A circus has come to town—a dancer rounds dozens of hula-hoops on her hips, one woman swings from a trapeze, another treads a fine line on the slack rope and a clown puts up a formidable act for the audience.
Circus Bella, a one-ring outdoor circus comprised of 13 troupe members and several live musicians, performed for over 100 people on Thursday outside of Revolution Café just off of 17th Street. The circus, formed in 2008 by David Hunt (whose act is the slack rope) and Abigail Munn (who performs on trapeze), has a clear goal: to bring an accessible and high quality circus to the Bay Area and present it in an outdoor setting.
“Kids go to circus camp everywhere, and there’s circus shows for people, but you don’t really see it,” Hunt said. “Or you have to pay $20 to go to a theater and it’s like really dark and its kind of obscure or it’s in the night clubs. … Circus culture—the idea is around everywhere, but it’s not being created traditionally here. For us, it was ‘Let’s put it back in the ring and get a live band.’”
The approach didn’t go unnoticed. “It’s amazing and awesome and funny,” said Nicos, a student at North Oakland Community Charter School who came to see the show on Thursday. “The other circus I went to was in a tent. This was outside.”
Onlookers—a mix of children and adults—sat on upside-down crates, benches nailed together from scrap wood and propped-up tree stumps. Others found a spot on chairs near sprouting fresh vegetables and a greenhouse. People were able to order several varieties of coffee—Ethiopian, French roast, Peruvian and Sumatra—as well as cold drinks, breakfast and cold cut sandwiches from the café.
“I saw [the circus] posted on Facebook and the location as being West Oakland,” said Ajit D. de Silva, a father who traveled 30 miles from Benicia with his son and daughter. “I didn’t think it would be this funky, but I know that Oakland has things like this. Once I walked into the café, I knew I struck gold. I think that this is what Oakland is best at.”
This marked the third year Circus Bella performed at the site. The turnout, Munn said, was three times the size of the crowd last year. “This whole thing is brand new,” she said of the circus stage while pointing to the backdrop that bears the troupe’s name. “We got a grant from the East Bay Community Foundation.” Set designer Ron Pratt, who has been a recognized figure in the Bay Area theater community for several years, designed the break-and-build theater built over a series of three weeks. “It’s a pretty big deal,” Munn said.
Several members of the troupe credit the Pickle Family Circus—a circus based in San Francisco throughout the 70’s and early 80’s that helped revive the American circus—for inspiring them to perform. “My parents singed me up for a circus class with the Pickle Family Circus when I was 8,” said Munn, who teaches Pilates and works as a dancer in her spare time. “It’s no longer in existence, but their act was very similar in style to what we do right now, so I’m kind of going back to my roots here.”
“The reason, the part of our success, has everything to do with the Pickle Family Circus,” Hunt added. “There’s something set in the culture memory of the Bay Area about that time.”
Throughout the day people commented on how the day’s events— with the smell of fresh coffee, hay on the ground, and a circus band playing while the BART trains passed overhead behind them—could only happen in Oakland. “I love the atmosphere here and what the circus does,” Mull said. “It brings people together that wouldn’t normally sit next to each other. The circus can speak to anybody, from any background.”
Circus Bella will perform at the Studio One Art Center just off of 45th street on July 13 at 6 p.m. and Diamond Park on July 15 at 12 p.m. The full performance schedule can be viewed here.