| ANGEL LEMKE
MIKEY BUTANE is more of a concept than a person, even if some folks associate the name with Mikey Thomas, founder of the Mikey Butane Movement Group. Thomas and some of his troupe members sat down with Quorum Columbus to explain how one dancer’s stage name evolved into an aerial arts lab and performance space in Franklinton’s 400 West Rich Street.
“When I moved to New York City, I went as Michael Thomas, and I found there were a lot of performers in the dance and musical theater fields who had my same name,” says Thomas. He finally chose to go by Mikey, the name his grandmother called him, when The New York Times needed a clear way to identify him from other artists, and it stuck.
Even then, folks told Thomas he needed a “flashy” name, and “Butane” originally came out as an offhand joke. Though Thomas doesn’t go by Mikey Butane himself, the aerial arts performance group he leads has taken the name. “I like the idea of ‘Butane’ just because it’s this kind of low-brow, combustible kind of material, and we try to have a real combustible, energetic presence,” he explains. That combustible presence is felt wherever you find the group performing, which could be anywhere from their Movement Activities lab space and training center to Gallery Hop to the Downtown Hilton Grand Opening to Trauma.
“I had needed to be able to fly on the trapeze for a show in New York, so I started training, and I loved it—more than dance. I just decided it’s what I wanted to do,” says Thomas. The aerial arts are related to circus, but there are some key differences. “Mostly circus is about that spellbinding moment when they do a triple flip and get caught.” The aerial arts on the other hand are “a little more about athleticism, about artistry. Maybe it takes us a little more into theater or performance art,” says Thomas. When his Taiwan work visa ended, he brought his passion for aerial arts and his decade of performance experience back to Columbus.
“I love Columbus, and after going other places, I feel like there’s not a better city. It sounds cheesy, but it’s affordable, it’s easy to get around, people are friendly. There’s a great gay and lesbian community here, which I love,” says Thomas. And perhaps most important for Thomas’s performance group, “It’s easy to do things. It was important to me to come back to take this opportunity to do what I really wanted to do, and Columbus allowed that.”
Thomas was immediately attracted to 400 West Rich Street and was one of its earliest tenants. “I walked into this building, and it was disgusting. They had cars parked in here. It was raining inside here. I was the only person on this floor, and I rentedby the week,” says Thomas. On the ceiling and beams, you can still see remnants of apparatuses Thomas hung as he moved around the evolving space. Thomas loved the gritty feel. “We are not LA Fitness; we are not a special club. When people walk in, you know right away if this is not gonna be for them.”
When Thomas moved in, there were plenty of naysayers. He remembers, “People said, ‘No one’s gonna come to Franklinton. Nobody’s gonna pay to be in this building.’ And now look what’s happening.” Still, Thomas gets encouraged to go elsewhere. “People all the time are like, ‘Come teach in the suburbs, teach children, make more money.’ It’s not what I want to do.” Matt Wovrosh, one of the group’s instructors, adds that Franklinton really fits the group’s identity. “Franklinton very much exists kind of between the cracks of other things, or on the periphery, and we also exist in the cracks of other traditions and practices and exist kind of on the periphery.”
If the group isn’t catering to suburbanites, Thomas is unapologetic about who it is for: “I wanna have people who really feel passionate about what they’re doing. I want people who can’t afford it to be able to come in and do it, and I want the LGBT community involved. That’s why I’m here,” says Thomas. He goes out of his way to partner with other LGBTQ small business owners, such as Jes Bodimer of Aspire Circuit Training, who also performs with the group. Thomas says, “I’m tired in the world news and national news of hearing all this ‘We’re not gonna service these people,’ all this stuff going on right now. Push and push and push, and watch us let the dollars speak.” The group hopes to add Pride and ComFest appearances in the future, despite the challenges presented by outdoor spaces. In March, they will exhibit at the Arnold Classic in conjunction with Studio Rouge.
Thomas’s true passion is the artistic aspect of the sport, however. “I want us doing meaningful, creative, unique stuff. We try to sneak in a little bit of art,” says Thomas. A recent show incorporated a German Bauhaus movement theme. “It was a movement about functionalism, shape and form. A performer doesn’t have to be all sparkly and pretty to be entertaining,” Thomas explains.
“One of the things that Mikey’s themes often do is challenge us as performers to think about our art form in a different way,” adds Wovrosh. Being asked to think about his performance in this new expressive way “was probably just as challenging as anything else that we’ve done on the bar.” Brad Mead, the group’s marketing intern, was also challenged by the show. “I did a duet with a lady, and we did solid colors, really unified. We made symmetrical shapes with each other’s bodies. It was great.”
Thomas strives to keep the aerial arts accessible. “We have classes for beginners that have never done it, exercise classes, very beginner workshops. I want people to feel like they can just walk in and try it. I don’t want it to be elite or exclusionary.” When asked why the group seems to have a particular appeal for queer people, Thomas says, “We’re just pounded and pounded and pounded to be on the defense, and we try to just announce that you don’t have to be anything but yourself in here.”
Wovrosh points out that this ethic of acceptance also affects their performance aesthetic. “Things look a little bit more grounded, a little bit more like things that you would see in everyday life rather than an inaccessible circus-kitschy atmosphere that doesn’t seem real.”
Mead and Wovrosh made the leap from classes to performance at Thomas’ encouragement. Wovrosh says, “Mikey is really good at drawing things out of you, and now I’ve learned to lean into the uncomfortable a little bit, and welcome those sorts of challenges.” Thomas joins in, “These guys are perfectly imperfect. The most difficult people I have to work with are people who are classically trained in dance or gymnastics; I want people that perform like they’re real people. I want this group that struggles hard together to make interesting work.”
That interesting work will be on display March 28 at their next 400 West Rich Street show. The theme has not been announced, but Thomas teases that it is not to be missed: “We try to do in-house shows to keep ‘em affordable for people to attend and be offended at. We want people to be shocked and amazed and have fun.”
Want to give the aerial arts a try?
Monthly beginner workshops offer a no-commitment introduction.
ILLUSTRATIONS | MIKEY THOMAS
PHOTOS | RAY LAVOIE