Saturday, June 28, 2014

Circus Bella Entertains Validly — Until it Doesn’t

The Big Juggle.  Photo by Ron Scherl

Yesterday in San Francisco, for a good part of this one hour free show at Yerba Buenna Gardens, they were looking more professional than amateur.  As usual,  the company's crack five piece band, lead by composer Rob Reich,  plays a starring role.  And STAR, they do.

Show is performed in a little ring, in front of a colorful back door.  Spectators make do, sans chairs, sitting on the hard grass.  A good sized crowd responded gratefully, and very few left early. 

Opening ensemble romp is as charming as a delicate confection.   Directors Abigail Munn, David Hunt and Sara Moore prove that you don’t need top acts to create a lively splash.

First act on the bill, foot juggling and risely by the Gentile Family — a woman works with three very young daughters, all of them hip to charming the crowd — sends the show into high gear.

David Hunt, working his customary slack rope routine, cast a more showmanly air this time around.

Hunt’s co-founding partner, Munn, was in top form executing a series of artfully polished classical posturing, twists and turns and drops on a single trapeze, all of which, in the key of aerial ballet, holds the eye and earns quiet respect.  If only she could set herself into swinging arcs –  she’d have so much more to offer.

Blue Suits, five or six guys having a ball sliding back and forth across a table, sometimes in and through and around each other, manage to compose an amusing array of comedic situations. 

Keep in mind, all of this action is being cleverly and joyfully scored by five agile musicians, each of whom seem to gleefully dance around the goings on. The original scoring is relevant and rich, full of contrast and whimsy, nothing less than a force unto itself.  Fans who bemoan the dearth of live music under our truncated tents will find this alone a satisfaction to savor.

Circus Bella is weak on programming showmanship.  Prop changes and transitions are rough and sloppy and time-consuming, possibly the reason the clowns, sometimes funny enough (one of them reminds me a little of Mr. Sniff), sometimes silly, spend a little too much time hanging out between the acts. 

Okay, to this point, I was thinking Big Advance for the Oakland-based troupe.  They had me in the palm of their hands, to a decent degree, yes.  But ...  then came two strained acts  that failed to   sustain what so far had engaged the kid-heavy crowd: The weirdly obtuse antics of DeMarcwellos Funes “Hambone Body Percussion,” a turn that failed to go anywhere,  and the Chinese Pole maneuvering of Ross Travis, whose overly labored workout amounts to a work in progress not yet ready for prime time.

At least, to compensate between these two dragging moments, Natasha Kaluza, working hoops, not like some humdrum house hoop act  but like a gifted juggler of invention and poise, easily won the crowd’s most rousing reception.  

Show lacks pacing. Worst of all, it takes the company far too long  to set up and test the Chinese Pole.  And once the act is over, rather than just leave it standing and segue smoothly into the group juggling finale,  more dead time is taken up in getting the thing back down onto the ground. 

Given the company's free-show status and ties to the public school community, it would be unfair to to issue a star rating, even though, for a good half, they were looking like a circus that might one day go pro. But that is not in their DNA.  They do a string of leisurely spread out dates during the summer in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They rely on funding in various forms. No tickets sales, which makes me wonder if this is the first “free circus” I have ever seen. Probably.

In 2009, when I saw the show in its second season, I had hoped they would move in a more quasi professional direction, like the old Pickle Family Circus, but that does not appear to be in the cards.

One day, when Circus Bella’s day has passed, looking back, those who correctly remember, will write about that the troupe's terrific little band.


Allegra's Mom said...

2624David, I'm writing the review for circus Bella for spectacle. But before I did I thought I'd return from the grave and make a few comments to you first. Your putting things into categories of "professional" and "recreational" I find artificial and inaccurate. David Hunt, the Gentile family have been with circus Zoppe. Abby has worked professionally often over the years. She was first in my circus class as a kid years back. Ross Travis pole/physical comedian has a tour through Canada of his one-man show later in the summer. the apprentice in the DeMarcelo was doing an African folk skills communication movement piece called "hambone." This was a means of communication among slaves. Hambone is very popular among the African-American Bay Area population. It isn't easy either to achieve the speed. And now also there is the socioeconomic aspects of the performance. You might be asking yourself "why don't they just open a for-profit enterprise like Ringling did?" Because they were young and wanted to do something now – something the Bay Area which is being taken over by neocons – can afford. Something the children can see for free like make a circus was free. The reality is everyone is scrambling to survive. They did not have the luxury of tons of rehearsal. The show was rough in spots. Of course the pauses need to be taken out and they will be. You are entitled to your opinion. But reducing it to "the band was nice" is grossly unfair in my opinion. The musicians love the show and playing for it. Everyone has passion to put on a circus. The director Sara Moore is a pro, X Ringling clown, Atlantic City clown, one woman clown shows veteran. Everyone is serious – absolutely serious and for real. And I'd like to know where else clowns can be nurtured nowadays? There is a place for circus Bella and shows like it. Choosing to perform in the bright sunlight where every imperfection is magnified takes guts. the kids loved the Prescott stilt dancers and physical proximity of the performers who I found unpretentious unlike Cirque du Soleil and ingenuous. They were the real deal. It doesn't get realer than this. Quibbling about messing up a pole to me misses the point.

Showbiz David said...

Thanks for posting. Judy. I would encourage you to re-read my review. Contrary to your curiously unfounded assertion that my “reducing it [the show] to ‘the band was nice' is grossly unfair,” you overlook the good marks I give to The Gentile Family. To Munn and to Kaluza. Not to mention favorable nods to some of the clowning. And I hardly said the band was merely “nice”. I gave them glowing attention, no? In this one category, music, I wold rank Bella higher than the old Pickle Family Circus.

So who is unfair here?

A review is only one person’s opinion, and I stand by mine.