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Flash Review 1, 8-3: Air Apparent
Running Away with the Aerial Dance Festival

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2001 Maura Nguyen Donohue

BOULDER, Colorado -- Wheeeeeeee! Swoop! Wow! Boing! OW! Swish! Ow ow ow! Wheeeeee! Just a typical internal (or screeched) monologue being shared by over 100 people this past week at the Third Annual Aerial Dance Festival. A festively intense five days worth of classes in bungee, low-flying trapeze, aerial fabric, aerial pole, rope & harness, hoops & loops, vertical dance, upside-down movement, stilts and/or repertory, brown bag lunches, video showings and lec-dems was followed by a weekend of performances by faculty and a repertory class. It was a thorough, brilliant festival that, in addition to sparking endless flights (of fancy) and answering some choreographic dreams, has got me good Īn' hooked. Add my name to the list -- another aerial junkie looking to get high.

Three years ago Nancy Smith, founder and artistic director of Boulder-based Frequent Flyers Productions, created the Aerial Dance Festival. It is unique in the world, offering classes in addition to performances by internationally recognized aerial dance artists. (Boston's Dance Umbrella has presented a couple Aerial Dance Festivals, as a performance series.) Attendees have traveled from all over the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and range in ages from 10 - 65 years. I took an almost suicidal four classes (bungee, rope & harness, stilts & beginning fabric) and found the teaching to be appropriately varied, depending on the apparatus being taught, and quite excellent.

Terry Sendgraff, from San Francisco and essentially the mother of aerial dance since she created the low-flying trapeze 25 years ago, was teaching low-flying trapeze and bungee, which she'd been working on since before many of her students were born. For bungee,. Sendgraff served mostly as a simple guide, introducing us to some basics and letting us play and discover on our own. Her approach worked well with the varied skill levels and in lieu of the inherent hyper tendencies this apparatus ignites. That is, unless you're Lara Croft, in which case you might use a bungee ballet to unwind after a long-day's tomb raiding. (Note: if you don't get that last reference and can't stand Angelina Jolie, but would still like to see some bungee work, rent "Tomb Raider," fast forward about half an hour and just watch that one scene. It's luscious and fun.) Karola Luttringhaus and Andrea Lieske, both originally from Berlin and now based in Winston-Salem, NC, of Alban Elved Dance Company shared some of their approaches to rope & harness work within a modern dance context by teaching parts of their repertory. Though Lieske spends half of her year in New York City, she has 10 years experience working with Luttringhaus and the team works well in class and exceptionally well on stage.

Both Cathy Gauch, of Boulder's Aircat Aerial Arts, teaching beginning & advanced aerial fabric and hoops & loops and David Clarkson, from Sydney, Australia's Stalker Theatre Co., teaching stilts were particularly attentive and insightful teachers. Gauch, a former member of Frequent Flyers, was always quick to offer helpful hints for executing some of the most basic, but difficult, locks & wraps. Clarkson brought his yogic experience into the class as both preventative measure against some of the discomforts resulting from stilt walking and as exercise to enhance stilt groundwork. Each was adept at demonstrating what they were teaching and allowed plenty of time for self-led experimentation. But even with the excellent guidance, I couldn't escape some of the truths of certain aerial work.

My entire pelvic girdle was covered in bruises for the full week and my biceps were in seizure at the end of each day. My center of gravity was thoroughly distressed and by the end of the week, I'd accumulated a fair share of motion sickness -- to the point where a forward bend was cause for minor concern. Of course, it still wouldn't stop me from flipping and spinning whenever I got a turn on the apparatus. It's just too much fun.

The brown bag lunches allowed artists to gather and informally discuss various topics of concern to aerialists. As thrilling as aerial work can be, there is what feels at times like an overwhelming amount of daunting additional work involved in trying to create, rehearse, fund, perform and tour aerial work. This is an apparatus-based dance form. With it comes issues of insurance, rigging, supplies, available and hang-able space, building design, and more. It's also quite often a 'borrowed' apparatus form. The harnesses, ropes, bungee, and other supplies are not made for this particular use, so getting specifics from manufacturers can be difficult to impossible. It takes a fair share of planning, rigging and gear in order to take flight.

The video showing included a delightful work for rope, harness & pulley by San Francisco-based Kim Epifano, a sweet and lovely duet performed on a climbing wall by members of the Boulder-based Vertical Dance Company and a phenomenal documentary video of "MiMih," Stalker Theatre Company's collaboration with indigenous peoples in Australia. Inspired by legendary creatures, "MiMih" includes live aboriginal music, stunning stilt creatures, an enormous tree-like structure, bungee and rope work. "MiMih" is an enormous and well-executed production that was also followed by another collaboration for the two groups called "Crying Baby." The latter is such a large production that the set can only travel by sea for international gigs.

The lecture demonstration was a wonderfully informal event that allowed us to see most of the faculty perform on apparatus and to hear a bit of background. It was a great warm-up to Friday night's opening performance at Boulder's Dairy Center for the Arts. Nancy Smith throws a superb festival and can put together one hell of a program of aerial dance performance. The two-plus hour show was chock full of vibrancy, rigor, power and grace.

