On the last night of April, Brent Sanders was at home in Ballard, putting his daughter to bed. Then, he heard an explosion outside that shook the windows of his 100-year-old home.

"I could see a huge burst of light. I thought my neighbor had a natural-gas explosion," Sanders says. He went outside to investigate and found that the fireball originated across the street, at the playground of an alternative school on 65th Street. Sanders and another neighbor went to see what was going on.

"I walked up and saw people rehearsing," he says. He'd stumbled upon a dress rehearsal for Cirque de Flambé, Seattle's one-ring circus of acrobats, clowns, and pyrotechnicians. The explosion, it turned out, was one of its performance stunts. The troupe was practicing its new show, Clown Chaos, scheduled to open three days later at the playground.

Though the show was supposed to run for three weekends, the playground's neighbors launched a phone campaign after the first show on May 4, telling the school that Cirque was too loud, ran too late, and was too controversial--clowns argue and spar throughout the performance, often using fire as a weapon. "I told him that while we are in favor of supporting the arts as much as we can, the concerns that have come in from our neighbors are very pressing," says school principal Jeff Clark. " The vast majority of the people who called were concerned about those issues [of noise and content]." School officials asked Cirque to cancel the show.

Cirque's lively artistic director, Maque da Vis' (he uses a "French" spelling of his name while performing), didn't think there would be a problem when he secured the playground through the school district. Cirque performed at the same playground last August, and didn't run into problems. Da Vis' says he notified the neighborhood a week before this year's event, and offered free tickets to every household. "The subtext of this show is the foolishness of feuds that get out of hand and cause war," he says

Well, trouble started heating up for Cirque at its Tuesday-night dress rehearsal. While clowns were chasing each other with fire, and flame petards tossed fireballs 25 feet into the air, Sanders and his neighbor showed up at the playground, annoyed with the noise and chaos.

Sanders was surprised to find out the explosion was from Cirque. Last summer, he was notified about Cirque's performance two weeks ahead of time. This year, he says, he wasn't notified at all.

When Sanders talked to da Vis' at the rehearsal, da Vis' promised Friday's show would be over by 10:00 p.m. But on Friday, the show ran late (10 minutes late by da Vis' watch, and a half hour by Sanders') and the cheering crowd added to the noise. Da Vis' canceled Saturday's show so he could rework it in response to the two neighbors' concerns. Cirque members distributed fliers in the neighborhood, explaining the temporary cancelation.

"We apologized, saying we were changing the show, because we disturbed some people in the neighborhood," da Vis' says. At the bottom of the flier, he listed Cirque's and the school's phone numbers. "I think I sank my own ship by doing that." A dozen people called the school--most with complaints--and the school district told Cirque to cancel a day before the next weekend's show.

Newspaper ads and radio promotions continued for the past two weeks, despite the cancellation. Last weekend--which would have been the show's finale--the troupe's door manager and lead clown stood guard at the playground to turn people away. It's depressing, da Vis' says. "I don't know if Seattle is ready for fire, pyrotechnics, and fighting clowns. I have a feeling playing in neighborhoods probably isn't in the cards anymore."

amy@thestranger.com

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