Just when I think I've seen it all, someone like Jeremy Allen Millsaps shows up. Then I'm amazed all over again at the range of artistic activity that proliferates in a buttoned-down city like Cincinnati.
Young Jeremy is an aerial artist, a producer and the first person I ever knew who went to circus school.
"It was 'Nimble Arts' in Brattleboro, Vermont," he says, "and it was an offshoot of Cirque de Soleil."
When you see him from the back, he looks a bit like Jude Law in Alfie: whippet-thin with sharp elbows and a kind of dancer's grace. When he whirls around, you notice the jaunty Carnaby Street cap, the clear eyes, the straight gaze, the focus.
Millsaps' passion is aerial dancing. He learned the moves from watching YouTube clips over and over again, and now he choreographs for a trio of dancers -- Rebecca Parker, Holly Price and himself, each clad in flesh-colored leotards -- who perform high above the ground anchored by hooks and triple-lock carabiners.
Millsaps is in the center, wrapping his arms around a column of silk and climbing it like a rope. When he gets to the top of the fabric, he flips himself over like Esther Williams doing a swan dive and winds up sitting on a swatch of the silk, his arms raised, the fabric billowing full like a sail in front of his face.
When he emerges from the chrysalis of fabric, he shines like an iridescent butterfly against the silken props.
He learned how to do the mechanical set-up in Brattleboro.
"I practiced by just climbing up and down the silk again and again," he says. "It's painful. I used to get cuts and bruises from the fabric, and I still get fabric burns sometimes when I slide down.
You really have to love this to do it."
Despite all his aerodynamic shenanigans, Millsaps is surprisingly grounded. He works at the downtown hair salon Hype and bartends occasionally at Universal Grille on Vine Street, where he has a flock of followers.
"I just finished producing a show for the Groundhogs," he says carefully.
He's sitting at my kitchen table adding milk to a cup of coffee. The sunlight from my window hits his face like a spotlight. He settles back in his chair, ready to tell the story.
"They're a group of men who met in Cincinnati 100 years ago and formed a gentlemen's club that remains below the radar," Millsaps says. "They began producing a show annually on Jan. 26 in 1998 for 120 men. Last year's show brought in hundreds. This year, they hired me to write, direct and produce an hour-long show, naughty but nice, for their guests, the CEOs and the customers from companies everywhere. It's a great opportunity for them to network."
The men who hired him were clear about the bawdy nature of the show.
"They wanted something provocative," Millsaps says. "They wanted to make this Groundhog show one the audience would always remember."
I ask him how you'd even start to plan for such a project.
"I already knew I'd have about 40 participants in the cast, so I started blocking the scenes and writing the skits," he says. "There were 12 skits in it -- double-entendre, no nudity. I wrapped balloons around the chests of the girls, and they wore red bikini bottoms. I found a dorky-looking hula hoop dancer, a 'Bill and Hillary Clinton' duo. Everything had a political edge to it, sort of like Cabaret."
Rehearsals began about two weeks before the show was scheduled.
"One thing I had to remember was to keep it simple," Millsaps says. "Some of the cast members were Groundhogs, and there was some drinking going on the day of the show, so not all the lines came out exactly like I'd written them, but it was a great success. The first day of rehearsal, I was intimidated by the importance of these men in the community, and I sort of froze.
"I started directing, and that part of me took over so that I forgot who I was talking to. I'm usually a perfectionist, but these guys were there for fun, so I decided to go with the flow. It made me smile, but I smiled with pleasure that I was entertaining men my granddad's age."
Like his trick with the silk butterfly wings, Millsaps loves the metamorphosis, the transformative power of production and choreography.
"My heart pounds and pounds and pounds until the stoplight hits, and then it all kicks in," he says. "I'm never the same when I'm done. I see the world and its colors and everyday movement in an abstract way. It's all choreography. I always want to do something unusual, to push the edges of the envelope."
Where does a young man go after aerial performance work and producing the 2008 Groundhog Revue?
"The Cincinnati Fringe Festival," Millsaps says. "Definitely."
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