A CIRCUS LIKE NO OTHER
Dark Arts Circus opens doors, possibilities for all
Photography by Jack Murphy
Editor’s note: All of the performers in this piece are referred to as their stage names out of respect and safety for the artists.
Among the smaller cities that make up the Fox Valley in northeast Wisconsin is a unique artistic collective made up of aerialists, belly dancers and drag queens.
In 2016, Mandie Savage founded the Dark Arts Circus and Cabaret in Appleton. Her goal for the performance art collective was to create an outlet for alternative artists from a variety of skill levels and backgrounds. With the help of other artists and the local community, the Dark Arts Circus opens a door into the darkness for alternative performers and connoisseurs of the dark arts.
The collective’s artistic performances include burlesque, belly dancing, drag and many other forms of expression. The Dark Arts Circus welcomes all performers, showing that the dark has room for everyone. The group offers a unique experience for its participating artists and audience members because it creates a safe space filled with humor, scandal and excitement.
The term Dark Arts Circus is an umbrella term to encompass all of the possible artistic performances incorporated into the shows. Within the collective, there is a sense of freedom. Freedom to learn. Freedom to express. Freedom to explore the darkness. Under this veil, the collective champions many ways of performing so that what might have become a lost art is no longer, because these artists found an outlet to explore their expression and creativity.
“We are just a happy little group of artists and our mission is to bring the weird, wild and interesting to our area and provide that access for folks.”
Mandie Savage specializes in burlesque and sideshows but mainly performs as the primary announcer for the group. Her sideshows include walking across a bed of nails and jumping through fire and aerial hoops. Her signature move is with Dark Arts Circus member Miss Mego, which includes Miss Mego performing a yoga pose on top of Mandie Savage as she lays on a bed of sharp nails.
Miss Mego is a dark fusion dancer, a mixture of belly dancing and other art forms. They use veil fans to add dimension and illusions to the performance by moving the fabric to the beat of the music. The long, colorful fabric is attached to the end of a handheld fan, and it flows around the performer as they incorporate it into their performance. Their costumes are multilayered and include sequined, bikini-like tops, metal-decorated skirts and balloon pants. In one performance, they wore a bold red flower in their hair that popped among their dark brown dreadlocks sprinkled with beads.
A unique aspect of the Dark Arts Circus is that it is artist-designed and directed. All of the performers design their costumes, choreograph their work and create all aspects of the show. Mandie Savage and Miss Mego refer to this as DIY — do-it-yourself — art.
“Nobody knows what to do with us when they ask us to come in and perform,” Miss Mego says. “We’re doing it on our own. We don’t have anybody who is saying, here’s your sound guy. Here’s your venue. Here’s this. We walk into a space and they’re like, we thought about that area as the stage, but we don’t know. And then we’re like, what? It’s very like doing it ourselves. We don’t have a production crew or anything like that, a lot of the stuff is just Mandie and I doing it.”
Two belly dancers swirl veil fans through the streets as part of a parade in Fox Valley. Photography by Jack Murphy
Miss Mego performs a belly dancing routine at the Fox Valley Lagerfest in October 2021. Photography by Jack Murphy
An unexpected, ferocious storm interrupted their performance during one outdoor festival, but Mandie Savage and Miss Mego refused to be turned away from performing. Even though the festival coordinators denied them access to the sheltered stage, the two artists performed in the pouring rain. They didn’t have sound assistance, a production team or an announcer, but Mandie Savage and Miss Mego carried on with their art by pressing play for the music on their phones.
Putting on the show themselves gives the artists control over their art, allowing them to dictate the message they are sending into the community.
Several members of the Dark Arts Circus were very clear that it is not a troop or organized performance group, but rather a collective. Dark Arts Circus is not exclusive. No one is to be left out of the group or held back from performing because of their identity or performance level.
“We have performers from all over that come in,” Miss Mego says. “I like the fact that nobody has to be attached to us and feel like that they can’t go do a different show or they can’t attend somewhere else or stuff like that. We just want to facilitate the shows and bring that to these artists so they can get more exposure.”
The performers are Mandie Savage and Miss Mego’s top priority. They want to ensure that their artists receive appropriate compensation for their work. They pay their artists first after a show closes, typically before they even leave for the night.
They also respect an artist’s time and creativity, supporting one another in other shows and encouraging their artists to try new things. For example, Bella Morte, a burlesque performer for the Dark Arts Circus, and their dance partner perform together all over the state outside of the Dark Arts Circus, yet have been regular members of the collective since its founding.
Together the group’s participants provide each other with the proper tools to expand their creativity within their performance art. For example, Mandie Savage will host workshops for artists in a variety of specialties like aerial and belly dance. The group welcomes an eagerness to learn new styles and art forms. Followers and audiences of the Dark Arts Circus have responded positively to this ethos.
“The crowd that we draw definitely draws a lot of energy and inspiration from the mystical witchcraft,” says Tarl Knight, the co-owner and booking agent of the Tarlton Theater in Green Bay, where the Dark Arts Circus has had a residency since 2019. “People come in, who aren’t a part of the show, dressed very appropriately as what you would imagine for a dark arts crowd.”
“We kind of just became this almost family,” Bella Morte says of the Dark Arts Circus’ effect on the community. “It is a very well communicated and understanding group of people, where we all kind of just met on the same platform, or on the same level of a platform and we were like, oh, you know, we really, we have a thing that we want to bring to the area. I want to increase this energy. I want to increase the strange. I want to bring the weird here.”
This beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dark Arts Circus ventured into digital performing, which allowed members to welcome many new artists that would not have been otherwise able to perform with them.
John Wankerford III is a drag king and a regular member of the Dark Arts Circus. He does a lot of his performing digitally due to his disabilities. The Tarlton Theater also functions as a movie theater where performances like John Wankerford III’s can be projected during live performances.
Occasionally, John Wankerford III is unable to attend performances, but because he prerecords his art, he can still perform with the rest of the circus. The digital aspect also allows performers to be in two places at once. They can digitally perform for the Dark Arts Circus, while simultaneously performing elsewhere in Wisconsin.
“I went into doing my own truth and into dark arts with the intent that everybody deserves to be beautiful, everybody deserves to have that creativity and express themselves,” says Ivy Scarlette, a belly dancer for the Dark Arts Circus. “I think a lot of our fans really appreciate and are drawn to us because we are so inclusive, with all different kinds of people, all different kinds of visual aesthetics, and again, you know, performance art itself.”
DARK category page photo credit: Photography by Jack Murphy