In a Pickle : Choreographer Tandy Beal Joins the Circus to Help Rescue It From Financial Distress

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Tandy Beal has developed a weighty resume as a performer and choreographer. Founder of the 20-year-old contemporary-dance troupe Tandy Beal and Company, the Santa Cruz artist has created and performed more than 100 works, including one of the very few contemporary-dance versions of the "Nutcracker." That show premiered in 1982 and was seen in Orange County in a 1986 Cal State Fullerton performance.

In addition, Beal created choreography for animated characters in Tim Burton's stop-action film "The Nightmare Before Christmas," has appeared in concerts and on TV specials and music videos with jazz-pop singer Bobby McFerrin and has collaborated on projects with artists ranging from the late Frank Zappa to the Hovik Ballet of Norway.

But recently, her career took an unexpected twist. Last year, Beal ran away and joined the circus. Or, more precisely, circumstances brought the circus to her.

Although she continues to head her dance company, Beal now serves as artistic director of the New Pickle Family Circus. The San Francisco-based ensemble performs Beal's "Tossing and Turning," a lighthearted look at insomnia that features circus skills such as acrobatics and juggling along with live music, comedy and dance. The company appears today through Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Romantics could liken Beal's relationship to the Pickles to a fairy tale, perhaps something in the vein of valiant knight snatching worthy maiden from jaws of fierce dragon. But, as Beal is quick to point out, last year's rescue of the Pickles from financial collapse was the work of a whole squadron of knights, not just one.

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Founded in 1974 by a group drawn largely from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the original Pickle Family Circus was hailed as a pioneer in the "new circus" renaissance. The Pickles fared well until 1987, when the company's artistic and administrative leadership began to change. By the spring of '93, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Beal, who had choreographed a show for the Pickles, happened to be on the road with the circus at that time as show director for "Tossing and Turning." Performers and contractors, herself included, were working unpaid, and the prospects of the tour lasting to its scheduled completion at Washington's Kennedy Center were bleak.

However, the Pickles weren't ready to bow out. With no staff to support them, the ensemble, musicians and crew kept working, cutting costs wherever possible and handling administrative tasks from making fliers to tacking up advertising posters.

Meanwhile, with the help of Bay Area arts consultant Barbara Kibbe (Beal calls her "our guardian angel") and a consortium of volunteers, Beal's nonprofit operating company, Friends of Olympia Station, took control of the Pickle's assets.

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Gifts from private donors and earned income, including proceeds from a specialty store run by the Pickles in San Francisco's Embarcadero Center, helped get the company on firmer financial ground.

Day-to-day management of the company is now overseen by a six-person team that includes Beal, cast members Diane Wasnak and Jeff Raz and three administrators.

In January, the circus launched a national tour with Beal at the helm. It will wind things up in October with a Japanese tour, the first international dates the company has played in 15 years. In December, the company will premiere its circus-style salute to the movies, tentatively called "Jump Cut."

According to a company spokeswoman, Beal has added a sophisticated sense of movement and timing to the Pickles' shows. Some reviewers have even compared the Pickles to Canada's famed Cirque du Soleil, although Beal has other ideas.

"There's a lot of difference between (Cirque du Soleil) and us," Beal said during a phone interview from her home. "The Pickles are a very touchable circus, very human . . . and there's a lot of humor. Watching them, you feel like, 'Gee, that might be me up there.' "

Although her dance company and the Pickles operate independently, Beal has blended the two entertainment forms in the past and plans to do so more in the future.

Her "Nutcracker" incorporated circus-style performances, she said, and her dance company is currently touring a show about the poetry of William Blake that includes a trapeze artist and a fire juggler. In the next two years, she wants to develop "a very large literary project" that will use both companies and perhaps stage a revival of the "Nutcracker."

But no matter what her artistic visions, she said she has no intention of taking the Pickles away from family audiences.

"I may do something really off the wall," she said, "but I will always keep us touring a family show."

* The Pickle Family Circus performs at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine, tonight through Sunday at 7:30. Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2. $7 to $16. (714) 854-4646.

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