This story originally appeared in RWC Pulse, the Palo Alto Weekly's new sister publication that launched Oct. 13.
Ilario Fabrizio Luigino Zoppé balances, upright and giggling, on his father's outstretched hand. Six months old, he looks gleeful from his high perch. Together they sway and restabilize as if it were the most normal thing in the world — which, for this family, it is.
Ilario is the youngest in a long line of Zoppé's, creators of the Zoppé Family Circus, who have been traveling and performing for close to two centuries. Founded in 1842, 30 years before P.T. Barnum began touring "the Greatest Show on Earth," the Zoppé Circus was conceived by a rather unusual pair.
"It's actually a French clown and a Hungarian ballerina," says Giovanni Zoppé, from the parking lot of Redwood City's Public Library, where an enormous blue-and-white tent is being erected behind him. "They met each other on the streets in Budapest. They fell in love. But her parents didn't like him because he was a clown."
Throwing caution to the wind, Napoleone and his ballerina bride, Ermenglida, ran off to Venice, where they did something even more unlikely: they started a circus.
Having survived multiple wars and two pandemics, the Zoppé Circus is celebrating its 12th anniversary in Redwood City, led by the charismatic Giovanni Zoppé, a self-described clown and Napoleone's great-great-grandson. Giovanni was introduced to Redwood City when a friend connected him with Lucas Wilder, the city's Assistant Parks, Recreation & Community Services Director, who's been a champion for the family circus ever since.
Unlike the Cirque du Soleils and other big-budget, highly produced shows popular today, Zoppé, with its classic domed cupola and single ring, evokes something of the past — a time of whimsical jingles, high-peaked tents, and twinkling lights — or what Giovanni calls, "the true Italian-style of circus."
Today, Saturday, is tent day. All around, Giovanni echoes a cacophony of English, Spanish, Russian as lights are strung up, poles are hammered down, and kids dodge deftly between the ropes. (A half-tethered circus tent, it appears, is the ideal place for a game of hide-and-seek.)
Jeanette Prince, Giovanni's partner of around four years and mom to Ilario, hurries past, scooping the baby up to take him back home to one of the silver Avion travel trailers parked beside the tent. The scene seems to be the usual amount of pre-show chaos. Only six days remain until opening night, and they're still waiting on the majority of the performers to arrive, most of whom are new to the Zoppé Circus. But Giovanni seems unfazed.
"There's a basic structure," he says, waving as if to indicate that the rest will figure itself out. "The way we let the performance go, we try to let it live," he adds. "It's a living creature that always changes as we do."
After a year of quarantine and isolation, this year's show, aptly titled "La Vita Nuova," or The New Life, is both a celebration of survival and a message of hope for the future.
Featuring an almost entirely new cast, with performers from Belarus, Mexico, and Australia, to name a few, La Vita Nuova is a never-seen-before production explicitly created for Redwood City — for the parking lot outside the public library, to be precise. Even the tent, which Giovanni and his father Alberto designed themselves, was built with this venue in mind; its dimensions calculated to accommodate a large pole in the middle of the library's lot. Giovanni refers to the place as their second home.
"It was the last lot my father was ever on. First lot my son was on," says Giovanni. "When we get here, I breathe easier."
Pandemic notwithstanding, the troupe never entirely stopped performing. Last year, with the support of Wilder, the company put on a drive-in circus that ran for seven weeks at the Port of Redwood City. Cars packed in front of a 23-foot LED screen that broadcast the on-stage performance, which included everything from a horse vaulting act to a trapeze artist, while sound piped in through the radio. According to Giovanni, it was the world's first and only drive-in circus, and he attributes their success to the determination of his partner, Prince, and Wilder — whom he calls a "sort of crazy genius."
"He really wants the best for his town. And we're one of those items," says Giovanni. "During the pandemic, we were the only circus in the world working. And they were the only city in the world that had a circus."
Still, as for many other performance artists whose careers were on hold during the pandemic, this new season marks a return to normal for the Zoppé Circus.
"I believe we're all living a new life," says Giovanni. "We're coming out of the fog and trying to figure out how to live in this new world."
Like father, like son
Like his father, his siblings, and now his children, Giovanni has been performing for as long as he can remember.
"When I was [Ilario's age, I started becoming a clown," he says. "As a child, a little boy traveling in a circus family, you become the clown because you learn how to go into the ring, you learn how to act with the audience, how to perform, how to read people."
