BEST OF 2014: Aerial acrobat troupe takes pride in twisting circus tradition.

(Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
(Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
(Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
(Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
(Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
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December 24, 2014 - 6:45am

The performers in Nebraska’s brand new FreakWorks circus troupe both honor the tradition of its three-ring ancestors and destroy the stereotypes.


The basic acts on the FreakWorks roster have been part of traveling entertainment for centuries. There are acrobats, clowns, jugglers, and a man who breathes fire. But there is a different air to the entire proceeding. Members of the group variously describe it as “edgy,” “modern,” “creepy.” The goal they all agree is to thrill an audience with the unexpected.

“I think circus can be whatever you want it to be,” said Surreal De Sade, the stage name of the lead aerial acrobat in the group.  “I don’t’ think it has to be the traditional Barnum and Bailey show.”

The performances of Surreal and the other aerialists are the centerpiece of FreakWorks. They perform choreographed routines of intricate, physically demanding, and sometimes frightening airborne maneuvers suspended from a length of cloth, the silks, or a suspended ring, the lyra.

“It’s death defying at some point,” said Ciara Sealight, one of the founding members of the group. While at rehearsals she would hear “a lot of gasping or WHOA! There's definitely a big reaction.”

The entire art form emerged in the 1980s from the performers who created the popular Cirque de Soile stage shows. More and more those techniques have been making their way to individual enthusiasts who have turned it into a hobby and a manner of exercise.   

Surreal owns her own 20-foot metal tripod with hardware that allows her to perform anywhere it will fit.  She says exploring aerial acrobatics has become more convenient for independent artists “because of advances in the technology in the rigging and the availability of equipment to individuals has increased dramatically.”

Dramatic also describes the routines the aerialists perform. Surreal does what’s known as a ‘bicycle climb’ in which she appears to be running up the fabric head over foot.  That is followed by a gasp-inspiring ‘pencil drop.’  With her body coiled in the fabric, Surreal lets herself drop in free fall, stopping inches above the floor.

Asked how it feels during that release she laughs.

“Ecstasy? Euphoria? I guess it’s an adrenaline rush,” she decides.

Whatever the feeling it’s a physically demanding art form.

“You have to engage all your muscles, so you don’t get jolted out of alignment. It does hurt,” Surreal said. “It’s a lot more painful than what it looks like.”

Fringe theater groups have become more common. Surreal was a headline performer in the active Portland, Oregon fringe entertainment scene before returning home to Nebraska. Nightclubs, music festivals and raves are routinely booking groups such as Paper Doll Militia in Atlanta, Theater of the Bizarre in Detroit and The Amazing Giants in Columbus, Ohio.

Ciara Sealight started pulling together like-minded aerosaltants over the summer of 2014. She had become enthralled with aerial acrobatics and wanted a showcase.  Once word got out there was a local group interested in forming a small circus troupe “they’ve been coming out of the woodwork,” Sealight said. “The circus bug bit. It bit everybody.”

Suddenly she was approached by hula hoopers, a unicyclist, and a fire-breather, all driven to bring their fringe talents to a wider audience.

“We’ve been told we are a cult,” Sealight said with a laugh.

Sealight’s backyard on Lincoln’s south side turned into a miniature three-ring circus as the group rehearsed for its Halloween debut performance.

“My favorite part of this group is definitely the incorporation of different personalities and characters within the group and portraying those on stage,” Surreal said.  “It’s a collaboration that’s evolved organically.”

The two-story-tall tripods used for the aerial work meant drivers traveling on busy 27th Street would catch a glimpse of the work in progress.

That caught the attention of Alexa Roper as she drove by one evening.

Alexa limbers up at FreakWorks rehearsal. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

“I was like, 'Oh my God, I have wanted to do that for so long!'” she recalled. Working up some courage she came up to the fence and got Sealight’s attention.

“She’s got purple hair, and she goes, ‘This is right up my alley' and I say, 'Hop on over!'”

Roper was a high school gymnast but didn’t always fit in with the traditional athletes. She found an immediate bond with the unorthodox group of FreakWorks performers.  Within a matter of days she quickly showed her skill in the aerial silk routines. Sealight calls her “a little silk prodigy.”

“I always have the urge to climb to swing and spin and I was always looking for something that would give me that,” Roper said. “Once I found the silks it was like a puzzle piece that had been missing.”

While rehearsing on the lyra ring, Roper fluidly hooked her knee through the metal hoop and bent her 5’4” frame almost in half until her heel touched the back of her head with the ease of someone sitting in a chair.

The popularity of the fringe circus troupes is not only linked to the risk-taking acrobatics but the over-the-top theatrical vibe created at each performance.

As the veteran circus freak, Surreal has polished her stage persona to high gloss.

“I always try to tell a story. I try to be shocking,” she said. She likes to “portray kind of a creepy creature, bizarre and dreamlike.”

Her goal is to make herself “somewhat unforgettable.”

Drucifer McCloud runs through his hula hoop routine. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

At the FreakWorks debut performance she took the stage in a flesh-tone body suit adorned with strategically-placed black sequined appliques. Under blood red spot lights, two huge glistening bat wings unfurled off her back as she approached the hanging red silks used for the aerial routine.

Her soundtrack was Wolf Moon from the gothic metal band Type-O Negative. Her training in classical ballet was on display as she contorted her body around and through the fabric with a series of liquid moves and the dramatic ‘pencil drop.’

If it looks dangerous, Surreal says never thinks about falling.

“I might be afraid that the audience won’t understand my interpretation of what I am trying to express because that is important to me,” she said, “but as far as fear for my own safety, I have never even thought about it.”

There is no doubt in Surreal’s mind that this evolution of acrobatics is “most definitely” an important new art form.

“We are taking the music and letting it express itself through our bodies, utilizing different medium, the trapeze, the lyra.  We are taking into consideration, composition, choreography, balance of color scheme, setting the scene.”  She says those are “definitely all characteristics of art.”

“It’s an art form to get out there to show your soul,” added Sealight.

FreakWorks first public performance came on Halloween night at the Bourbon Street Theater, a venue normally associated with live bands and techno music DJs. A sell-out crowd gave the troupe a standing ovation after 90 minutes of eerie thrills and dark-themed acrobatics.

Alexa runs through a hoop number as Surreal practices on the trapeze. (Photoby Bill Kelly, NET News)

It’s been over 100 years since a renowned circus made Nebraska its home. The wildly popular Campbell Brothers Circus would park its 40 car circus train in Fairbury for the winter and unload the elephants, clowns, and sideshow carnies.  

In this newest incarnation of a Nebraska circus, part tribute, part loving distortion, the cast of Freak Works will take the stage in hopes that it’s the start of something lasting and weird.

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2014" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in October.

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