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Gusman takes first place at Azul Fest Hawai‘i

KAPA‘A — A local acrobat took first place overall in a worldwide competition last Saturday, soaring over her competition with a nearly five-minute performance on silk ribbons suspended 22 feet in the air.

Ne‘keya Gusman, 31, of Kapa‘a, has performed as a professional aerial artist since 2017. Her award-winning entry to Azul Fest Hawai‘i 2021, which was streamed online due to the coronavirus pandemic, is an allegory for the past year.

“I’m the flower that’s trying to come out of this winter storm, and trying to find growth and find my way,” she told The Garden Island. “That was kind of the message that I was just trying to evoke to the viewers, because I know, with COVID, lots of people had things happen to them … it was a different way of life for all of us … I feel like I feel like we all can relate to that.”

Gusman’s combination of athleticism and artistic sensibility won over the competition’s four judges, all of whom operate aerial arts studios in the state of Hawai‘i. Azul Fest Hawai‘i representative Amy Johnson called Gusman’s work “beautiful.”

“When you see a really good aerialist, you’re just drawn in by their emotion, just the way they connect with the music,” Johnson, who organized the competition between 18 Hawai‘i residents and one U.K. performer, said. “She had a little bit of a poem at the beginning, to give you a feel of where her performance was going, and the lighting and the mood of it … it was just magical.”

Gusman was born and raised in Williamsburg, Va., and has lived on Kaua‘i for 10 years. She was introduced to the aerial arts in 2014, when she noticed a girl “rigging” in a tree near Kapa‘a. The sight sparked something within her, and she soon found an aerial silk instructor in Anahola, who invited her to go pro after years of practice. Gusman has since landed gigs at the Grand Hyatt and Koloa Landing resorts, and performed for local organizations and events including Love Life, Kaua‘i Pride 2019, The B-Rad Foundation, The Kaua‘i Animal Welfare Society and Ori Uvira Hoike 2018.

The aerial arts are demanding, Gusman said, noting her background in cheerleading did not provide her with the boost she thought it would.

“It’s a different animal,” she explained. “It’s a lot more work, a lot of effort and you constantly have to keep your body trained up for it.”

But according to Johnson, anyone can become an aerial artist, despite the challenges.

“Gymnasts and dancers take to aerial arts like ducks to water, because they just have the strength, the grace and the body awareness,” Johnson, who now runs a studio in Kailua-Kona, said. “But I don’t have much of a dance background … I saw an aerialist when we went to a music festival in California, and I was just like, ‘I want to do that.’ I came in with not a lot of experience, just the willingness to try.”

World-famous acts like Canada’s Cirque du Soleil and aerialist performances on television shows like “America’s Got Talent” have increased the public’s interest in acrobatics in recent decades, Johnson continued, rattling off a list of “circus schools” located throughout North America. She credits Cirque du Soleil, in particular, with taking the art form “out of the circus tent” and into a new context, where it became fine art.

“Aerial arts is kind of a branch of circus,” Johnson said. “It really started with trapeze, and then it went off into silks, and I feel like now there’s so many specialty apparatuses that people make and stuff.”

Gusman is a specialist. In addition to performing several configurations of aerial silk, she also performs with a net and lyra (hoop). Other styles recognized by Azul Fest Hawai‘i, which is one of 67 Azul Fest chapters across the globe, include pole sport, cube, spiral, umbrella, flying pole, rope, straps and chains.

As the overall winner of Azul Fest Hawai‘i’s first-ever world competition, Gusman earned a $200 cash prize, a one-month scholarship (or online class equivalent) to Sharm Circus School Dubai and free online aerial classes to Training Shoes Argentina. She, along with other Hawaiian competitors, has also qualified for Azul Fest’s world championship in December.

“I was not anticipating a win at all … So, watching the competition and seeing my face at the end was very shocking,” Guzman said. “I’m really still processing it all, but I’m really excited to be performing at the world championship.”

Gusman also appreciated the opportunity to see other talented aerialists who call Hawai‘i home.

“There aren’t really a lot of aerialists here on Kaua‘i, but there seems to be a lot on the Big Island and on O‘ahu,” she said. “So, it’s so great to see how much talent is spread throughout the entire (state).”

Noa Gusman, Ne‘keya’s husband, is likely her biggest fan. A professional performer himself — he practices fire knife dancing on a weekly basis — Noa is ecstatic in the wake of his wife’s achievement.

“I’m extremely, extremely proud of her,” Noa said. “She’s been putting in effort, a lot of effort, and on top of that, with school and stuff getting in the way, it’s hard for her to get out there and train. So, her winning this was just really, really cool.”

Gusman simply calls her acrobatics an outlet “just like anybody else has.”

“Whether it’s the gym or if it’s to go shopping, we all have to have some sort of outlet, just to release,” Gusman said. “That’s kind of what it’s always been for me, as far as performing aerial arts. It’s never been about, you know, showing off to people. I know that comes with it — I love to share my art with people — but for me, it is just about that release of everything that has happened during the week, or the day, or the month. It’s like my coping skill.”


Scott Yunker, general assignment reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or
Source: The Garden Island

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