#463: The Greatest Show on Infinite Earths

April 13th, 2015

Mister Terrific hoists the Green Arrow into the sky. Captain Hammer patrols the crowd, a groupie perched on the nape of his neck. A Jedi and Joker juggle as the 11th Doctor balances his sonic on the tip of his nose.

This is Acrobatica Infiniti. This is the nerd circus.

Geek Bar Beta is a nerdy enclave in the brutal scenesterism of Wicker Park. A test case for a planned theme bar a few hoods over, it’s a clean, well-lighted place for a drink, a Nintendo-themed appetizer and a rousing bout of “Settlers of Catan” with your best gal and WoW guild.

And on April 10, the costumed performers of Acrobatica Infiniti hosted a party celebrating the Kickstarter campaign to bring nerd circus to Chicago.

As P. Parker spidermanned the Kickstarter table, acrobats dressed as superheroes, villains, Time Lords and Jedi contorted, balanced, juggled and spun for the assembled crowd. It wasn’t the full show — no room for Dark Phoenix’s trapeze act or a knife-juggling Nightwing in the Geek Bar — but just a taste of what could come if the project hits full funding.

All the acrobats are trained professionals.

“We’re not playing games here. They’re dangerous stunts,” Marketing Manager Jess Kaswiner said.

This collective of pros who go to cons was founded by trapeze artist Tana Karo, AKA Tank.

A few years back, Tank and Sarah Blum, her then-partner on a double trapeze act, started bandying about ideas for where they wanted to take their act. They planned to do a routine as Batman foes Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, but Tank got an overseas contract and Sarah retired from the trapeze.

“It spurred a bigger idea: What if we’re not the only people who are interested in this?” Tank said. “And can we basically merge everything we’ve learned about circus with everything we love about geeks and nerd fandom?”

Today, the now-retired Blum acts as the “Head Nerd Consultant” for the collective, ensuring costumes are accurate, suggesting themes and fielding patently ridiculous suggestions like a Batgirl/Robin act.

“If you’re an übernerd like me, you know Batgirl and Robin really don’t go together on their own,” she said, working a merchandise table while dressed in pitch-perfect Black Widow gear. “They need a reason to work together.”

Blum has the nerd cred, winning the C2E2 trivia contest in 2013 with a three-person team.

This, for the uninitiated, is the equivalent of getting two buddies and winning the World Series.

Tank did end up making a Harley Quinn costume for her act, and adding bits of nerdery throughout.

“I was doing these themed acts and they were more popular than anything else I was doing, and I was having more fun,” Tank said. “At one point, I was making enough money on an overseas contract, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should get a community together and talk about this, see if this is something that enough people are interested in that we could make a group.’ It turns out that yes, it is.”

Chicago seemed a likely place to start.

“In Chicago, there is a huge network of emerging and young, talented acrobats and performing artists,” Kaswiner said. “A lot of them have been working independently, kind of scraping by trying to do their thing.”

Kaswiner the marketing manager got involved when she overheard Tank talking about the project. The acrobat and the arts marketer were in the same Bikram yoga class. Kaswiner heard Tank ask at the front desk if the yoga studio rented space.

“I went up to her and said, ‘It sounds like we should talk. You sound like you’re looking for a lot of things, and not just space,’” Kaswiner said.

The two started talking organization, space, funding, networking, incorporation as an LLC — anything needed to bring the scattered and competitive world of acrobats together.

“I don’t think that the infrastructure has been there to support the young professionals who are not part of Cirque du Soliel, Redmoon — performing with an organization,” Kaswiner said. “We had the need. We created it.”

Spaced over the next few weeks, illustrator Emily Torem and I will be profiling several Acrobatica Infiniti performers, sharing their tales of how they joined the circus.

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