee including Ms. Lacy, chose Joe Dieffenbacher to be the new director. Joe was director for nearly four years. After he left for England, the Clown Conservatory has without a director since 2015.
Then who should magically appear to fill this void? It is the madcap whirlwind Sara Moore. Merv Griffin called Sara, “Quite truly one of the funniest, most ridiculously delicious humans I’ve ever encountered AND . . . the hardest working clown in show business!” I like to call her a cross between Marlon Brando and Jerry Lewis, with a touch of Harpo Marx thrown in.
Yes, Sara Moore is intrepid enough to take up the reins of this breeding ground for clowndom that has already sent clowns to Circus Monti, Cirque du Soleil, the cabarets of Germany, and across Latin America. All who dare to become post-post-modern clowns send in your applications! You will be in good hands. It will be the wildest ride of your life! (You know who you are!)
For the next show in my “Watershed” series, I turn to Flynn Creek Circus and their inaugural Northern California tent show tour.
Contemporary Circus . . . Straight Up with a Twist:
Flynn Creek Circus Draws Edgy Experimentation into the Embrace of Postmodern Circus
Photos by Gary Thomsen
The Mendocino, California, based Flynn Creek Circus has been preparing and developing its show since 2002. With the 2015 season they brought their unique brand of entertainment across the Bay Area and beyond. They delivered on their promise to propel the traditional circus into new frontiers. I am always amused when people complain approvingly or disapprovingly that a circus either “does” or “does not” have animals. I think to myself: “It’s got people in it, doesn’t it? The last time I checked, Homo sapiens are animals!” Flynn Creek displays a tantalizing instinct for balancing a show to include just the right amount of classical elements to please purists, while including original experiments that are a hallmark of the contemporary circus scene. The result is a delectable hybrid of styles. I think the secret to its success is that their directors have excellent taste, and their experiments are well-grounded in expert skill. The cast reflects a wise selection of professional performers, ready to explore uncharted territory.
The opening act, an acrobatic teeterboard, featured a talented young apprentice, Shem Biggie, who exhibited beautiful, sharp form. Flynn Creek clearly possesses the knowledge and expertise to train apprentices to excel and grow. Novices are not limited to the narrow confines of their craft, but are trained so that they can one day achieve the highest levels of expertise. Here even “simple” tricks take on an aura of significance. This immediately sets the audience at ease, because it knows it’s in qualified hands.
Another apprentice, Kai Newstead, presented a sunny piece on rope. He looked like he could hardly contain his joy at performing his act. The mood conveyed an ebullient spirit as he performed intricate wraps, drops, and triumphal poses. It will be interesting to see how Kai evolves as a performer, and watch his act grow and blossom as he follows his bliss.
The unicycle duo, Nick and Wendy Harden, make adagio unicycle look easy, when it is anything but. The punch line of the title “Unicycle Built for Two” is that there is no such animal. These artists deliver a performance in which their complex adagio exercises are performed with the base of the team steadily maintaining equilibrium. Nick, whose background is in circus arts, and Wendy, who’s background is in gymnastics, live in Seattle, and have performed across the US and Canada. They’ve created a rare act from commingling their core disciplines.
Duo Chandelier, Ajah Leas and Kara Starkweather, are aerial dancers who use their classical ballet training to create an unusually fluid, demanding, and graceful, horizontally, and occasionally, vertically-mounted, aerial ring partnership. These two aerialists create fascinating patterns with their bodies, sometimes as mirror images of one another, and at other times, in counterpoint, drawing kinetic sculptures as they position themselves against, and overlap, one another. They are also able to use the ring with one partner performing a variety of tricks from the other, acting as a porter in a knee hang. Their inventive aerial act is all about creating moods from dramatic to tranquil. The transitions between tricks are particularly well constructed.
Jan Damm, a featured performer and former SF AcroSports mainstay, has matured into a first-rate artist. His impossible-looking diabolo act keeps the audience unnervingly on edge. Comprised of near misses in which the diabolo is snagged or rescued at the last microsecond with a series of blind catches, twists, and rotating moves, Jan punctuates them with an expression that belies the skill and the practice required to achieve his level of expertise. He looks at the audience as if to say, “I’m not exactly sure how I do this. I only stick the string out and the diabolo finds that string all by itself! I won’t tell you what I feed it – that’s my secret.”
