Growing up in the South of France, Michel Michelis had it all planned out. “When I was 5 years old, I loved the circus,” he says. “My father always brought me to the circus, and I always said, ‘One day, I will have my own circus.’ ”
Michelis, now 57, might not have known it would be in Sonoma, half a world away. But the Wine Country town — and particularly the popular marketplace Cornerstone, with its whimsical, artful gardens — turns out to be an ideal place for a vintage Parisian circus to raise its tent every holiday season.
Cirque de Bohème is now poised to present its fifth season, “Freedom,” with a total of 25 daytime performances each Friday through Sunday between Thanksgiving and Christmas at Cornerstone Sonoma.
The show’s roots go back even further than Michel’s youth. Cirque de Bohème was originally launched in Paris in 1924 by Michel’s grandfather Gabriel, also from the South of France. For Gabriel, still reeling from four years in the trenches of World War I, the circus was a way to start a new life. Soon it became much more than that, his grandson says, serving as a safe place for the Parisian resistance to German occupation during the early 1940s.
Two decades later, Cirque de Bohème again tapped into the zeitgeist with a flair for the utopian (or shall we say bohemian). Yet after surviving World War II and most of the turbulent ’60s, it closed its doors upon Gabriel’s death in 1969.
Eight years later, chasing his own circus dreams, a 17-year-old Michelis moved to Paris, too, where he attended drama school and began his multifaceted career as a singer, actor, writer, and director.
By the mid-1990s he’d found his way to San Francisco, where he worked with Cirque de Soleil and performed in a number of musical groups including the gypsy-jazz band Rue Manouche. He moved to Sonoma for the weather in 1998 and later met Cornerstone co-founder Teresa Raffo, who invited him to fulfill his childhood dream.
The revived Cirque de Bohème has grown every year since its 2013 opening, with each season’s sets and storyline different from the last. Michelis won’t disclose much about this year’s show except to say it features the usual mix of live music, storytelling and professional circus performers channeling early 20th-century Paris, including an aerialist, contortionist, and tightrope-crossing unicyclist.
True to Cirque de Bohème tradition, Michelis says he seeks not merely to entertain but also to transcend. “Our tent can seat a maximum of 150 people. People are very close to the stage, and they feel like our universe is very special,” he says. “Inside our circus you are not in your time. You get out of your reality.”
As in years past, the cast includes his teenage daughter, Luna, performing as a narrator and actor and lending a hand offstage. Unlike her father, however, she has no desire to stay in the family business, he allows.
Another constant from year to year is the show’s support, through proceeds and discounted tickets, of Sonoma County youth-oriented nonprofits. This year’s beneficiaries are The Living Room of Santa Rosa, which offers a variety of services to homeless and at-risk women and their children; and Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, which pairs children in need of social and emotional support with volunteer adult mentors.