In front of the blue, red, and gold circus ring looms the iconic North Beach church, a bright white beacon to St. Francis of Assisi, the namesake of the city of San Francisco who, while living the life of a passionate preacher, chose to never be ordained a priest. He made his own way and soon grew a following, not unlike many of the pioneers today both in and out of the circus arts in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We were finishing up the premiere of Circus Bella’s 10th anniversary show RING OUT LOUD! on the street facing this church, and the gathered audience was considerable enough to make the police threaten to shut us down if we didn’t clear a path through the crowd for a wheelchair to pass. Earlier that morning, the fire chief had already made us shuffle the trapeze rig far off center to create the necessary fire lane, and this all served as a reminder that it’s definitely not the easy-going ’70s in San Francisco anymore. Bella isn’t camping in the parks behind the circus ring like the Pickle Family Circus did. Bella isn’t paving the way for a new definition of circus like Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider whose narrative-driven Pickle Family Circus shows veered away from act-to-act extravaganzas. But the people who paved the way in the region are still present in circus culture, from Wendy Parkman who co-founded what now operates as the San Francisco Circus Center, to Bill Irwin who took his slapstick and smooth moves to the big screen, and to second-generation circus artist Gypsy Snider who, having grown up in the Pickles, went on to push circus into theater and co-founded 7 Fingers, a company now synonymous with world-class circus theater productions. No, Circus Bella, or even San Francisco, isn’t any longer the center of counterculture.
Today, San Francisco embodies mainstream culture, but Circus Bella is in its belly, feeding the resurgence of appreciation for circus—seemingly stronger now more than ever. Silicon Valley tech companies book circus acts or training for corporate events and team building workshops, while aerial and pole classes have gotten about as common as spinning and yoga. It’s likely not a coincidence that this pull towards a San Francisco circus tradition is happening at the center of not a counterculture but culture itself, that is, mainstream tech culture and all the rapid change that propels it. With a simple one-ring set up and an intentionally diverse troupe of artists representative of the Bay Area demographic, Bella is the keeper of circus arts for the people and by the people, a natural progression from and a living homage to the community-engaged circus that was the Pickle Family Circus.
Circus Bella’s co-founder and now sole executive director Abigail Munn had her start in the Pickle Family Circus ring. Her parents carted the family to Pickle shows and signed her up in the circus’ youth group. She fell in love with circus from the start. At age nine, she became part of the Pickle Family Circus Kids and started to perform general circus skills like the rolling globe in a pre-show act. Decades later, she infuses Circus Bella’s shows with the same Pickles feel. New Bella audience members ask if the two are related because of the familiarity it offers spectators. After a Bella performance, those lucky enough to have experienced San Francisco in the ‘70s comment with nostalgia about how much a Bella show reminds them of the Pickles. The Big Juggle, among other show elements, is a notable adoption that makes Circus Bella feel like the modern-day daughter of San Francisco’s legendary Pickle Family Circus. This grand finale involves all house troupe jugglers in an acrobatic, intricate club juggling act. Former Pickle Family Circus juggler extraordinaire and artistic director Judy Finelli choreographs and directs a new passing pattern each year for this act, coaching from her wheelchair in a West Oakland warehouse rehearsal space.
Diane Wasnak, who played Pickle clown character Pino, recently came to see Bella perform at a new festival venue in the heart of the city, the Civic Center. It’s not difficult to imagine how Diane’s small frame benefited her acrobatics. “When Lu Yi joined in the 90s and it was Chinese acrobatics, I never thought I would be an acrobat like that at 29, hoop diving and doing pole. He looked me up and down then put me in everything.” I asked her if the show reminded her of the Pickles. “Oh, yeah!” she offered. “Ours was clown-driven first. And the acts changed around a theme.” Bella shows play out in a similar fashion. Joel Baker, third-time Bella show director and a Bay Area-based acrobatic clown, also trained under Master Lu Yi and comes from a Pickle background himself, having launched his career in the New Pickle Circus show CIRCUMSTANCE under the direction of Gypsy Snider and Shana Carroll. Since Joel is influenced by circus theater, he works to create a strong through-line in Bella shows. Last year’s show BAY CITY RHAPSODY, invited to play in The Smithsonian Folklife Festival on Circus Arts, followed a poet-clown upon arrival to Beat-era San Francisco as he encounters its eccentric residents who climb lamp posts (Chinese pole), promenade through the city streets (tumbling), and swing high on city rafters (trapeze).
