It is the July First Friday Art Walk. By 5 p.m., parking spaces from Cherry to Butler avenues are jammed. The crowd is a mix of locals, Valley visitors and somewhat stunned passing-through tourists surprised to find throngs of people migrating along the sidewalks.
Under a pre-monsoon, cloud-scattered sky the gathering of people in Heritage Square grows and waits for the start of Circus Bacchus, a 20-plus-member alternative performing arts troupe with a band that has evolved into a collective of great Flagstaff entertainers.
Before the Bacchus, Hopi dancers perform to the steady rhythm of the drum and rattles and pull even more people into the square and its fringes. The circus members—adorned in black, red and white outfits and with faces painted white and red—gather in and around an event tent.
Shortly after the Hopi move and stir the crowd with their singing and dancing, Circus Bacchus takes to the square. The show begins with the Circus Bacchus theme song and all the members, some juggling, some dancing and some on stilts, working to fire up the audience.
From there, two jugglers launch into a shtick and attempt to try to win the crowd over in a “who’s the best” contest while the band lays down a groove. Their act involves juggling pins, balls, apples (eaten in mid-juggle) and intermittingly swapping a hat.
They are followed up with a member of the troupe known as the Shady Gentleman, who leads off a performance of fire-twirling to a gypsy-twinged song from the band. Stilt walkers with flowing silk capes are on next, and they perform a storyline of one butterfly graceful and one butterfly struggling.
Also front-and-center comes Atlas the Mighty—shirtless with a black kilt and laced-up, knee-high boots, as one of the few vaudevillian strongmen in the world. He wows the audience by bending nails and then, for a finale, slams a nail through a board with his bare hand while another audience member tries to beat him by driving it through with a hammer. Atlas the Mighty wins.
Atlas is followed by an elaborate performance with two orange ribbons of fabric that hang down from a four-legged metal contraption. A performer climbs them, hangs upside down 10 feet off the concrete and draws gasps as he quickly slides down the fabric but catches himself.
It’s another wild night of menagerie that is Circus Bacchus.
The idea of Circus Bacchus surfaced and crystallized in 2007—five years ago this year—among members of a juggling club on the Northern Arizona University campus. A guy named Dan Stern was part of the group, and he had traveled for the summer of his sophomore year along the coast of California in a van. He did street performance along the way.
“After juggling club one day, Dan pulled me aside and said he wanted to start a circus,” says Kayley Schorey, one of the founding members and principle performers in Circus Bacchus. At first, the idea seemed random and odd to her. But she jumped on board, as did Dave Dennehey.
She became Kayley Monster, a nickname from college, and he became Atlas the Mighty, the strongman act in the show. Dennehey registered the Circus Bacchus domain name in August 2007, and the first-ever Bacchus show happened a few months later.
“Our first stage was two four-by-eights on mounts, all from wood stolen from various construction sites,” Dennehey says. “The backdrop was someone’s sheets and the stereo system was one pulled out of my house. And the music was all played off an iPod, which was taken care of by a guy sitting under a tent.”
Schorey adds, “Yeah, it was pretty sketch.”
Dennehey recalls how he used to have a pretty basic strongman routine where he would do some feat, strike a pose and get off stage. He notes that it wasn’t very interactive and that the audience often didn’t pick up on the wonder of the feat. Schorey was still learning on the job.
Bacchus members spent the next few years perfecting their acts and exploring ideas, but struggled with the revolving-door aspect of the group.
“When we started, the people we had in Circus Bacchus were more transient because we were all in college and we’d train people up and then they would leave,” Schorey recalls. “By the third year, we started attracting local people who live in Flagstaff and have families. We found more people who could be dedicated time-wise.”
Then, the troupe started to click when they posted that they were looking for musicians, and, suddenly, they had a 10-person band to back up all of the acts and bring added vaudevillian flavor to the performances.
In the third and fourth year of Circus Bacchus, the steady members showed improvements in their act. Schorey, who could hardly juggle in the beginning, became adept at juggling, dancing and learning the hula-hoops. She worked in some of her other skills, as she already knew how to play the clarinet as a self-identified band geek.