Luttringhaus's "Alternate Reality," a duet for herself and Lieske, is a highly striking work that perfectly exemplifies aerial modern dance. Luttringhaus (or resident rogue, as I nicknamed her for myself) is a tall, stunning woman with sharp Germanic features, dyed red hair and black boots. She's constructed a darkly comedic work of delightful dance theater that reveals how aerial work can augment an idea without becoming all about the equipment. The dance is richly layered with intricate craftsmanship. Each dancer is in rope & harness and revealed separately on his or her own wooden block, designed to abstractly evoke a waterfront cliff. Each performs a solo sequence to introduce the alternate spaces. Lieske spends a good part of four minutes upside down and spinning while Luttringhaus unsuccessfully attempts to dive off, only to be thwarted by her own rope. When they each begin to enter the other's realm the dance takes off into thrilling moments of suspension, swing and split second timing. Luttringhaus and Lieske are synergic partners; their timing, theatricality, execution and risk taking is superb.

Jo Kreiter, of Flyaway Productions in San Francisco, closed the program with an excerpt from "Maybe Grief is a Good Bird Flying Low." My only complaint would be that I had to watch it in excerpt. And that the excerpt was from the final section. I am thoroughly intrigued by what I've seen and I want to see more. But I want to see this work in its entirety. One can feel that we are witnessing an enigmatic end of an unknown journey. However, this is not an artistic complaint -- just my greedy desire to see more of Kreiter's work. The work and the company, made up of Kreiter, Rachel Lincoln, Dominique Zeltzman and Dance Insider Christine Chen, adeptly exemplify what I am looking for in concert aerial dance. I am riveted by the dancers even when they are standing on their own two feet, away from any apparatus. The entrances and exits, the asymmetry, the musicality (and the music by Carla Kihlstedt and Shazad Ismally) and a wonderful spinning duet for the buoyant Chen and sultry Zeltzman are compositional gems. I could watch the exquisite Lincoln shift and ooze through a solo in the midst of an aerial spinning merry-go-round for days. Kreiter has composed movement phrases that express a profound sorrow without melodrama. Her duet with Lincoln is an achingly beautiful moment of blessed comfort. There is a simple sincerity in the movement that my writing can't equal. It's a work to see for yourself.

Clarkson's "Fast Ground," a stilt solo in three parts, is a hands-down, rip-roaring, pulse-tingling showstopper. Color me tickled that the hottest parts of the entire evening happen on the floor while the presence of stilts at an aerial dance concert (Clarkson does end up aloft in stilts and harness eventually) was on the floor. Clarkson is a master. He brings stilt work to a level of such extreme rigor, physicality and showmanship, I'm not sure why anyone would willingly choose to perform after him. Years of direct audience contact and outdoor international festivals have made him a powerhouse performer. This is not your average parade-pounding, striped pants, clown-faced stilt walker. Clarkson rips through the space -- jumping, leaping, and rolling on stilts. He offers up a no handed headstand, a scorpion balance, back arches and even a front walk-over. And this is all while balanced on three-foot high stilts. Just crawling with those things on kicks my ass. The house explodes when he enters, completely covered in a green-hooded rope and arm planks that heighten the theatrical image of a foreign creature. Peter Kennard's music meets and feeds the energy with pulsating rhythms, leaving the audience breathless and giddy. You've probably seen his work; he trained performers and choreographed and performed in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics. The guy flying way overhead in stilts with pyrotechnics exploding -- that was him.

Also on the program was a witty trio for Brian Meeks, his internal dialogue and bungee cords called "No Apology"; an elegant, sweet tango (yeah, I wouldn't usually put sweet before tango either but she pulls it off somehow) for Cathy Gauch and her fabric titled "It Takes Two?"; and a seductive excerpt for Wendy Diamond, Chimene Pollard and Alana Stroud on hoops, by Terry Sendgraff. The trio, titled "Scorched," hypnotizes you as if you were watching an intricate weathervane spinning in the wind. Or perhaps like three sirens in repose.

Nancy Smith's "Mousetrap," for eight dancers, seems to have been inspired by the board game of the same name. Presenting work like this -- with mostly inexperienced, albeit energetic dancers -- amidst the range of other works made apparent the great disparity that exists between artists working regionally and those whose careers are formed in the active arts communities of urban centers. Generally speaking, artists coming out of major cities are subjected to a more rigorous system of critical response and higher levels of competition for funding, and audiences. They're also exposed to more work and have access to a larger pool of 'talent' with whom to work. The high standard set amongst these communities pushes artists from within them to expand the boundaries of their medium. A place like Boulder doesn't offer that to an artist. I applaud Smith for bringing such a varied program to her community, perhaps helping expose her own audience and company to more sophisticated work.

For more information on aerial dance click here. Also check out my Dance Insider reviews of New York City-based troupe Antigravity, or France's Cirque Plume, by entering their names in the search engine on our Home page.


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