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.