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Beyond the Big Top

The East Bay is home to a thriving circus arts scene that provides exercise, community-building, and a unique form of creative expression.



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Raz ran the Circus Center San Francisco's Clown Conservatory from 2000 to 2010. During that time, clowns under his tutelage received a well-rounded education in all things clown, including acrobatics, mime, dance, ballet, music, history, juggling, makeup, costume, and business — most clowns are independent contractors. Of his 140 or so graduates, 70 to 80 percent now work as professional performers, according to Raz.

Circus performers who've trained in the Bay Area have gone on to perform in major circus venues like Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sweet Can, and Circus Vargas, and, locally, circus landmark Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco. They perform at conventions like WonderCon, at outdoor festivals like Art and Soul Oakland, and at private parties. Veronica Blair, a former student at the Kinetic Arts Center, went on to become a featured aerialist in AFRIKA! AFRIKA!, the most successful circus show in Germany. Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi, who took classes at the Circus Center San Francisco, ended up in Cirque du Soleil together — as a married couple.

The scene's sheer volume of talented artists means that unique and cross-disciplinary forms are springing up all the time. Working together and sharing space creates what Richard Hartnell refers to as a "mutual inspiration conspiracy."

"The main thing here is they synthesize, they cross boundaries," said Raz. "Most circus performers from the Bay Area are experts at more than one thing. Most clowns are also professional actors and acrobats. Most acrobats are dancers. The creativity comes from mixing forms together, creating something new."

Innovations in the Bay Area ripple out across the country, showing up in places like Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles. And cross-pollination means that circus elements are cropping in unexpected places, like in the fiery performances of The Crucible in West Oakland. 

Whether the circus arts will ever achieve the level of mainstream acceptance as yoga isn't clear. But regardless of where the art form is headed, it's clear that the worlds of dance, theater, and fitness will never be the same. 

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