STAGE It’s not every day that I have a circus all to myself. And it’s making me exceedingly nervous. Mark Wessels, one of Circus Bella’s veteran clowns, is being installed by his coworkers on a unicycle whose dizzying height — which already recalls that of a vintage penny-farthing — is further exacerbated by its position on a five-foot platform. “I’ll be fine if I fall,” Wessels says. “I’ll try not to fall.”
It’s the professional-grade Circus Bella’s first full rehearsal of the year, one month before its July 3 performance in Yerba Buena Gardens, and I’m the lucky audience of one to its beautiful madness. Between superhuman feats, the affable Bellas come up to introduce themselves. Contortionist Ariana Ferber Carter rearranges her vertebrae in a lung-constricting backbend at my feet. “I can’t keep my back warm all the time,” the 18-year-old cheerfully deadpans after telling me she “only” stretches three hours a day, max.
“We try to run a tight ship here, but have fun. We use the word ‘delight’ a lot,” Abigail Munn tells me during a break. She’s the fetching aerialist and costume designer who cofounded the troupe in 2008 with slack-wire walker David Hunt. The two had noticed a dearth of traditional circus in the Bay Area. Everyone was all into the “Montreal thing,” as Hunt puts it — Cirque du Soleil-type concept theatrics. He recalls the moment when we said “What the hell is wrong with the ring?”
As veterans of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Zoppé Family Circus, and New Pickle Family Circus, Munn and Hunt wanted to take the circus experience back to the days when women wore sequins and the juggling was done by people with big red noses — not faceless cerulean orbs. Bella performers each develop their own acts separately, taking a page from classic troupes. Band director Rob Reich composes original scores after viewing the performers practice. The whole show takes place in a single ring, demarcated by a big blue ground covering splashed with gold stars. Best of all, Bella keeps prices accessible; indeed, most shows are free.
But running a circus, unsurprisingly, is somewhat of a balancing act. The cost of costumes, three new troupe members, the full band … on closer inspection it seems as if Circus Bella’s most awe-inspiring feat is its very existence. Munn acknowledges that retaining the troupe can be challenging, but that the circus game is the same one all struggling artists play. “We try to maintain a medium level of starving,” she tells me, only half joking. The group is accepting charitable donations as we speak, and about half the troupe’s nine in-ring members have day jobs teaching kids’ classes at places like the Circus Center near Kezar Stadium or have their own solo act side hustles.
After meeting the gang, I realize that I caught the Bella show last fall at the Yerba Buena Gardens by happenstance one cloudy day, not long after I moved back to the city. I like to think it was a uniquely San Francisco moment — to be walking through downtown’s concrete megaliths and suddenly run across a trapeze aerialist. Munn flipped high above my head in a sparkling blue unitard. The clowns alternated physical comedy that tickled the little ones in the audience with balancing tricks of the oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit persuasion. I don’t know, maybe that happenstance magic arise elsewhere in the world. Vegas, maybe. Still …
CIRCUS BELLA AT THE YERBA BUENA GARDENS FESTIVAL
Sat/3 12, 2:15 p.m., free
Yerba Buena Gardens
Mission between Third and Fourth streets, SF