California Carnival Spirit

$teven Ra$pa at the Spectra Ball © Neil Girling

Once in a while some old friend on the east coast rings me up: “hey, where the hell are ya? You just up and vanished!”

I always get this big, stupid grin on my face. “Yeah, sorry, ran away with the circus.”

It’s true. This golden state has become an epicenter for fringe carnival/vaudeville/cabaret activity in recent years and thanks to a strange series of coincidences and acquaintanceships, I’ve found myself in the thick of it: surrounded nightly by aerialists and clowns, can can girls and contortionists, feral marching bands, burlesque beauties, belly dancers, magicians, inspired costumiers, sword-swallowers, snake veggie oil salesmen, gonzo musicians, stilt-walkers, fire-breathers, and well, the list goes on about as far as the Pacific ocean.

Aaron at Lucid Dream Lounge © Neil Girling

With Crash Worship warehouse roots in San Diego, an enclave of trendsetting troupes in LA, and benefiting from its colorful Bay Area yippie heritage, just about anything goes in this subterranean Cali carny set. Constantly touring, seat-of-the-pants caravans push themselves to the limits of physical and financial endurance, venturing into the fiery realms of SRL, the Crucible, Black Rock City and beyond. War wounds abound. This ain’t no Circe du Soleil. There is no safety net.

Tiffany of Vau de Vire Society at Download Festival © Neil Girling

Lucent performer at Labyrinth Masquerade Ball © Neil Girling

Shrine at Lightning In A Bottle © Neil Girling

Circus time is not like real time: it bends and blurs. The antics of these feisty vaudevillians are surprisingly difficult to capture on film as they occur. Gorgeous posed studio shots abound, but cannot convey the mania of it all. Enter Neil Girling (aka Mr Nightshade), who took all of the pictures you’re seeing here. He’s a very busy young man doing a bang-up job of capturing the dark, joyful beauty of California circus life with his impromptu portraits of performers from all over the state.

Tuesday Blue at Bohemian Carnival © Neil Girling

Matt at Dreamtime Circus © Neil Girling

“Bringing you the past one split second at a time,” Neil’s impassioned portraits are about as close to the real experience as you’ll get without being there.

Ash at Lightning In a Bottle © Neil Girling

And I do very, very highly recommend you be there, if you should ever get the chance! They’ll be glad to see you.

Christine on the trapeze © Neil Girling

Most of the acts I’ve mentioned tour the U.S. extensively. Many make it out to England and France from time to time. A few of them have been as far abroad as Bali or Australia. Bookmark their websites and keep yer eyes peeled…you never know when the secret circus is coming to town.

Aaron at Insomania © Neil Girling

Oop! Almost forgot to mention… if you’re looking for some friendly faces in the bay area this coming New Year’s Eve, I’ll be performing at the Sea of Dreams bash with the fiercely talented Vau de Vire Society and Dr Madd Vibe Orchestra (fronted by the inimitable Angelo Moore). Expect plenty of ridiculously hot, half naked people swinging from the ceiling and fellating fire and whatnot.

(Yep. Life is good.)

tiptoe parasol twirl at Xenodrome’s Bohemian Carnival © Neil Girling

Addendum: this post would be vastly incomplete without giving props to the world-famous Pixie, my other favorite circus family portraitist. Girl, wherever you are, a tip o’ the topper to you.

15 Responses to “California Carnival Spirit”

  1. Ben Morris Says:

    I love that Idiot Flesh video (and am still attempting to locate a reasonably priced cd of Fancy).

    Another great California-based troupe of entertainers is the Flying Karamazov Brothers: jugglers, comedians, and sometimes musicians. Here is their version of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors (Part 1 Part 2), which features much more juggling than I believe exists in other renditions of the play, heh. I also love this clip of them on Mr Rogers especially the part where they are playing Bach on the marimba while juggling the marimba mallets. They aren’t as outre as many of the things in this post but are very entertaining.

  2. Lauren Says:

    MEREDITH STOP TEASING ME! As if I don’t want to join you as it is!!!

    I seriously think I already had those pics faved. I found his photos a while ago while searching for circus pics on Flickr. Oh flickr, I love you so.

    Meredith, when I come to the west coast take me to these shows, pretty please?

    And about Pixie. She is the coolest photographer/faerie ever! I started speaking to her in March and it turns out she went to my high school, was in the video program I was in, and knows all my teachers. Plus, she went to my dream school- SVA. I got to assist her in Philly in October and it was the best experience I could’ve asked for. I learned SOOOOO much from her. She’s also the sweetest thing ever. I still talk to her all the time. She’s amazing!

