By Erin Gallagher
For Sun-Times Media
She charged her sword at him. He defended with daggers in each hand, twirling her long steel in the air. The whoosh was heard from the wide blade as it spun. The audience held their breath.
She caught it.
Rehearsed, perfectly-timed stage combat is only one of Bolingbrook native Melanie Braxton’s many skills. She and Cincinnati’s Joshua Pikar taught a stage combat class to children at the Skokie Park District Summer on Broadway Camp July 19.
That isn’t their claim to fame – at least, they hope not. Braxton is one of 12 dancers and acrobats calling themselves the Mothmen that brought all four judges to their feet on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” in June.
On Wednesday, the show announced the Mothmen can skip round two’s judgment week and are going straight to the live rounds in August.
Pikar was there, too, behind the curtain. Because the Mothmen performance was alive with stunts and flying, he was an operator, pulling the ropes. In the next round, he will be a fight choreographer, performing stunts similar to what he taught.
“It seems so dangerous,” said judge Howie Mandel in June. “You’ve got to have mothballs to do that.”
“We were kind of rock stars the day of the program,” Braxton said. “We got four ‘yeses’ and a huge standing ovation, we were hugely popular that day.”
Even still, Braxton hasn’t let that moment go to her head.
“There are other extremely talented performers who are just as creative, innovate and skilled,” she said.
Braxton has been a dancer as long as she can remember. She started ballet at age 2. As a teen, she graduated from the Chicago Academy for the Arts, a choice she calls a “game changer,” in her career.
Since then, she met Jason Whicker and Jennifer Kelly, who co-own On The Fly Productions, the Indianapolis organization that created the Mothmen, and got the audition with “America’s Got Talent.”
“The Mothmen are such an incredibly talented group of people,” she said of the others in her troupe. “I am flabbergasted every time I am around them.”
Describing their performance is complicated. In fact, their next act likely will be quite different, Braxton said.
When asked if the Mothmen are similar to Cirque de Soleil, she shrugged.
“To an audience member, it’s probably similar because we do a lot of the same physical skills,” she said. “The point is that we do dance and acrobatics and flying and all the physical expressions.”
Although Braxton said Cirque de Soleil raises the bar in artistry and skill, she credits Whicker and Kelly for their attention to storytelling. That and the physicality make the Mothmen different from other performances, she said.
In addition to her work with the Mothmen, Braxton is an aerial trainer with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. She is a professional stunt double, having trained with the United Stuntmen’s Association. When she says she’s been fighting for ten years, she is referring to stage combat.
“Every five seconds of fighting (on camera) requires one hour of rehearsal,” Pikar said.
The next Mothmen performance is scheduled for August at Radio City Music Hall. Because the troupe members live in different states, practice is difficult – and expensive. Aerial flying requires pricy equipment, as harnesses alone cost more than $2,000 a piece.
Skipping a performance, they also miss airtime developing relationships with hopeful fans. They need the voting public’s support to make it through the final rounds.
“It’s great to be able to get the recognition for what we do,” Braxton said.
Pikar was a little more direct.
“Watch the show, vote for us,” he said.