When people think of Joshua Tree, California, they often think of one of the Mojave Desert's iconic, and ubiquitous symbols, one that lures visitors from near and far; one that represents the imposing, magical, open spaces that the desert is famed for: the Joshua Tree, which is actually not a tree, but a member of the lily family, otherwise known as yucca brevifolia. And so it is: the Mojave Desert, always full of surprises such as these. But how many people would be able to imagine, that in the heart of desert hearts, near the dusty little town of Joshua Tree, proper, which serves as the gateway to one of the world's most famous destinations, Joshua Tree National Park, that there is also a gateway to another world.
Off the area's main artery, Highway 62 onto a narrow dirt side road as the sun begins to set on an early June evening that they might stumble, in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, upon a Russian-style vaudeville circus show, complete with circus acts, slapstick comedy, live music and a desert-inspired fashion show? What is this different type of designer desert?
Welcome to the wild, wonderful world of a grassroots, locally-created, regionally-inclusive, do-it-yourself collaborative arts and sustainability event, the Mystical Mojave Wild Kingdom Circus Extravaganza. The event, scheduled to take place on the night of June 2, is sponsored by the local community-based action group Transmission Joshua Tree and a host of desert musicians, community members, and artists. The eclectic Bobby Furst Theater, an outdoors art studio venue, will play host to this performance under star-sprinkled desert skies.
At dusk, local performers and participants will emerge from beneath the shadows of thick Joshua Trees to converge, and will be joined by performers from the Palm Springs/Coachella Valley, the Los Angeles basin, and Southern California's mountain and Inland Empire communities. The show will also serve primarily as a benefit for Transmission Joshua Tree, which is one of the many grassroots groups in the Joshua Tree/High Desert area that are tackling issues of 're-skilling, sustainability, and community-based action,' and drawing primarily from the collective wisdom of the High Desert and neighboring communities which they serve, and are served by, in order to do so.
The evening will bring together an eclectic line-up of performers from various artistic expressions, centered around the theme of Mojave Desert animals, which is also the motif of the accompanying fashion show. Performers will include noted animator Doug Tiano of Los Angeles, who will bring a group of friends and associates from the film industry to present a puppet show; desert musician/performers Shawn Mafia, who will tell a story of "how the elephant got its nose;" and Bobby Furgo with P.D., who will perform original music. The evening will also feature acrobatic and circus-style acrobatic performers from Flowbox Studio of Palm Springs, as well as from Zircon Wish. The fashion designers, whose desert-creature-themed works will be featured and for sale, will include Sarah Renner, Evelyn Hanna, Wish Pool, Doriandra Smith, Angela Kinley and Lanae Cue, among others.
But what makes this event so special? We've all heard of Coachella Fest, and of Burning Man, two other hugely popular and now widely commericalized music and arts events that also take place in the California and neighboring deserts. Unlike these events, the Mystical Mojave Wild Kingdom Circus Extravaganza, now in its third annual performance, is an event created by the local people, for the people - the people of the California desert and surrounding areas itself. It isn't billed as a for-profit venue mostly attended by visitors from cities far away. Attendance is also expected to be small, in the hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands, which will be consistent with the small-town feel of this desert area's many music and arts events.
With this community-grounded spirit in mind, the show will feature a strong emphasis on the "get involved" and "be part of the show" factor that has been evident also at some of the Joshua Tree area's other small-scale, but outstanding, arts festivals for decades, including, more recently, the Joshua Tree Musical and Roots Festivals, that take place twice a year. These shows involve local artists and community members in arts displays, on-site fashion and sewing booths, community and desert conservation education activities, and more.
"The Mojave Desert is a place people see as having very few resources -- like the desert itself -- but in truth, there is so much richness in art, community, human talent, motivation, time and space," says local resident and Portland, Oregon transplant Sarah Renner, a.k.a. Ferris Americus. She is a fashion designer who, along with partner Travis Puglisi, another Joshua Tree resident and music events coordinator representing Transmission Joshua Tree, has taken the lead in coordinating the Mystical Mojave Wild Kingdom Cirus Extravaganza.
"The evening is a multi-textured event that will utilize a circus inspired theme to tie together performance art, trademark desert assemblage aesthetic, community building, and fashion as a medium which has seldom been addressed as a relevant art form in the High Desert," says Puglisi. "The town itself is a bit of a nexus, with Marines, cowboys, caste offs, and a strong segment of cultural creatives, all of which will be represented on June 2nd. This event, besides being a benefit is an effort to think locally and act globally, but on an incremental scale."
For the Mojave Desert is not only a land of open spaces, of endless views, and an abundance of regional and international tourists, but a place of people, a remote and under-sung part of southern California where people live and work, and where people have the capacity to invent a new type of life for themselves. For to live and survive, and, yes, thrive, in the Mojave Desert not only allows, but requires, an active life of the imagination. And this vaudeville circus/fashion show will intersect at the heart of the human spirit and the powerful energy and inspiration of the High Desert's open spaces and storied history as a cultural crossroads for Southern California and other indigenous people, which, when combined, offer endless artistic possibilities and solutions for a new era of sustainability.
And if you just happen to be driving down Highway 62 on the evening of June 2nd, as the western sky turns ruby and orange, and then begins to go dark, you might just catch the unusual site of a trapeze artist flying through the night, or see a magnificent creature running through a forest of Joshua Trees, adorned in a brilliant white cape, and you might not be sure if it's a human or a new hybrid of desert animal. But one thing will be sure. You will know you have entered the magical heart of the town of Joshua Tree, and that you have entered the land of the Mystical Mojave Wild Kingdom Circus Extravaganza!, which will be here only for one night, but which last forever in this part of the desert's heart, in the midst of the land of the magical and mystical desert lily known as the Joshua Tree.
Top image: Performer on stilts. Photo: Flowbox Studio.
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