  3. gooby Says:

    Oh to go back to the naiveté of my first Crash Worship show down in San Diego. The fire and the explosions, and the relentless saturation of unknown percussive elements. You would fall backwards in some gringo voodoo trance into a sea of bodies all uncounciously keeping you from ever feeling the weight of the world’s gravity.

    It was the explosive passion and beauty that I always wanted to get out of the goth scene, but was left with too many late night requests to go and see someones Keroppi collection instead.

    So, in high school, ALSO inspired by the Flying Karamazov Bros., we started the Encinitas Street Performers guild, which lasted one predictably unorganized year. But I DID get some good hobo suits out of it? And I DID learn to juggle? So that was cool?

    Now.. Too many Burning Mans later, I am left jaded.

    Responding like a bad drunk, “No Circus dude, I don’t want your crabs! I am not poly, and I don’t wanna make out with you! Yes, I am impressed with you spinning fire things, they go in circles and that is awesome…”

    But then seeing some of the professionalism and creativity coming out of peeps like the Vau de Vire Society etc, well.. as soon as they do some crazy flip in the air I find myself feeling like I have wasted my life. I can ride a bike without training wheels? But people don’t seem to be impressed with that.

    Hats off to the circus peeps who never grew uptight or scared or jaded and brought the tears back into my eyes that there can still be something so beautiful and magical in this world.

  4. DJ Velveteen Says:

    This is exactly the post I needed. I’m going to California this summer by thumb, carrying little more than clothes, a barebones DJ setup (have turntables, will travel), and my contact juggling gear. The hope: to discover exactly what’s going on with aforementioned posse of programmers, belly dancers, fire dancers, and other fringe-art superkooks.

    My town is just not weird enough, and the sunbursts of beauty and inspiration are just too few and far between… thanks for the extra dose of morale this afternoon!

  5. Mer Says:

    Dawww! DJ V and Lauren, you gotta get your butts out here!

    Pixie’s absolutely amazing (and seriously world-famous in certain circles). Mr Nightshade is somewhat newer on the scene. Like you, Lauren, he has a more developed eye/style than many photographers twice his age. All three of you are hugely inspiring to a dabbler in photography like me. :)

    Gooby, you know I share your frustration with fire hobbyists and scabby jugglers. It’s easy to become jaded in the face of five thousand poi spinners, but I prefer not to. I’ll take self-aware clowns over the ones who tend to frequent nights like MisShapes any freakin’ day of the week. And yes, being swept up by real professionals who push themselves as hard as VDVS or the Shade Tree folks is another beast entirely.

  6. Tequila Says:

    I’ve seen some lackluster variations of this so it’s nice to be exposed to something with more bite. Wasn’t really aware about much of this since to me the Circus is dead or replaced by the now overly commercialized “Cirque” people. This seems far more fun and inventive…I’ll keep an eye out.

  7. Vivacious G Says:

    My eyes just had a lot of fun looking at these. And I know just what you mean, having lived here in lala land a bit more than a year myself and also hailing from the “right side” of the states.

  8. Lauren Says:

    Mer! This post is magical! Today I found out my parents might go on vacation in January to Vegas and when they do they could avoid taking care of me by shipping me to Oakland- in other words, I’d be there most likely on the 27th, when VDVS is performing in San Fran with Vermillion Lies and other cool acts. Magic I tell ya!

  9. joshua Says:

    You are all a bunch of weirdos.


  10. gooby Says:

    Joshua? Are you quoting Sam the Eagle? You know the problems HE’S had with circus people!

  11. Tanya Says:

    Mer, good post & cool about Sea of Dreams! A friend of mine, who goes by “Lulu” is in Tit4Tat and they’re performing right after the midnight countdown. I’m going to be there with you all in spirit, as this NYE I’m hiding out at a tiny house in Alameda with lizards & champagne & smooches.

  12. joshua Says:

    Gooby, you know it. Sam has serious ass circus people problems…


  13. Mer Says:

    Folks if you’re like me your legs are all SCARRED UP AND ITCHY WITH CIRCUS PEOPLE BITES. OOOOH, IT’S ITCHY. OOHH.

  14. Nadya Says:

    “push themselves to the limits of physical and financial endurance”

    OH MY GOD that was funny!

    The images are great, both Pixie and Girling capture the motion and excitement of it really well. I also like how 2 people in this post are wearing ruffs! You know how I feel about that! What is Aaron’s act? He looks like he could be the emcee.

    Gooby, your response to this post: Made me laff. :)

  15. jake Says:

    Does anyone know of any performances that will be taking place between January 9th and 16th around Los Angeles

    I would love to catch a performance while I’m in California.