Out of the past: From June 1, 2009
Circus Review: Circus Bella
San Francisco, May 31, 2009, 12 p.m.
Admission free, at Yerba Buena Gardens
Going to a new circus founded by ambitions young performers is always an adventure loaded with a mixture of apprehension and hope. New could mean theatre circus. Could mean ballet circus. Could mean kinky “performance art.” Or the Aussie self-annihilation angle. Could also mean a bright new future. Remember, it was out of such a situation that Cirque du Soleil was born. Indeed, tomorrow belongs to the young.
The good news out of one-year-old Circus Bella, based in Oakland, is that some of the best musical scoring you will come across on any lot is on this lot. Moreover, there’s a cool tilt to the company's camaraderie, a playful approach to taking on standard circus skills. For example, Bronkar Lee begins as a drummer, then drums himself into a stirring ball juggling workout.
Show's biggest single asset are are five hard-working musicians. What a refreshing departure from the abysmally electronic norm. Throw away your CDs. Ditch your dreary disco dreams. With a few more acts, some honing and tightening, this perky outfit might find a string of civic sponsorships out there, something like what the Pickle Family Circus did in its day.
The funky band starts out, pre show, jamming it up, Dixieland style, like a group of black musicians in front of an old midway side show. And you might wonder if that's all you're gonna get. Well, no. Once the circus begins, these windjammers surprise, do they ever, riding charts composed and arranged by accordionist Rob Reich, by answering each entree with just the right tempo and tone. What Reich gives us is an ersatz Cirque sound, yet with a generous deference to each act.
The one hour romp sags in spots. Jan Damm’s suspenders routine takes too long to get snapping. A comedic presence not always well served by the scripting is Jeni Johnson (seen in the two photos above), eccentrically uniformed musical conductor sometimes with baton in hand. She is just plain funny to look at. Her officious air kept me smiling. How does she shtick it to us? Well, for one, she stops the show capriciously to walk over to the ring curb, upon which is parked her big soda cup, there to favor herself with a sip. While we wait. A facetious time out at our expense. It works. Other times she flops out trying to get into the act and has to be carried off. All fun to watch.
But a running band-leading gag (casting Johnson as a conductor getting no cooperation from her musicians) runs on too long like a predictable cliche and doesn’t quite produce. She is an amusing presence I would welcome back.
Invention adds nuance to the generally mid-level routines on display here, giving each a certain wry counterpoint. Nimble contortionist Ember Bria and rola-bola performer Jan Damm deliver the essentials. On the slack rope, David Hunt takes a summer afternoon holiday, making it all look perhaps a little too easy. On a higher level, polished Abigail Munn turns in a skilled single trap routine full of sharp drops and defined positions. Her pro turn only lacks a big swing arc pay off.
To its credit, the program spares us the bed sheets (aka: “fabric”), spares us the hula hoop and the dime-a-dozen motor bike up the inclined wire. Circus Bella, co-directed by Munn and Hunt, avoids the obvious.
Company joins together into a zesty group juggling bash to finish off the party. It makes for a fizzy finale, giving the end frame a celebratory lift.
One last qualm: When did circuses forget how to simply, START? I'd vote for a first burst into the ring free of Scotty the Bunny talking to us. (Scotty's nebulous role throughout the show strikes me as a tad gratuitous.) There is a silent movie feel about this circus that needs to remain silent. Before a responsive crowd on the admission-free grass of Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco under cloudy skies, they made a promising mark. Go, little Bella!