Taking down the big top

There won’t be three rings, but there’ll be fun—and a message: Gale Hart and hundreds of international artists will confront animal abuse at Sacramento’s second annual anti-circus Circus Show

Local artist and <i>Circus Show</i> brainchild Gale Hart.

Local artist and Circus Show brainchild Gale Hart.

Photo By dominick porras

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: Welcome to the greatest show on Earth.

You’ll see feats of strength. Daring acrobatics. Clowns exploding out of canons. Trapeze artists flying through the air.

See elephants whipped. Performing seals in cages. Lions jumping through fire—surely a challenge for the king of the jungle.

Anyway, it’s perfect for children of all ages. It’s the greatest show on Earth, right?

Not according to Sacramento artist Gale Hart.

For the second year in a row, Hart, with the help of artists and entertainers from all over the world, has put together Circus Show & Other Atrocities, which will take place this Saturday in Midtown. This time, however, the event goes off at the same time as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’ visit to Arco Arena.

You might say it’s the greatest showdown on Earth. Or at least this weekend in Sacramento.

In one corner, there’s Hart: an avid animal-rights advocate, who started the Circus Show show last year as a way to both speak up for animals and also have artists explore the union of happy-go-lucky circus atmospherics and animal cruelty. “I’ve been interested in the way we treat animals my entire adult life, and the way they’re treated [in the circus] is not debatable,” argues Hart, who obviously feels that the circus shouldn’t exploit animals for entertainment. “You can debate eating animals and animal testing, but to trap animals, hold them in captivity and make them ride in a train car, and then force them to perform 200 days out of the year is downright cruel.”

So when the circus takes over Arco Arena this week, Hart and others will protest with a macabre but kid-friendly and exciting circus of their own. “We have the carnival aspect most people are drawn to, but with the juxtaposition of the dark side of the circus with a carnival-like atmosphere,” Hart explains. And after six months of preparation and work, this year’s show is set to be bigger and better than ever before.

But make no mistake: Circus Show will be a far cry from the circus most people remember.

Even though my first visit to the circus was years ago, I still recall being in the middle of an enormous crowd at Arco—shifting to the edge of the seat, sitting up straight to get a closer view of the performers. Each act was washed in bright-yellow stage lights, which seemed to come from nowhere, or the Arena house lights would dim and almost-unearthly tones of green, blue, yellow and red would take over.

It was exciting, spectacles that were so unreal you couldn’t look away. But most of all, it was a chance to watch exotic animals from places I thought I’d never visit. Each time the animals were paraded in front of the crowd, the sound of people applauding, cheering and gasping in unison would fill Arco.

“10 Cents a Dance” by Jenny Bird.

Of course, there were the muttered screams and shallow sobs of a few children, which occasionally would penetrate the silence after a rousing ovation. Kids like my sister, who was busy clenching her ears with every explosion and hiding in her seat, clinging to my mom whenever someone from the show walked nearby. I can still hear her gasping and covering her eyes when they brought out the elephants, like it was something we shouldn’t be seeing.

My sister and Hart share a common sentiment.

And they’re not alone. Hart’s Circus Show circus is the work of more than 100 international and local artists, entertainers and musicians, who after the success of last year’s inaugural event have decided to take the fun to the next level this time around. The exhibit depicts anything from a mutilated girl juggling cow-filled hamburgers to children feasting on ice cream while others starve. It’s a dark show, but safe for all ages.

Each artist was asked to bring a 9-by-12 painting that communicates the plight of an abused animal; others will show pre-existing pieces that provide the “right flavor” for the event. During the show, artwork will be hung side by side on a traveling cart, which Hart says will be the largest artist-made “circus-train” installation in the world.

But the event is more than just an international exhibit of vibrant but disturbing art; it’s literally a counterculture circus.

There’ll be a real-live freak show. For a small cost, circusgoers can pay to see a half-boy, half-elephant, who looks so real you’d think “it” was captured, beaten and put on display—almost like the real circus. Women can join in the freakish fun themselves by entering in a tattooed-lady contest.

For those young at heart, there also will be custom-built rides and games. If you’re lucky, you might even win a few prizes. What’s more fun than throwing fish into cups and winning a Ping-Pong ball prize? Exactly.

But it wouldn’t be a circus without a few laughs. And there’ll be plenty of them to go around when Dan Piraro, creator of Bizarro comics, headlines a gruesome comedy routine. Acts like Izzy Schwartz’s three-ring circus features a one of a kind Hall of Shame, filled with videos of mistreated and abused animals. Outside at the gallery, fire breathers, belly dancers, jugglers and other performers will wow passersby. And don’t miss Whymcycle, a kinetic bike sculpture, or the Pink Toupee Collective and many other acts.

And then there’s the crème de la crème of Circus Show festivities: a full-fledged Midtown freak parade, headed by Twisted Ringmaster Roberts.

This mural by Gale Hart and Jared Tharp (with details by Bruce Gossett) will be on display at University Art in Midtown through September.

“It should be wild, though it’s going to be fun, having to do with animal rights and humans and silliness, drama, explosiveness and some sexy stuff,” assures Sacramento performance artist extraordinaire Steve Vanoni, who, along with members of Gallery Horse Cow, will make a showing at the circus. And he promises the kids will enjoy the festivities, too. “It should be fun and silly, but a family-oriented circus, right? It’s an edge we can play with,” he says, reminding everyone, “Don’t forget the kids.”

Last year, the Horse Cow crew delighted audiences with a pulse jet that shot stuffed animals at people. Audience members took turns hitting them like baseballs. This year, too, Vanoni will be joined by members of Estonian performance group Non Grata. What specifically is Vanoni planning for this year? He won’t tell—his usual secretive self.

“It’s a great cause. Gale has always been an animal-rights activist, all that stuff that she does, working with people. It’s great,” he says.

The circus won’t be under a tent, but instead at A Bitchin’ Space, a cool indoor-outdoor gallery on the south end of Midtown. The circus-train installation will be on display at Verge Gallery, a 10,000-square-foot art cooperative, which is the brainchild of Jesse Powell. “It’s bringing that energy to the scene, bringing outsiders to the area and setting up a unique stage for artists,” Hart says of his venue. “It’s a real ambitious project, and a real important player for the Sacramento arts scene.”

But don’t forget the “& Other Atrocities” part of the evening. There’s a dark side to the circus, and the event ultimately is geared toward creating awareness of animal abuse and injustice.

“As long as animals are made to perform and are abused, I have a job to do,” Hart says. “I’m hoping that if people buy a ticket to this show, they won’t buy a ticket for Ringling Bros.”