Copyright ©2001 by The Hawaii Tribune Herald 


Bellyacres is the Place to Be for Jugglers 

By Alan D. McNarie


Nestled in an ancient forest above Seaview Estates in Lower Puna is one of the most unusual farms on the Big Island. In addition to citrus and mangoes, avocadoes and coconuts, Bellyacres grows jugglers and clowns.

"You can think of this as a farm, or as a collection of jugglers and performers, but what this really is, is a social experiment," says juggler Graham Ellis, on of Bellyacres' permanent residents. The farm is owned by a hui of 30 circus-type performers from around the world.

Some live on the land there; Henrik Bothe, for instance, has moved his family into a farm dwelling among Bellyacres' palm trees and mangoes, and gives weekly performances on the cruise ship M.S. Independence. Other hui members are only occasional guests. But all have pledged membership in the hui for life.

"You can leave, but you're still a member," explains Ellis. "We have people who leave for five, eight--we even had one individual who was gone for ten years, then showed up again..."

The farm serves as home to Hawaii's Volcano Circus, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting "the healthy development of children and the community through the time-honored skills of the circus." Every February for the past fifteen years, circus members and other performers have held the International Circus Arts Festival on the Big Island--first at Kalani Honua Retreat Center in Puna, and later at Spencer Beach Park in North Kohala. This year, unfortunately, the festival will be held for the first time on Oahu, simply because it has outgrown available facilities here. For the past two years, the group has also held benefits for the Palace Theater in Hilo. The first year, the show at the Palace was headlined by the world-famous Flying Karamozov Brothers, one of whose members is a Bellyacres co-owner.

But Bellyacres may be best known as the home base for the Hiccup Circus, which Ellis runs.

Hiccup Circus performers annually invade at least three East Hawaii schools. The next visit will be to the Connections Charter School in Mountain View on the week of January 22-26. "We're going to be using circus in English, geography, math...have it be a theme for a week," says Ellis.

Ellis also teaches "juggle for success" classes, using juggling as a "front" to "teach students to overcome their fear of failure". Instead of balls or clubs, he starts the kids with "scarves, because they're less intimidating." Would be amateur jugglers can come to a bi-weekly course the he teaches in Hawaii Paradise Park. But students with professional juggling aspiration must make the pilgrimage to Bellyacres.

Shannon Hassard is one of those students. Currently working as a lawn mower for The Arc, a vocational rehabilitation center in Hilo, Shannon plans soon to debut his professional juggling act for birthday parties and other local events. In the living room of Ellis's home--which, like most buildings in Bellyacres, has a rather high ceiling--Ellis helps Hassard polish his technique with a range of juggler's paraphernalia, from balls and pins to spinning plates and cigar boxes. They practice flipping a hat in the air and catching it on their heads. (The secret isn't getting under the hat at the right time, so much as it is making sure that the hat does precisely the right number of mid-air flips, so the brim side is down when it meets the head). Ellis demonstrates the "Diablo"--an hourglass-shaped object that spins back and forth on a cord between two hand-held wands, like a cross between a spinning top and a yo-yo.

"Juggling doesn't just involve three balls," observes Ellis. "Juggling is really the art of manipulation."

There's a surprising amount to learn just about those balls. Which hand goes first, where the hands go, whether they cross, how the balls are caught, how many are caught at a time--change one factor, and it transforms the whole pattern that the balls follow in the air. Sometimes balls circle like an ocean breaker crashing down on itself; at other times they seem to soar upward like a fireworks fountain, or hang suspended in pairs in mid-air. Each pattern has a name: Waterfall, Columns, Under-the-Leg, Behind-the-Back, Multiples. Ellis demonstrates one pattern called "Mill's Mess," in which his hands weave over and under each other so quickly that they're hard to track.

The number of balls is also a big, big factor. Hassard has pretty much mastered three balls. But add another ball, and the pace becomes frenetic, the drops much more frequent. A master can do five balls. Six balls seem to be pretty much the practical limit--though one legendary juggler, Enrico Rastelli, reportedly could do ten.

Each year, six of Hiccup Circus's better students participate in a show called "Natural High" which tours schools statewide, preaching an anti-smoking, anti-drug message. "30 to 40 kids have rotated through the six parts," says Ellis. "We've performed on 138 occasions on Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Oahu, Hawaii and in California...It's a great peer teaching show, because the kids are performing, and inspiring other kids to perform--whatever their skills are, whether it's dancing or drama.... With these kids, it happens to be circus skills."

Some of those students have gone on to become professionals. Ellis speaks proudly of Eli Allen, for instance, who is now working his way through college as Elron the Gentleman Juggler.

The Hiccup Circus also has another, very special group of students. "Each year I go over to the cultural festival at Pu`ukohola Heiau, the heiau at Spencer's Beach, and I teach juggling there," he says. "We use coconuts for that because you can't use plastic balls...Ironically, we are considered to be Westerners with western skills, but actually the skills that we are practicing are traditional Hawaiian.

Juggling is actually one of the oldest and most universal of known art forms, dating back at least 4,000 years. The ancestors of the Polynesians may well have learned it on the Asian mainland before they began their long migration. When Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii, his sailors observed Hawaiians juggling balls of stone or plated leaves, performing balancing acts on spherical stones, and walking on stilts. Women in Tonga still juggle as many as six kukui nuts at once.

Ellis recognizes the pattern that the Tongan women use. "It's called the Shower pattern," he says.

The universality of juggling is reflected in the makeup of the Bellyacres residents. Bothe, for instance, was born in Denmark; Ellis came from England. In 1978, he remembers, "I was just a school teacher, and one of the Karamozov Brothers taught me how to juggle, and my life hasn't been the same since," Ellis grins. "Watch out!"

Bellyacres germinated at the island's third Circus Arts Festival in 1987. "A group of people said, 'Let's buy a piece of land together,'" recalls Ellis. The group started out with a single "yurt"--a round Mongolian-style tent--with its roof raised somewhat to accommodate flying balls. The Yurt still stands, though it is seldom used now. The walls are still painted in bright pastels, with a circus ring-like star painted in the center of is aging wood floor.

Now the group is planning its biggest change yet. At his computer, Ellis prints off an artist's rendering of the performing arts center they hope to build, with classrooms and a large, open performance space--complete with a high ceiling, of course.

The farm's ten or so permanent residents eat together at least once or twice a week at the communal kitchen. All decisions about running the farm and trust are made by consensus--100% agreement, not by majority rule. It's all part of the learning experiment, says Ellis. "How do you get to point where you can agree? You learn to communicate. That's hard," he says.

So far, though, they've managed it. And learning to balance the relationship of 30 human beings may be the hardest, most satisfying juggling act of all.

"Let's face it," says Ellis. "If a small group of anarchistic jugglers cannot live and play in harmony, what hope is there for the other six billion people?"


Author’s Note: The above headline, and all Kama`aina Shopper headlines, were written by an editor at the Hawaii Tribune Herald, and not by the author.

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Updated February 9, 2001