What I Do: Santa Rosa Circus Maximus clown

Krysta Cook performs with another, more traditional clown. (Stephen Radley / For Towns)


Krysta Cook, 32, is not your stereotypical clown. She doesn’t wear white face paint, a bright red wig or big rubber shoes.

In fact, she used to be scared of such clowns until she overcame her childhood fear by clowning around in 2010 with Brino Ism, a family friend and founder of World Peace Clowns. With a humanitarian bent, they performed at festivals and Occupy movements around the greater Bay Area.

Performing was already second nature to Cook, however. She started belly dancing at 18 after watching a male-female couple at a hookah bar in San Francisco. She danced for a living throughout her 20s and even put herself through nursing school as a single mother.

Cook made her transition from performer to producer in February by co-founding Circus Maximus, a performing company based in Santa Rosa, with Jake Ward.

In addition to her responsibilities as co-creator of the Rouge Dance Company, she will soon open a studio for dance, fitness and circus arts, including a circus summer camp for kids.

On juggling the titles of belly dancer, mother, nurse, clown, instructor and producer, Cook said, “I love life. I feel like it’s so short, and every day counts a lot.”

Q: You recently performed in a Sebastopol show called “Menagerie.” How would you describe your outfit?

A: I wanted to have a safari look, so I found an old jacket, cut it up, sewed some patches on it and spray-painted the back. I always want to play down makeup whenever I do clowning and be a little bit more on the accessible, cute and playful side. The other two girls, Rose and Jennifer, and I also have rubber heart noses that we glue on.

Q: You were sort of a jester figure, playing around with the emcee throughout the show. How did you guys come up with that dynamic?

A: Honestly, it was all on the fly. Improv is my thing, and Jake gives me creative leeway with the circus. I create all the acts and arrange them ahead of time into the whole storyline, but I’ve begun to fall into this habit of messing with Jake in between sets, which is really fun because he’s heckling the audience, and I just like to heckle him. That’s kind of our dynamic in real life, too.

Q: You also did a choreographed group routine called “Have you seen my monkey?” which was, of course, swinging from vine to vine right behind you and your partner. Do you enjoy that interactive element?

A: That’s exactly what I was going for! I think engaging the audience and making them feel like they’re a part of the unfolding of your act is definitely one of the most rewarding parts of being a performer. I did hear the kids yelling, “She’s behind you!”

Q: What made you want to become a clown specifically?

A: One of my family friends that I’ve grown up with. His name is Brino Ism, because he is an “ism,” apparently. He restarted his clown group a few years ago and asked if I would join. I was like, “What? That’s ridiculous. Absolutely. Yes, please.”

I really fell in love with the idea of getting to be so silly and free. Coming from a belly dance background that’s so serious and sultry, it’s just such a different energy.

Q: Did your family go to circuses when you were little?

A: I wish. I’ve been to one as an adult. I took my son, and it was terrible. It was one of those scary circuses.

My vision for a circus is to be sweet and accessible, something that would touch all ages. More of a Cirque du Soleil vibe, rather than the Ringling Brothers.

Q: Why did you want to start a performing company in Sonoma County?

A: Creatively, I felt like I was hitting some kind of a roadblock with belly dancing, and I was craving something a little more out-of-the-box and creative. Also, I really like the idea of reaching a broader demographic through performance.

Q: Has becoming a producer helped you with your performances in any way?

A: I’ve produced quite a few shows before, so I wouldn’t necessarily say “yes.” However, I do feel that producing a circus-type production has made me want to push the envelope to make it a more and more enjoyable show. Bigger and better.

Q: Did you coach the belly dancers in the “Menagerie” show?

A: One of the girls who had the snakes on, Cassandra, was actually my teacher years and years ago. I arranged that whole piece and told them what I wanted, and they made their own interpretations.

Q: If you had an unlimited budget, what would your show be like?

A: It would be absolutely insane. We would have the biggest cast, and everything would be interactive. We’d probably have real snow at some point. Why not?

I would also be able to pay all the performers really, really well. All the performers work so hard, and they deserve so much more.

Q: Are there any funny behind-the-scenes stories you’d like to share?

A: Funnier things have happened to me on stage as a belly dancer than as a clown, which is hilarious.

I was the house dancer at Amira’s in the Mission, and it was one of my first paid gigs. Suddenly my costume came undone on my neck. There was a group of women in front of me, like a bachelorette party or something, and they all looked at me like “Oh my gosh!” The band looked at me like “Oh!” I was just mortified.

I ran offstage and the owner’s wife asked me, “Why aren’t you dancing?” I was like, “My top fell off, and now I’m really embarrassed.”

She hooked my costume, turned it around and told me, “Honey, the show always has to go on.” She nudged me sweetly back onstage, and the group of women — I’ll never forget — just started screaming and clapping. They were so supportive and sweet that I felt from that moment on, if anything was going to happen, I was still going to be OK.

“What I Do” is an occasional series that profiles Sonoma County people and their jobs. For more information about Circus Maximus, visit