The most ancient form of Venetian family circus is coming back to the Peninsula with a modern twist.
Breaking 177 years of circus tradition, the Zoppé Family, in its annual Bay Area presentation, sets up its tent this week in Redwood City with “La Nonna,” a show highlighting female acts.
“It’s all women, and it’s phenomenal,” says director and patriarch Giovanni Zoppé, adding that show, inspired by the mythical figure of his grandmother, circus matriarch Emma Zoppé, also represents a statement of equality.
Co-directed by 16-year-old circus heiress Chiara Zoppé, “La Nonna” — running Oct. 11 through Nov. 3 — features all-female teams of Mongolian nomadic contortionists, battle-style Zingara cossack riders, ringmistress Aimee Klein and tightwire performer Molly Plunk.
“The circus, like all other art forms, has always been very patriarchal,” says Plunk. “We’ve actively made these choices, to put women on the forefront… so femininity and women can be appreciated and honored in a way that isn’t oversexualized.”
The show’s opening says it all, Giovanni Zoppé explains. The traditionally bright, cheery clown act (Zoppé, as Nino) is delayed. Instead, a baritone note sounds in the dark as seemingly male figures materialize in the background.
The characters shed their masculine clothes as they move forward and reveal and embrace their femininity. Then, the action begins.
With an act dating back to the 14th century, Plunk’s aerial performance follows the waves of a saxophone melody, as she spins on a tense, thin wire.
And with a seeming effortless tranquility, five contortionists from Mongolia astound with a “dramatically-out-of-reach” flexibility, says Zoppé.
With the tension, comes adrenaline. Taking on a male-dominated, life-threatening discipline, the Zingara Riders slide, twist and loop while balancing on galloping horses.
Director Zoppé says the cossack act is fundamental in honoring the memory of his grandmother, a “ballerina on horse” who amazed crowds in the 1920s-40s with her elegant displays.
“We can’t honor her enough — her strength, duty and power,” says Zoppé. “She was still riding horses with my father in her belly, eight months pregnant. She would jump over banners, and do flips. She did it all.”
Zoppé says she embodied the values of acceptance and togetherness that the show and circus strive to represent.
“Back in the day, my nonna was running the show, she was in charge. And it was no big deal. The circus has always been very accepting of everyone, because we’re a family… from different cultures and different races, backgrounds, mentalities,” Zoppé says.
“I hope our audience feels that, they feel part of our family… and the show makes them realize the struggles that women had to go through, like dressing like men to be accepted. We’re all the same. We’re all equal. We all need to work together and live together and be a part of this wonderful planet that we have.”
IF YOU GO
Zoppé: An Italian Family Circus
Where: Tent, 1455 Madison Ave., Red Morton Park, Redwood City
When: Opens Oct. 11; 4 and 7 p.m. Fridays; noon, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; noon, 3 and 6 p.m. Sundays’ 6:30 p.m. most Wednesdays-Thursdays; closes Nov. 3
Tickets: $10 to $28
Contact: https://squareup.com/store/RWCZoppe, http://www.redwoodcity.org/zoppe