Beyond the Big Top 

The East Bay is home to a thriving circus arts scene that provides exercise, community-building, and a unique form of creative expression.


On 7th Street in West Oakland, just across from Interstate 880, the yellow and green Kinetic Arts Center building stands out from its spartan surroundings. Inside, eight- and nine-year-old boys and girls are practicing the basics of parkour, a sport that involves moving efficiently around obstacles, often in an urban environment. The students scramble across the top of a giant padded cube, the mats on the floor below presenting a more forgiving learning environment than brick and asphalt.   

In the aerial portion of the studio, two ten-year-old girls dangle from ropes suspended from the rafters overhead, their legs twined, hands extended, spinning gracefully as an instructor below offers guidance. Just behind them, a woman grips a trapeze and hoists herself up.  

Within the 5,000-square-foot facility, the business at hand is top-flight instruction in circus arts — and business is good. Kinetic Arts Center offered forty classes a week when it opened its doors in 2009. Just three years later, this figure has nearly doubled to seventy classes a week. The children's troupe, once numbering 9 students, has grown to 29.  

As impressive as its growth is, Kinetic Arts Center is just one slice of a thriving East Bay circus arts scene. The Athletic Playground in Emeryville offers instruction in "monkey conditioning," an exercise that involves "cultivating adaptable strength for everyday life"; acro-yoga, a kind of yoga/acrobatics hybrid; parkour; aerial arts; acrobatics; partner flips; flexibility; and acrobalance, which involves lifting a partner and doing acrobatic moves using one's hands and arms. On 9th Street in Oakland, Trapeze Arts offers world-class instruction on the flying trapeze. The renowned Pi: The Physical Comedy Troupe now calls the East Bay home. And just down the street from the Fruitvale BART Station, fire-spinners and contact jugglers have made the Vulcan Lofts the center of the nation's nascent "flow arts" scene.    

San Francisco has long been the epicenter for circus arts in the United States, due in large part to the lasting influence of circus institutions like the Pickle Family Circus and Teatro ZinZanni. But in the last four years, the East Bay has emerged as the new mecca for circus, drawing world-class talent and attracting cadres of neophytes.

Thanks to affordable rental prices, the Burning Man community, and the availability of industrial warehouses that can accommodate trapezes, the East Bay appears to be the perfect setting for this movement — which is helping to redefine what the circus is and who can participate in it. No longer relegated to eccentrics or those with long lineages in the Big Top, the circus arts now include kids, busy professionals, artists, and anyone else interested in this creative form of exercise, self-expression, and theater.

For circus professionals, the East Bay scene offers a place to hone their skills. For everyone else, the classes and training centers represent an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a fitness trend on the precipice of exploding. Circus classes provide great exercise, a sense of community, and a bit of whimsy to boot — sort of like yoga, but replacing a sweaty mat for a trapeze suspended twenty feet in the air.  

Circus has long been perceived as a spectator activity for the average citizen. When the circus came to town, families filed into their seats, enjoyed a bit of juggling and clowning, and then went home. Circus wasn't something everyday people did. It was an insular, even strange, world. Acrobats came from family lines of acrobats, probably from somewhere halfway around the world.

Over the years, circus became a bit of a dirty word, especially in the progressive-minded Bay Area. The omnipresence of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus model translated to an association with tortured elephants and cheap magic tricks.  

But that all changed in the Seventies. Members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Pickle Family Jugglers came together to establish the Pickle Family Circus in 1974, performing their first show at the John O'Connell School in San Francisco in 1975. Group members made decisions collectively, received equal pay, and, in the beginning, held day jobs. The Pickle Family Circus represented a drastic departure from what most Americans had come to expect at the circus: no elephants (or any animals for that matter), only one ring, an emphasis on creative acrobatics and aerial work, and a spotlight on the work of three world-class clowns — Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, and Larry Pisoni.  

"The circus used to be trick, smile, next trick," said Jaron Hollander, artistic director of the Kinetic Arts Center. "New circus is something that is theatricalized, non-animal .... The performance work is character-oriented, it incorporates a lot of expression, and brings in a lot more theater elements. There ends up being more of a narrative in the event."  

In the late Seventies, the Pickle Family Circus started touring the country, focusing primarily on Northern California and Oregon. Eventually, the destinations broadened to include international cities like London. Co-founder Pisoni urged audience members to spread the word with his famous advice: "Go call everyone you know, and then call everyone you don't know."

Audience members came to love the company's innovative clown work, the "Mr. Sniffles" character created by Hoyle, the acrobatics, and the stories told without words. A giant white balloon might emerge at various points throughout the show, only to be popped at the end, showering the audience in confetti. At every finale, the "Big Juggle" was a massive display of juggling that involved nearly every member of the troupe.     

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