Circus dreams in the digital age

Michael Shufro, Staff Writer

Whoever you are, digital culture in some way shapes the world you’re in and how you see it. When cell phones, television and computers filter every human thing imaginable, how much we experience untouched by technology becomes a complicated question.

Do we all see the human imagination, the wellspring of our science and art, through the lens of a machine? The thought was unsettling. So when the most imaginative place I could think of arrived in town, I leapt over my laptop to investigate, and ran away—if only for one night—to join the circus.

Circus-goers found their place amid a ring of chairs circling the main stage of Santa Rosa’s Arlene Francis Theater. Vespertine Dreams, a one-time performance by the Oakland-based Vespertine Circus and Orchestra, drew the intimate crowd under its spell.

The circus troupe’s off-stage ringleader, Vespertine enchantress Bunny Zlotnik, twirled along a stream of purple tissue, a rainbow colored cap adorning her head, onto the stage. Clowns juggled rubber balls and pins, their faces painted bright red and white, as aerial artists climbed a Spanish web tied to a ceiling beam high above, then hung suspended and upside-down like strange, colorful spiders.

“While it’s not dying, the circus is taking a new form,” Zlotnik said. “Globalized media brands everything—Kleenex can be done to the arts. Circus arts are such an old part of culture just designed to make people have fun. I really appreciate things that make us believe in magic, things of otherness, very romantic ideas, stories that are incredibly old.”

Zlotnik fears big theatre troupes like Circus Ole, made up of actors playing circus performers, are robbing the very stories she cherishes most by normalizing the mystery that makes circus culture unique. Nevertheless, Zlotnik concluded the digital age gets your voice heard, puts you out there and in the end is “much more beneficial than bad.”

Zlotnik, followed by a line of clowns, paraded to a small table during intermission, and handed out toy balloons to a group of wide-eyed kids. When performers returned, a boy propped on his father’s knee watched, mesmerized, as one juggler sporting a wavy mohawk shuffled three cigar boxes between his legs. The timeless glow of enchantment filled the eyes of onlookers. Children and adults unabashedly smiled together as laughter and applause filled the theater until a thread of jollity and communion spun like a ring of light through the audience.

Only two musicians, Sadie Sonntag and Jesus Contreras, comprised the Vespertine Orchestra and played a broad selection of fun circus tunes and haunted melodies throughout the evening. The duo cloaked themselves in black from head to toe, except for a gold carnival mask covering Sonntag’s eyes.

“The idea is really about portability—how can you fit a whole orchestra in a suitcase?” said Contreras, who teaches music composition at Sonoma State University.

Vespertine brainstorms different performance scenarios, like power outages, to keep the show unique and alive. “The human element is what we look for in art,” Contreras said. “They’d rather hear me play a kazoo than a looped beat.”

Sonntag questions whether relying on computers to produce music isn’t missing the point. “If you strip away everything, are you still an artist?” Sontag said. “We watch a lot on Youtube, how people do what they do, and we can get disconnected. Everyone has a little bit of a circus performer inside them, and there is something to be said about not being on a television screen,” adding, if anything, “circus brings people together.”

However, Contreras believes that technology has decentralized outlets for reaching people, agreeing with Zlotnik that the digital world connects artists like himself more immediately to his audience.

Between acts, Ringmaster Vincent Bardo prowled the stage, the tail of his ruby red sequined coat flashing under the stage light. At one point Bardo, a kind of villainous circus man with a raspy voice and star-studded suspenders, pulled a young woman from the audience, knelt below her offering up a hammer and raising a long nail to his nose. The woman taunted Bardo, thinking it must be a joke, but after a little persuasion she tapped the nail lightly. As the crowd leaned in closer, she started banging the nail harder into Bardo’s grinning face. Other acts of absurdity included knife throwing, contortionism, vaudevillian theatrics and a feast of musical performances.

Musical guest J.D. Limelight sang gypsy Americana, squeezing his accordion as a long bandana wagged from his back pocket like a polka-dotted tail. Other musical guests, Michael and Sherry of Due Zighi Baci, inspired people in their seats to sing and clap along as they performed a romantic, but lively set of French and Spanish music. Live art perfomer Jonqui Albin filled several large canvasses at the back of the stage, painting musicians and scenes throughout the show.

When Vespertine Dreams ended and the house lights turned on, I mingled with strangers and swapped childhood circus stories before heading home. I don’t know if the digital revolution has permanently damaged the arts or circus culture in particular. I’m certainly not suggesting readers should flee their machines and join a commune nestled in the woods, but when we are more in touch with our digital lives than our communal ones, a great and beautiful gift is lost.