On her first visit to the Festival of the Arts, Cory Snow Hyde expected to enjoy a pleasant springtime walk, grab a few tasty treats and check out some lovely artwork.
She didn't anticipate sitting at the base of a Chinese pole and playing the role of love interest while a whistle-wielding tweed-clad clown suddenly transformed into an agile acrobat.
The Oklahoma City resident and almost 200 other festivalgoers stared up in amazement Thursday afternoon as Derek Derek nimbly scaled the 20-foot apparatus to perform jaw-dropping feats of flexibility and strength, gripping the pole with his legs as he shed his nerdy duds to reveal a slick black costume underneath.
“I didn't know I was going to get a strip tease. I was unaware of that. ... A family-friendly strip tease,” Hyde said, laughing. “I was quite surprised. That's not something you see a guy do every day.”
Also known as Derek McAlister, Derek Derek happens to specialize in astonishing acts that most people don't see every day, whether he is juggling fire, nimbly negotiating the Chinese pole or carrying on a wordless conversation through a series of whistles, hand gestures and facial expressions.
The Texas native is the official street performer of Oklahoma City's annual “rite of spring,” and two or three times a day during the festival, he does his feats of hilarity and daring in the clearing behind Stage Center. Sometimes he opts for his “Derek Derek Fire-Juggling Comedy Show. ” On other occasions, he performs “The Twin Tango” like he did with Hyde at lunchtime Thursday.
“It's my version of a clown comedy Chinese pole love story,” he said. “It's rare to find a show that's silent or mostly silent. ... It's also, so far, quite rare to see anyone do Chinese pole in the street. It's a challenging apparatus to build, transport and then rig safely in the street. So that combination is something that I quite like.”
While the weather has varied wildly, McAlister, 34, said the crowds at his first Festival of the Arts have been consistently congenial.
“They're totally getting into it. Like most audiences, they tend to think I'm a bit weird to begin with, but then they warm up to me after a little while,” he said.
Pulling off potentially death-defying stunts that you have to see to believe two stories above the concrete does tend to win over a crowd, after all.
The Boulder, Colo., resident has been a street performer for 11 years, although he's not sure anyone really decides to embark on such a career.
“I went to Europe and I met a guy that street performs. And he was having an awesome life, making a lot of money, and I was a juggler. And I was like ‘I'll try that after I graduate.'” Surprising performances
McAlister added the Chinese pole to his repertoire four or five years ago. He has been rock climbing since he was 16, so he had the necessary strength to adapt to the pole fairly quickly. But it took him two years to develop the routine around his wordless character Harold, who looks more like a particularly dorky incarnation of Dr. Who than an athletic acrobat capable of scaling a 20-foot pole in less than a minute.
While he enjoys surprising the audience, McAlister prefers it when it surprises him.
“Personally, I think the first part of the show 'cause anything can happen,” he said. “Sometimes you just get unbelievable magic from the kid volunteers that show up.”
He definitely made a memory for Hyde, who moved to Oklahoma City about a year and a half ago. She decided to join friends at the festival Thursday before heading to work at Earl's Rib Palace in Bricktown.
“He was really funny with the pole, but then he actually started climbing it and I was quite impressed,” she said. “I will definitely come here every year now.”