Though he grew up mainly in the United States, Giovanni traveled back and forth to Italy, where he worked on various family circuses. Dabbling in trapeze and bareback horse riding, among other acts, he's had his share of close calls over the years.
"I've had a lot of accidents," he says. "I had a splenectomy. I fell off the trapeze headfirst." He was in a coma for four days, and the doctors told his parents he wouldn't make it. But he takes it all in stride. "If you drive a car and you have an accident and a head injury, you don't stop driving the car, right?"
In recent years, Giovanni's settled into his role as the bumbling "evening clown," or pagliaccio di serata. Much like the manager at a restaurant, his purpose is to guide the show — saying just enough to keep the momentum going but not too much to overpower the performers — and to fill in when there's a lull or a mishap.
"When I see something that needs help or the props need to go in or out, I just step in and balance my shoe on my nose or do whatever. You know, do a magic trick," he says.
It's not just the forces of nature or misfortune that keep him on his toes, however. Each show is different, he says, because each audience is different. And a big part of his job is to respond to his patrons' shifting needs and desires. "We're not here to direct what they think, what they want. They're there to direct us."
Though the spectacle is meant to mystify and delight, ultimately, Giovanni wants his audience to consider whether the true illusion happens inside or outside the tent.
"Right now, I'm acting. Right now, I have to act because this is how we have to be in society," Giovanni says. "But when I'm in the ring, I'm truly who I am."
The changing tide of circus life
Jeanette Prince is already out of breath. It's Wednesday morning, and less than half an hour remains before the show's first run with the whole cast.
"I'm at Target grabbing milk in the middle of my laundry cycle, and it's not even 10 a.m.," she nearly gasps into the phone.
Prince wasn't born into the circus — in fact, she only joined the caravan in 2019. But in managing everything from immigration paperwork and venue logistics to last-minute costume repairs and repainting their trailer home, she's become a sort of adoptive mother to the Zoppé family.
"My business card says 'marketing.' But it's really not," Prince says, shushing Ilario in the background. "Does anybody have a title when they run their own businesses?"
It hasn't always been easy, leaving behind her home in Oklahoma and helping her kids adjust to a peripatetic lifestyle, especially as a homeschooling mom. Life on the road can be tough; they had three tire blowouts during the drive from Arizona to Redwood City. On top of which, running a circus isn't exactly a lucrative business, especially in recent years.
"So much of old circus traditions are gone," she says. "Like putting up posters? That used to be someone's job. Now it's all Facebook advertising. It's just different."
The biggest challenge, she says, is getting people to the door. But once they come, they usually keep coming back, which is why Zoppé's annual event in Redwood City is so valuable.
Still, she says, the metabolism of circus life suits her. "I do sort of work better when a lot of things are happening, or things are changing."
Showtime in the tent
I arrive at the lot later that evening, just in time for the second run. (The first one went "OK.") Prince is already inside the tent, hunched over a laptop, furiously placing a last-minute order online. "OK, 20 ostrich feathers coming up!" she shouts to no one in particular. "What do you think the circus was like before Amazon?"
Performers mingle around in various stages of dress. A young girl in a red velvet dress with a flowing black skirt introduces herself as Mia. Only 12 years old, she's well-accustomed to circus life.
"I was born into the circus," she says. "My parents traveled with them before I was born. I would play in here all the time as a kid."
Mia will perform the Spanish web, aerial rope, and the lyra, a suspended hoop. Though she's old hand at the lyra, she's only been working with the rope for a week or so.
"The first time was really scary," she says. "I felt wobbly because I was shaking."
But this — picking up a new trick just days before a performance — is, apparently, pretty typical.
"The traditional way is that you learn on the lot," explains Prince, looking up from her laptop. "Mia and Audrey are learning the web because we need aerialists, and people here have the skills to teach them."
From inside the ring, Giovanni claps his hands, instructing the cast to their places. As Mia scurries to join the other artists, Prince retreats to the lighting and sound booth — donning another of her many hats. The string lights glow in the dimmed tent, and a lilting calliope tumbles out of the speakers. It's showtime.
For the next couple of hours, performers of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities grace the ring with their particular skills. Dogs perch jauntily on their hind legs (except for Winnie, who requires extra prodding); two Belarusian brothers and their Russian partner somersault gracefully in giant, metal wheels; a young woman, introduced as "the woman with the wings of Mercury at her heels," swings, waving, from the high-flying trapeze. Then, awaiting their turn in the spotlight, the onlookers cheer each other on while Giovanni, sporting cargo shorts and his red felted clown hat, offers the occasional, supportive brava!