Dennehey, as Atlas the Mighty, also expanded his act as one of only a handful of active vaudevillian strongmen in the world. But, being strong isn’t enough. It’s about perfecting an act that makes sense for the onlookers and wows them.
“Now, I’ll do something where I’ll bend 16-penny nails, and I’ll drag people up on stage to bend stuff with me,” Dennehey says. “If you see your buddy up there and he can’t do it and I’m doing it, that adds a lot to the show.”
As his performances expanded, he has included such feats of strength as rolling a frying pan, opening the most difficult of clamshell packages with four fingers, laying on a bed of nails while someone smashes a flaming cinderblock on his chest and having dollar bills attached to his chest with a staple gun.
“I like to make sure I’m up on my tetanus shot,” he quips. Schorey also points out that Circus Bacchus has an official circus doctor with Esther Smith.
Although Dennehey is naturally strong, he said that being a strongman is actually just as much about being a high-pain-tolerance man. “Pain tolerance is a huge part of it,” he says. “I feel like pain is something you have to mentally train for … Unless you can convince yourself to override the brain and push through it, your brain tells you to stop.”
With Dennehey and Schorey as original members and everyone else on board, there has been a commitment to practice both the acts and the music. They meet two or three times a week to refine and polish their acts before taking them to the stage.
Bacchus was a Roman god, the equivalent of the Greek’s Dionysus, and is known for being the god of wine, music and dance. He’s also noted as being a god who enjoyed subverting the oppressive restraints of the powerful.
The reference is fitting for Circus Bacchus, which explores all manner of reverie with their combination of carnival acts, Bohemian music, belly-dancing, daring stunts and hints of burlesque. All of this has come to full form with the troupe that has evolved so much in recent months.
During their performance at the Recycled Art Show, they balanced sultry, midriff-baring dance numbers, fire-play, humor and music to create a pure stream of entertainment. A packed house at the Coconino Center for the Arts sat enthralled.
“This whole last year-and-a-half, I feel like we have made a big step in terms of how our performances go and the cohesion we have found,” Schorey says. “Right now, we’re having to find what we are in this town. And that’s where we are in this transition. And that’s where we are with this troupe.”
She explains that some of their recent performances have been with more all-ages venues, so Circus Bacchus shows have needed to strike a balance between being provocative and engaging, but not too heavy into the burlesque side of what they do with those shows. However, Schorey notes that there is an interest in having more mature shows that make sense for the venue and audience.
Circus Bacchus also has another kind of performance outlet that has added to their notoriety. Around two years ago, some members of the circus joined a monthly electronic music dance party called Electric Kingdom at the Green Room.
Electric Kingdom features some of Flagstaff’s top DJs, and it has become one of the big night-life events in town. Schorey recalls that she went to an Electric Kingdom night in 2010 to promote a modern-dance version of the Nutcracker she was going to perform in.
“I used to hate electronic music; my whole life I hated it. And I showed up that one night and I stayed on the floor with my hoops while the DJs (spun),” she says. “And I liked the beat; it was very danceable and predictable.”
Later, Schorey messaged DJ Emmett White and said she was interested in bringing some members of Circus Bacchus to perform regularly at Electric Kingdom. She mentioned they had lights they used in performances that would go great with the music and show.
“It’s become a big thing for us,” Schorey adds. “We’ve become known for it and we became part of the electronic music scene here. That was really when our name really started to get out there.”
Despite the success of the Electric Kingdom partnership, it’s a tough gig for the circus performers. “Electric Kingdom is hard,” Schorey says. “I need a whole day of recovery. I’ll throw myself into as hard as I can. The next day I lie on a pillow all day and drink water. It’s very strenuous.”
Overall, Circus Bacchus has proven a big-time commitment and energy commitment for its members, but they’ve become a strong team. “In many ways, we’re like a big family,” Schorey says. “We all support each other and back each other.”
She adds, “It’s been really cool to go from being this group that was a little renegade to something that’s more established, with people who care about each other. I think that’s what’s been most important to us.”
Catch Circus Bacchus co-performing with fire during the Sambatuqué sets at the August First Friday Art Walk and at the 63rd annual Coconino County Fair during Labor Day weekend at the Ft. Tuthill County Park. Learn more at www.circusbacchus.org.
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