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The Circus Must Go On (Mustn't It?)

The death-defying existence of Fleeky Flanco and Circus Automatic.

Fleeky Flanco, founder of Circus Automatic and artistic director of Cayuga, a circus school in the Excelsior.


Fleeky Flanco is 35, yet seems simultaneously ancient and not fully formed. He wears his corkscrew curls (usually dyed more than one color) in loose, oddly placed buns or flowing in Pre-Raphaelite tresses. He’s often shirtless, his sinewy torso shorn of hair. He shaves his eyebrows every other day and occasionally smears dark lipstick across his mouth, emphasizing an impish grin set off by a chipped front tooth. When he’s trying to look innocent or downplay some overly serious analysis, he hooks an index finger on his lower lip and casts his eyes up like a toddler.

But when you get past Flanco’s looks—if you get past his looks—you will be astounded by what the man can do. He can fold himself in half and stuff himself into a barrel. He can balance atop tiny stacked blocks, then knock them away row by row while remaining upright. He can put one leg behind his back, one foot firmly planted, and twist himself clockwise in a way that will make you wince. Sometimes he scuttles about on his hands, his lower body pretzeled above him, like a hermit crab loosed from its shell. 

Flanco is a circus performer—as if he could be anything else. The artistic director and cofounder of Circus Automatic, a loosely assembled troupe of about a dozen performers, he has devoted himself to this odd and taxing pursuit ever since he saw a picture of a contortionist as a kid. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “There was no decision. It just happened.” His real name is Paul L. Flint IV, but he shed it in his teens, choosing Fleeky for its onomatopoeic flavor. (“If I made a sound, that would be it,” he says.) Many nights as a 17-year-old in Arlington, Virginia, he’d fall asleep on his floor after stretching his back 180 degrees for hours. His injuries are legion—a vertebral fracture incurred on the floor of an S&M club as a teen; torn ligaments in his knee; injuries to his sacrum and elbow—but they haven’t stopped him from twisting his body in ways nature never intended. For Flanco, who moved to the Bay Area in 2000 at age 19, this is the only way to live. “You get hurt a lot,” he says, but “I don’t question it ever.”

“It’s not about injury prevention,” says Flanco. “It’s about injury management.”

What Flanco does question is his place in San Francisco, a big tent of a city that used to welcome all manner of freaks. In the 1960s and 1970s, groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Pickle Family Circus (featuring a young Bill Irwin) helped elevate circus and clowning from kiddie entertainment to something approaching performance art. Steeped in the counterculture, San Francisco’s circuses aimed to provoke as well as delight, the ring serving as a wry antidote to political conformism. Troupes like Duo Finelli (named for Pickle Family cofounder Judy Finelli), Samba Stilt Circus, Circo Etereo, and the Vespertine Circus remain, but making a life as a circus performer (never an easy proposition) is harder than ever. “So often circus is written off,” says Z Smith, a 32-year-old who performs as Pepito the Clown with Duo Finelli. “It is so in-depth. It’s an art that encompasses everything.” 

Circus Automatic isn’t as satirical as some of its hippie-era precursors, but it does offer an unspoken rebuke to the square life, now defined by all of the “entertainment” solipsistically consumed through screens. The troupe and its leader have some serious things to say, if only anyone was willing to take them seriously. “San Francisco is a circus world of only individual acts,” Flanco says. “It’s so hard to bring people together in this city because everyone is so fucking worried about trying to survive at all that they can’t come together.”

As he says this, Flanco is making a pot of strong coffee in the kitchenette of a converted Presbyterian church in the Excelsior, dubbed the Royal Russian Kung Fu Circus Training Academy of Heaven Mountain, or Cayuga for short. It’s here that he and his troupe train from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days, although how long they can subsist here is an open question. Flanco says the rent has already gone up by $2,000 just this year, and when the lease runs out, he has no idea where Circus Automatic will be able to relocate. “This place is a fucking jewel, and we need to protect it,” he says.

Surviving as freaks
in a town where the freaks went professional long ago is no easy task. Taking the occasional corporate event or paid gig in Europe keeps Circus Automatic afloat, but making it in San Francisco can tie anyone, not just contortionists, in knots. “I could’ve always made more doing other things,” Flanco says. “But the question I had to ask myself is ‘What do I want to do in life?’ You can always give your purpose in life away, but you’ll be poorer for it.”

Last year, Circus Automatic performed Raised by Wolves at the Great Star Theater in Chinatown. A collaboration with Oakland spoken-word artists Jamie DeWolf and Joyce Lee of Tourettes Without Regrets, the show combined stories of drug addiction, crime, and struggles at the margins of the city with soaring physicality. Each death-defying act reminded the audience that life in the Bay Area isn’t all UberPools and pour-over coffees. “It was a lot more emotional and powerful than everyone expected,” says DeWolf, 38. “They were really engaged with trying to push the audience to have an emotional journey.”

In one scene, Inka Siefker, a 28-year-old acrobat, balanced upside down on her hands while using her feet to shoot bull’s-eyes with a bow and arrow. Another tale of addiction and loss featured Rachel Strickland, a 33-year-old aerialist, performing partially submerged in a tank of water as DeWolf told a story about a suicide attempt. Not exactly kids’ stuff, which is exactly the point.

For DeWolf, the show was ultimately about finding beauty in “the things that break you,” which is another way to look at the painful and twisted yet transcendent life of a circus performer. Even as the limits of the human body—as well as those of the inhumane marketplace—hold Flanco and his troupe back, there are moments when their talents let them break free. As audience members, all we can do is watch and gasp.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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