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Charlotte Duo Helps Rejuvenate Once-Forgotten Ancient Art 

An art form on the ropes

Each morning, between 7 and 8 a.m., Uday Deshpande holds court in a small field in Shivaji Park on the Mahim Bay in Mumbai, India.

For that hour, he instructs any willing student between the ages of 5 and 85 in the ancient art of Mallakhamb, a gymnastic sport in which a gymnast or gymnasts strike poses while balancing on a pole or rope. Deshpande has been described as a one-man army in the fight to keep the art of Mallakhamb alive.

Later this year, two Charlotteans will travel to Mumbai to train under him with plans to return and make their home city a national training base from which Americans can learn the centuries-old art form.

Linus Matusik has been practicing aerial arts for about three years. A little over a year ago, he introduced his girlfriend Rachel MacNab to aerial arts, specifically on ropes, which he had recently picked up, and the two have been performing together since.

In January, the pair launched Circus Innovations, a performance troupe/training company aimed to spread the popularity of circus arts throughout Charlotte and the surrounding areas. Much of their founding year will be focused on Mallakhamb. The duo are spending this week in New Jersey for intensive Mallakhamb training that will end with them receiving certification from the Mallakhamb Federation USA to become trainers themselves. Then later this year, they'll take the trip to meet Deshpande and learn more about the cultural significance of Mallakhamb in the region, something they say is of utmost importance to them as performers and teachers.

Rachel MacNab (top) and Linus Matusik strike a pose. - PHOTO BY MUHSAIN “MOOSE” COPPER
  • Photo by Muhsain “Moose” Copper
  • Rachel MacNab (top) and Linus Matusik strike a pose.

Creative Loafing sat down with the aerial artists before their trip to New Jersey to hang out (we stayed off the ropes, though) and talk circus shop.

Creative Loafing: How did you get involved with aerial arts?

Linus Matusik: My first introduction to it was at a music festival in Michigan. I hung out with some people and they seemed to really encourage me. It was something that just seemed very interesting. They encouraged me to give it a shot and I did and I found a studio when I moved here to Charlotte.

Rachel MacNab: I met this fellow last year and previous to that I had never done anything aerial at all. I was really into rock climbing, so I already had the upper body strength for it. He invited me to a project to just come try it out and I fell in love with rope completely.

What do you hope to accomplish with Circus Innovations?

Matusik: What we're looking to do is completely change the way people are doing movement and everything in the arts. We're looking to do things people aren't doing at all. We want to merge it all. We're just looking to bring in people that maybe don't have access to the arts, or who feel like maybe this isn't for them because it's only for a certain elite few. We're trying to completely break down those barriers.

MacNab: This year we want to get established more in the community. We're already well on our way to doing that, just as far as people knowing that we're here, and we're willing to teach anyone. We want to help people explore the different areas of circus arts. It's about allowing people that freedom to explore the circus arts in a structured, safe environment, but also so that they can try out whatever they want to do.

Matusik: We want accessibility, that's really important to us, and freedom. We don't want to restrict people. We believe in safety, but we also believe that safety shouldn't restrict a person. We want people to get to that next level, and that for me had been a problem in training in some studios here. It's just something where they hold your hand through everything. At the end of the day, we're adults, someone else is going to know their body better than me. So we like to give people the benefit of the doubt and let them trust themselves.

How did you two get interested in Mallakhamb?

Matusik: On New Year's Eve [2016] we were at an Indian restaurant called King of Spicy on Albemarle Road. We were just having a conversation with people there, and I had known about Mallakhamb and seen it before but I'd never really thought of it as a connection to the circus world, even though it's literally the origins of everything we do. I'd never really connected the dots, and we got to talking and we just kind of decided we could actually do this.

MacNab: We were talking about how it's the history of circus, and I was like, Why have I never heard of this? Teach me everything.

What have you learned?

MacNab: It started in the 12th century as a training practice for wrestlers, then it just disappeared.

Matusik: Legend has it, the monkey god Hanuman passed down his powers and imbued warriors to have these powers to fight off outside invaders, which is just such a cool fucking story to me. But then it kind of disappeared for about 600 years, all these moves, until it had a resurgence when British imperialism was being fought back against in the 18th century. There was a big resurgence in Indian culture, people were proud of this thing. Cricket was a British sport, and it was really forced upon Indian people, and around that time, that's when Mallakhamb was seen as a way to fight back.

MacNab: People started to get really into it because they were like, "This is India. This is Indian." So after 600 years of just not even existing, it all of a sudden came back.

What does this upcoming trip to Mumbai mean to you both as aspiring Mallakhamb teachers?

Matusik: I really like finding the origins of everything we do. After performing for years, this has become my passion, this is becoming my life. I'm going all the way into this, and I like the ideas of finding the origins of it, because a lot of times you just don't hear about that, where it came from. You hear about Barnum & Bailey in the 19th century, but even that's gone. I don't want to lose things. I think cultural preservation is very important and we can learn a lot from it.

MacNab: It's a life goal for me that [Uday Deshpande] teach me and I train with him. He's been doing this for 40 years, and competitively practiced it before that. He runs a school right now for children around age 4 who are blind, and he's teaching them Mallakhamb. That part of it just floors me because it ties my two passions together of circus arts and all of this cool stuff I can do, and I'm professionally a therapist for kids with special needs, so it just brings it all together for me.

And what does it mean to be able to bring that experience back to Charlotte?

Matusik: We really want to see circus arts and the arts in general grow in this city. I feel like there's plenty of room for growth there and that's what we're looking to do.

MacNab: Even people we know who start off in Charlotte and get into art — not even necessarily circus arts —they get good and they leave. We want to get good and stay.

Matusik: As soon as they get talent, they're off. That's not what we're looking to do. We want to build it up here, and that's our goal is to be here.

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