I caught Ariele Ebacher’s balletic-acrobatic tight wire act a few years ago when she was with Circus Zoppe. It had been years since I had seen a tight wire dancer-acrobat in America, and Ariele crossed the wire en pointe, and executed beautiful splits, split-leaps, and other classical dance steps. Immediately, I knew that within a few years her act would be stunning and with Flynn Creek Circus, her jewel-like act sparkles. Ariele’s beautiful persona and infectious charm add the icing to a delicious act.
Blaze Birge and David Jones performed a new version of an act that used to be a popular mainstay in vaudeville, and later a staple on the old “Ed Sullivan Show”: the knife throwing act in which, invariably, a man throws knives at his lovely female assistant. The act became formulaic as knife-throwers were men, performing a mandatory set of tricks (outlining the female assistant’s form, bursting balloons, culminating with her spinning on a disc while knives were thrown around her). Blaze and David upend these clichés and create a dark, smoky, film noir scene. The relationship between the pair is essentially tragic because the only way they can relate is for the woman to throw knives at the man. The relationship appears damaged, but the pair is left holding hands, adding an enigmatic touch. George Harrison’s song, “Isn’t It a Pity” immediately sprung to my mind during this scene.
The poetically mischievous clown, Faeble Kievman, infuses his clowning with moving depth, as he performed an array of classical Chinese acrobatic techniques balancing a long bamboo pole with a small umbrella absurdly attached to the top. The bamboo pole becomes an impossibly long umbrella as he weathers and survives an intense storm, suggesting the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that we must all endure. He wins the audience’s trust, softening them up for his over-the-top second act.
Then there is the awesome skill of contortionist and hand-balancer Alexander “Sasha” Pivaral. Wearing colorful rock star garb, she realizes an impressively sustained variety of one-armed handstands and solid contortion poses. To top it all off, Sasha’s Mona Lisa smile adds an intriguingly mysterious touch, and stands as a testament to her extremely confident demeanor.
Nelson & Goulia Pivaral, Sasha’s youthful parents, present a poignant romantic adagio duo. Because they never lose the connection between each other or the audience, they exemplify what it means to be a professional. Specific tricks are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the act, they become difficult to recall. Their smooth, sustained legato movements make the act both seductive and irresistible. The love between them is so palpably expressed it becomes a third presence in their act.
Faeble Kievman returns as an outrageously delicious, gender-bending, bearded Carmen – yes, that Carmen! – slinkily clad in seductive red satin, while juggling Chinese jars. He revels as this unlikely femme fatale until we begin to accept him in this guise and his triumph is complete! Faeble’s employment of pole-balancing and jar juggling provides audiences with glimpses of Chinese skills rarely seen in America.
But this show has even more inventive surprises to reveal.
Jan Damm returned with his signature rola-bola/juggling offering, keeping the audience on tenterhooks. He inserts buckets and boards underneath him while keeping the balance on the cylinder as he climbs higher and higher. Jan manages, along the way, to find the time to throw in juggling five clubs and jumping rope, finally culminating in pressing a handstand on top of the final board of the stack. The fun lies in watching him do it all – balancing, juggling, and inverting his position, all the while skillfully upping the suspense.
The Daring Jones Duo is a truly world-class act. This couple, Blaze Birge and David Jones, who are also the artistic director and technical director of the circus, respectively, perform a thrilling double trapeze act combining original moves with heart-stopping drops and slides, all performed at lightning speed. They have competed around the world, collecting well-deserved medals and accolades. Viewing their act is not for the faint-hearted. I wanted to clutch onto anything I could in an effort to push these beautiful aerialists safely through their act. (As if I could have any real effect on it!)
Flynn Creek Circus is a testament to the vision, dedication, and creativity of Blaze Birge and David Jones. They have birthed a new style of circus for a new audience in a new century. Their circus can take its place among the other shows that made 2015 a remarkable, watershed year for Northern California.
Flynn Creek Circus is preparing its brand new 2016 show. If you get the chance to see it, you are in for one helluva ride!
Blaze Birge, Artistic Director; David Jones, Technical Director;Maria Forster, Director of Operations;Laurel Wulfekuhle, Casting Director; Alan Uhlmansiek, Site Manager;Florian Basmajian & Frederick Andersen, Lighting Design; Rebekah Cavinder, & Tyler Beale, Light & Sound Operators; Shem Biggie, Althea Young, Kai Newstead,
Next: Circus Automatic’s “Raised by Wolves.”