The show is carried by Giovanni, also known as Nino the Clown, and his Ringmaster "Chissà" (meaning "who knows"), played by actor Mace Perlman. The duo parodies a typical parent-child dynamic through an ongoing choreography of banter and slapstick, with Nino playing the petulant kid who continuously defies Chissà's attempts to keep him off the stage. And, much to the audience's delight, Nino often succeeds in outwitting his ringmaster, scaling ladders and dangling precariously from the trapeze.
As a contortionist folds his body into a pretzel, I'm joined by a familiar-looking woman with Heidi braids and a high-necked, velveteen leotard complete with glittering, rhinestone trim. "We're sort of half-dressed," she says, laughing. "I don't normally wear a purple sports bra."
The woman introduces herself as Disa, 33, the flying trapeze artist. "It's the most wonderful and terrifying thing I've ever done — every time. If it goes really wrong, I fall off," she says. "When it goes well, it's like flying, like in dreams."
Disa, unlike many of the other cast members, isn't from a circus family. Growing up in Wisconsin, she "always wanted to be Peter Pan" and followed her mom to a trapeze class. She's been a professional trapeze artist for 15 years now. "Somewhere down the line, someone said that I could get paid to do this, and I never looked back."
She interrupts our conversation to redirect my attention to the ring where a group of four Mexican men and women are swinging from a giant platform — a Russian swing, it's called. "You don't want to miss this," she says as one man launches himself off the swing and through a hoop into the net below.
There's a brief intermission, after which Disa runs back into the ring to join Mia and two other girls in a dizzying routine on the Spanish ropes. Despite a few hiccups —someone's feet don't seem to want to hook into the right loop — the act is mesmerizing, the aerialists' limbs extended and twirling like fairy ornaments.
"Nice, ladies!" Giovanni shouts as they exit through the back of the tent. "Don't worry about the music. I don't want any of you rushing — you're 20 feet in the air!"
Next is Hermán, a supposedly sixth-generation circus performer. He balances a tray of wine glasses on a knife, which rests tip-to-tip on another knife he holds between his teeth. Then, impossibly, he climbs a ladder. He's followed by Miah, a 21-year-old equestrian trick rider from Australia. Meanwhile, three kids sit on the bleachers chatting about their favorite acts. No older than 10, they're already well-versed in circus talk, clearly having been raised "in the tent." Their mother, Mariana, was a musician and performer before she started having children. Now, with five kids in the circus — a juggler, a rope aerialist, a contortionist, and two clowns — she's on the road again, every bit the quintessential stage mom.
Then, just as quickly as it began, the show is over.
All the performers return to the ring, appearing comically sad for their final bow. They applaud each other on the way out, though no one is louder than Giovanni, who offers a few brief words of directorial encouragement. "Very good," he says with the usual nonchalance. "I think we're going to be fine for the show."
Just the beginning
After the run-through, most cast members retreat to their trailers for food and a shower. A few, including Giovanni, Disa, and Perlman, linger in the silence of the suddenly empty tent. As ringmaster and clown debrief, Disa entertains Ilario who, miraculously, has only just awoken after having slept through the entire spectacle.
"You should have seen him at the EDM festival we performed at last week, with his headphones on asleep backstage," says Giovanni.
A few partially costumed characters drift in and out of the tent, reattaching ropes, adjusting lights, tightening pulleys. There seems to be no distinction between cast and crew, an observation that Disa confirms.
"Everybody wears a million hats," she says. (In addition to training the new Spanish web performers, she helped set up the tent, scaling the dome to stitch together giant vinyl flaps.) "The guys who do the Russian swing are also the stage crew."
Though the reasons are primarily financial, Giovanni takes pride in their scrappiness and teamwork. "We're all family here in the lot."
The conversation lulls as exhaustion begins to set in. There's still much to do before opening night on Friday — and in the coming weeks. Even with COVID measures reducing capacity, the cast is planning to put on 10 performances a week until nearly Thanksgiving. Then, being a traveling circus, they're off to Arizona for the next round.
So, how do they feel having completed the first full run of the show?
"It's time for dinner," Giovanni says, laughing.
"I mean, the show's not over," Disa says. "The show's just starting."
The Zoppé Family Circus runs through Nov. 21 at the Main Library Parking Lot in downtown Redwood City. For more information, visit redwoodcity.org.