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Arts & Entertainment

Behind the scenes at the circus rising in downtown San Francisco for the first time

A person on their hands and legs in the air on top of a table inside a red tent.
Elise Hing, 20, who performs a contortion act at Circus Bella, practices on a table in San Francisco. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

During the holidays, many families bicker, barter gifts or bake brownies. But this winter in Downtown San Francisco, a chosen family of a dozen performers is attempting to create a new Bay Area holiday tradition complete with intricate juggling, slapstick clowning and feats of strength. 

Under a big-top tent erected next to the soccer field at the Crossing at East Cut, San Francisco-based Circus Bella was furiously rehearsing for its upcoming "Kaleidoscope" show, a series of 31 performances scheduled between Dec. 15 and 31. 

That run of performances includes some special New Year’s Eve shows, complete with complimentary party hats and streamers.

The 90-minute show aims to showcase various circus arts for an all-ages audience of around 350, with music provided by a six-piece live band.

A composite image of people  practicing aerobatics inside a red circus tent.
Calvin Kai Ku, who performs a clown act, climbs on top of Ori Quesada, left, and Elise Hing, Ori Quesada, and Toni Cannon practice an act, right. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“There’s just a sense that, even in the darkness of the winter, there’s a lot of magic around,” said Abigail Munn, the show’s director—and ringmaster—in a tiny office on Market Street surrounded by circus memorabilia. “It is kind of just kismet that it also ends up being part of the central notion of the city reimagining Downtown as a place for arts.”

"Kaleidoscope"—a long time coming for the homegrown circus troupe known for its summer series of free park shows—is part of a general trend of injecting more arts and culture into Downtown neighborhoods as a pathway to post-pandemic revitalization. 

“As an artist, I feel like I am always showcased and heard,” said Veronica Blair, a member of Circus Bella performing an aerial straps act. “Everyone in the cast has a moment to shine.” 

A person smiles inside a tent during circus practice.
Veronica Blair, who performs the aerial straps act, runs off stage after practicing her bow. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Munn, a San Francisco native, grew up taking circus classes with dreams of being a trapeze artist. Fast-forward through years of training, a degree in dance and broken wrists, she finally had her opportunity to run off and join a touring circus. 

With David Hunt, one of her fellow performers, Munn co-founded Circus Bella in 2008, with the idea of reviving the tradition of community-based Bay Area circus that astonished and inspired her as a child. 

“Most of us have been working together for many, many years—up to 10 plus,” Circus Bella performer Dwoira Galilea said. “There’s definitely a family rapport. We bake for each other. Everybody is supportive and loving.”

A group of people gather around someone doing a handstand while others juggle.
Elise Hing, center, does a handstand during circus practice. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Fifteen years and dozens of shows later, Munn is retired from her high-flying act, but has been taking voice lessons for a song she’s performing as part of "Kaleidoscope." The show itself is a redux of a series of performances held by Circus Bella on Treasure Island back in 2018.

As live performances took a hiatus during the pandemic, Munn used the opportunity to refocus her plans for the group and to lobby state officials to reclassify circus performers under the same umbrella as theater workers, which lowered the workers’ compensation costs for troupes like Circus Bella. 

When the world opened up, however, she revived her plans to get "Kaleidoscope" in front of a new audience. 

A red and white tent with Circus spelled a t the top at East Cut.
The Circus Bella tent is erected at the Crossing at the East Cut on Folsom Street. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

After the East Cut Community Benefit District informed her that she would have a venue for "Kaleidoscope," Munn pounded the pavement and worked the phones to raise the $140,000 needed to erect her tent and pay her performers. She’s been helped by some generous patrons and some local companies that have bought out the tent for special performances. 

“I sometimes feel like I’m pushing this huge boulder to try to get things going and hitting my head against things,” Munn said. “Then, suddenly, you feel like there’s actually momentum, and it could happen.” 

One tradition in the circus is taking a bit of sawdust from the last show and sprinkling a bit during the first show in a venue. Munn hopes that "Kaleidoscope" can sprinkle a little bit of wintertime magic in a city still on the road to recovery. 

“What the show is about,” Munn said, “is finding moments when we all come together and create something beautiful.” 

Circus Bella Presents: Kaleidoscope

📍 The Crossing at East Cut, 200 Folsom St., SF
🗓️ Dec. 15-31
🔗 circusbella.com

Kevin Truong can be reached at kevin@sfstandard.com