VELOCITY CIRCUS IS SO NAMED FOR GOOD REASON— its founder is a whirling dervish on and offstage!
by Marianne Costantinou
In a city known for its characters, top honors must be bestowed on Gregangelo Herrera, the frenetic, obsessive founder and artistic director of Velocity Circus and mastermind of what can safely be called the most unusual house in the city, if not the universe. Picture Ancient Egypt meets Arabian Nights meets Dr. Seuss meets Austin Powers, complete with life-size sarcophagi, a mosaic wall of the solar system and psychedelic secret passageways. The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau actually sends visiting journalists and other very important people to the house in Balboa Terrace when they’re looking for one of those “Only in San Francisco” experiences, and it’s to be featured this summer on cable TV in House & Garden’s new “Offbeat America” road show.
Gregangelo, who goes by his first name, claims there is a perfectly logical explanation, a method to the madness, so to speak: The house is a storyboard for his circus productions, and its creation is a way to keep the artists and technical crew in his troupe busy (and paid) when not in performance.
“I live my art through and through in everything I do,” he says. “I think of the house as a theatrical stage, and each room is a show.”
But, hey, just because he lives in a fantasy house he considers a theatrical stage is no reason to call him eccentric. He can’t understand why people keep calling him that.
“ I don’t think I’m eccentric,” he says. “I think I’m completely sane.”
As he utters this denial for probably the zillionth time in his 38 years, Jeffrey Ferns, a man who has lived and worked with Gregangelo for almost a dozen years, rolls his eyes and mouths: “He’s a character.”
Among Gregangelo’s many talents are the eyes in the back of his head.
“I guess I could be called a character, yes,” he says with a deep sigh. “I’ve been blessed with being uninhibited
” I am who I am. I’m me.”
These days, Gregangelo is himself in overdrive. After nearly a decade of a very successful business putting on private circus shows for nonprofit fund-raisers and corporate galas around the world, his Velocity Circus is going public in San Francisco for the first time. Next week, May 27 to 29, his troupe will be performing “Heliosphere Jr.” in five shows at the Yerba Buena Center. It’s crunch time.
Not that Gregangelo could possibly work any harder. He works on his shows seven days a week, every day of the year except on Halloween, when he and Ferns play host to the neighborhood’s children.
A third-generation San Franciscan of Lebanese and Mexican descent, Gregangelo has been obsessed with art and performance ever since he was a kid growing up in Chinatown and Diamond Heights. It is a work ethic he says he learned from his mom, a single mother of four.
” I always knew I would be an ‘artist,’ whatever that meant,” says Gregangelo, who in any given show will sing, dance, play piano and drums, perform aerial and rope tricks, all while simultaneously directing the show. When not performing or directing, he creates the show from scratch, from the set design, obviously, to the characters, the lighting, the special effects and the costumes. Some of the costumes are so bejeweled and feathered that they often take months to sew.
Gregangelo’s professional career began in high school, when he began working in an ethnic dance group while a student at St. Ignatius and later at the California College of Arts & Crafts, from which he graduated in 1989. It was during his student days that he created a character for which, he says, he’s known in the circus business far and wide. He plays a whirling dervish, an ancient character who spins around in circles. Gregangelo’s claim to fame is that he can spin at breakneck speed for five minutes without getting dizzy.
Like his favorite stage persona, Gregangelo moves at dizzying speeds, but spin in circles he doesn’t. He chose the name Velocity for his circus because he believes in moving fast in a forward direction. Whatever his project, it always has to do with work — not that he thinks of it as work. “I like to create,” he says. “I just do what I want to do — and with velocity.”
He has little use for the past and has a hard time remembering dates and events. Ferns, 39, couldn’t be more different. When he’s not handling some of the business details for the circus, Ferns writes memoirs, mostly about his Yaqui Indian heritage and growing up in Arizona. He is calm to Gregangelo’s energy. While Gregangelo is up to 3 or 4 most mornings concocting the next show or obsessing about a misplaced rhinestone on a costume, Ferns has already been asleep for hours, usually since 10 p.m. Gregangelo can’t sleep more than a few hours a day. Ferns needs not only his eight hours, but could often use a nap, especially when he’s been sucked into Gregangelo’s “vortex.”
Ferns says knows there’s trouble brewing when his partner suddenly becomes still, cups his chin and gets this glassy look in his eye.
“Oh, hell, here we go again,” Ferns thinks to himself.
The other night, both men were in a rented warehouse in West Oakland, where the troupe rehearses. Gregangelo was helping the Mongolian contortionists and throat singer go through their act, and supervised the girls in roller skates who will be in fiber-optic costumes on a stage swathed in black light. Then he donned a leotard and climbed a rope for the aerial hoop act.
If the show next week at Yerba Buena is a success, the men plan to begin a permanent circus theater in San Francisco. After that, who knows? With Gregangelo, there’s no predicting.
” I wonder,” Ferns says fondly but with a touch of fear in his voice as his partner climbed ever higher toward the sky, “what’s going to come out of his head next?”