Each Circus Bella season offers a new show which, if not story-driven like the Pickles, is mostly theme-centric.This year’s theme was music and not being afraid to “ring out” whenever you can, want to, or should—a message that mirrors current times. There was a 4’ x 8’ elastic musical score that in a charivari transforms from a tableau piece with juggling balls as bouncing notes into a boxing ring, swimming lane, and limbo bar. Bella performers are usually clad in bright, colorful, and customary circus costumes, which Abigail considers a distinctive Bella trademark, choosing to veer away from the streetwear or theatrical attire of modern circus.Clown and magician Calvin Ku takes on transitions. Instead of hoop divers and hand balancers, the Bella house troupe includes high-energy, acrobatic hula hooper Natasha Kaluza and hand-balancing contortionist Dwoira Galilea. Like the Pickles, the younger generation jumps into the ring as well. Orlene and Carlo Gentile, a traveling foot juggling duo, have incorporated their four children into their Icarian Games. Flipping off their parents’ feet or balancing atop their shoulders, the Famiglia Gentile children are becoming seasoned acrobats who’ll hopefully lead the next generation of circus in San Francisco. Also similar to the Pickles, Bella acts are accompanied by live music. The Circus Bella six-piece All-Star Band, replete with a full drum kit and a big brass tuba, adds an undeniable force to the show, driving the reach of each performance another layer deeper.“It’s the universal appeal.” explains Abigail, “Circus is for everyone.”Every culture has its circus, and you don’t have to speak any particular language to understand or enjoy the performance. What Abigail loves most about Bella shows is how, “we can just sit next to each other and laugh…lose yourself in the wonder of a trick.”
Circus Bella Summer in the Parks shows are open to everyone. However, present day San Francisco isn’t as free as it was when the Pickles were performing. Making a living looks very different now and surviving here will cost you. As Abigail sees it, “The Pickles would show up to rehearsal with time, not having to rush off to something else in order to scrape together a living, scrambling to survive here.” Dwoira Galilea knows well the ins and outs of being a circus artist for hire in San Francisco today. Dwoira admits, “It’s very expensive to live here, but it’s a great city to flourish in gig life and local shows. I gig a lot. It’s a big hustle for sure!” When not in a pretzel in a Bella show, she might be on a trapeze at a city gala, doing a regular weekend aerial act at a dance club, or part of a corporate event—all of which goes toward paying her share of the high rent she divides with three housemates in a one-bathroom apartment in the city. It’s not too different for Oakland-based freelance artist Calvin Ku, who explains, “I’ve found that working for multiple companies is how I’ve been able to make a decent living. Early on, I was very lucky to be able to live in the house I grew up in until I was able to have enough of a sustainable income flow before moving out. Though, it took a lot longer than I thought because of the rising costs of living. My current livelihood of working gig to gig relies heavily on a diverse group of companies in entertainment, circus, corporate engagement, and word of mouth from other artists. Nevertheless, hard work, staying consistent with my craft, and maintaining a tight network of colleagues has made it possible to thrive as a circus artist and magician in the Bay Area.” Just the fact that Circus Bella just wrapped up its 10th year of shows, having survived significant shifts in the Bay Area economy, is worthy of celebration.
After this anniversary season, Bella is looking to expand its reach by making shows available beyond summertime. Althoughattending a Bella show has become an annual summer outing for a growing base of fans, families, and newcomers each year, a resident big top show in San Francisco. During the winter months would be a welcome addition to Bay Area entertainment. Circus Bella recognizes that we all live in a time when one hour of enjoyment and laughter that brings people together can’t be taken for granted.
All photos provided courtesy of Circus Bella