Be it the transcendent theatrics of Cirque de Soleil or much-ballyhooed, age-old Barnum & Bailey’s, the circus continues to captivate modern audiences. A much-mythologized, old-world performance-art, the circus sweeps into town, bringing with it an illusory spectacle of vixens and daredevils, monstrosities and curiosities—leaving patrons breathless and spellbound.
And, just as mysteriously as it led its caravan into town, the circus packs up and steals away into the dead of night.
This magic of old-school, grassroots circus is alive and well in America—you just have to know where to look for it. In a day-and-age when it’s routine for a visionary to found an Internet start-up, what kind of entrepreneur instead throws herself into something as, well, impractical as the circus?
Circus Bella co-founder Abigail Munn is an aerial acrobat of considerable clout, and she and I first became acquaintances through the colorful Mission District night scene. Friends only from afar, I knew her mostly as the pert and enigmatic strawberry-blond with a professional athlete’s physique and noticeably-muscled arms—testament to her training on the trap.
Abigail grew up in the 80s in the fabled Haight-Ashbury district; her father was a lighting director with the San Francisco Opera, and her mother worked the administrative arm of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. When Abigail was a third-grader, she enrolled in her first trapeze class and, as a ten-year-old, she debuted her precocious talent with the renowned Pickle Family Circus.
She went on to earn a Modern Dance B.F.A. from the University of California, become a certified Pilates instructor, direct a burlesque company, and star in dazzling performance-art shows—-but her passion has always lured her back to the circus.
Earlier this fall, Abigail and I spent an evening together at her home, a backyard cottage whose interior—with its old-world, art-deco posters—bespeaks circus. She prepared a lovely candlelight dinner, serving a sumptuous small-plates meal that included her homemade, French-style pickled vegetables. She served this final dish with a flourish, saying, “Without pickles, people perish,” quoting her Grandfather Patton.
As in the days of yore, Circus Bella arrives on location at dawn and pitches its tent. The performers work feverishly to set up a 32’ ring tarp and ring curb, back drop, sound system, and rigging. By the time the crowds arrive, the band is playing and the smell of popcorn and cotton candy wafts over the grassy lawn.
It’s a one-ring, open-air, classical-style act: its components include live music, clowning, and highly-refined tricks. Unicycling on a 25-foot platform, gravity-defying gymnastics, dangerously-bendy contortion acts, sophisticated slack rope, and lots of synchronized group-juggling.
For Circus Bella, acclaimed West-Coast accordionist Rob Reich scored original compositions, which are performed by a fine-art music ensemble that includes the sounds of clarinet, trombone, saxophone, and trumpet. “Bless Rob,” Abigail laughs, “He’s so supremely talented and works so hard.” She goes on to describe (lovingly) the “gangly, curmudgeonly musicians who know how to stand their ground, ask for their pay, and not stay late.”
High-Flying Abigail’s gift is the static, single-swing trapeze. In her effervescent solo performance, she drops, dips, soars, and leaps. She demonstrates mastery over her medium—-her physical and artistic excellence make her show appear effortless.
Her disarming talent, however, can exact a price. In one of her stunts, she dangles from the bar, supported only by her cocked neck. Over time, this trick has resulted in pain, at times leaving her with little neck mobility. But the show must go on.
Look out for Circus Bella in 2011, with shows in San Francisco and beyond, from wineries and public parks to museums and rock concerts; this year also marks the production of a Circus Bella All-Star CD. On January 22 and 23, High-Flying Abigail takes to the stage at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco with the New Pickle Circus; tickets can be purchased HERE.
*Photo credits include Michael Austin (High-Flying Abigail), David Klein (Abigail Munn), and Leslie Dawson (Abigail & Co-Founder David Hunt). Learn more about Abigail and her circus colleagues by clicking HERE.
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