November 2012 | Daring Young Dancers

Zaccho Youth Company dancers seek the poetic meaning behind the aerial movement. Photo by Laurie Wigham

Taking movement to its heights with aerial dance
By Rita Felciano

Only a few minutes ago, they were swinging, twirling, and balancing over our heads. Now the 12 dancers are earthbound, standing in front of parents and friends on a Saturday afternoon last March, as poised and gracious a group of teenagers as you are likely to encounter. Members of San Francisco’s Zaccho Youth Company (ZYC), they have just shown excerpts of their repertoire, performed on the floor and on trapeze, hoops, and a multi-paned “window.”

Outside of the studio, a former mattress factory, some study modern dance, one is a theater major, another a belly dancer, another a praise dancer. The lone boy is a clarinetist. He wandered in a couple of years ago with a friend, and stayed. When they answer questions, the consideration they show each other is impressive. Even the shyest among them speaks up. The biggest difference about being off the ground? A rotating sense of space. The hardest thing? Adjusting to various hoop sizes. How about gravity in the air? It’s always there, and you feel it.

“Aerial dance” is about as elastic a term as the bungee cords on which performers bounce, sometimes even in tutus. The lack of a universally accepted definition—alternating between gymnastics, circus arts, and dance—has not prevented the practice from spreading to gyms, studios, and summer festivals from Boulder, Colorado, to Brighton, England. Today you can take to the air just for fun, to build upper-body strength, to be part of a community-building initiative, or to create choreographed poetry.

For Ninette Paloma, founder and artistic director of Santa Barbara’s six-year-old La Petite Chouette, dedicated exclusively to aerial dance, taking off from the ground was almost innate. She had been a gymnast and “loved the athletics of it, but I hated the competitive atmosphere,” she says. She became an aerial dancer when she went to an audition for a circus, got the job, and then for a year performed a tightrope solo she’d choreographed.

The biggest difference about being off the ground? A rotating sense of space. How about gravity in the air? It’s always there, and you feel it.

It was that experience that prompted her to go to circus school—and subsequently create a curriculum that aims to develop aerial work that goes beyond a mastery of its physical challenges. Her 6-year-old “mini-monkeys,” as she calls them, learn to connect easily between the floor and the static trapeze they use. Her teen performers have integrated aerial technique into smoothly flowing performance skills in which they are at ease using the apparatus for expressive purposes. “Fabric,” Paloma explains, “can be a shadow as well as shawl.” She was referring to the long soft piece of cloth, sometimes also called “aerial silk,” which hangs from the ceiling, on which performers climb and swing. Once a year she choreographs showcases with a story line, costumes, sets, and lights. In Aerial Dance (Human Kinetics, 2008), Jayne C. Bernasconi and Nancy E. Smith distinguish between aerial practices and aerial dance. One, they say, is primarily concerned with entertainment, the other with art making, though they admit that “some of us working in aerial dance also cater to commercial interests to help support ourselves and our companies.”

The two authors attribute the rise of aerial work to two major, independently established innovations in the 1960s. On the West Coast, Terry Sendgraff, a gymnast-turned-dancer, developed the single-point trapeze. The design, with the ropes feeding into a single swivel point, extended the apparatus’ capacity for motion, most prominently with swinging and spinning. In New York, visual artist and Alwin Nikolais student Stephanie Evanitsky and her Multigravitational Aerodance Group performed off the floor using suspended objects as well as pieces of sculpture and automobile tires.

But the ’60s and early ’70s also ushered in a period of rethinking of dance on many different levels. Contact improvisation, yoga, and Skinner Releasing Technique opened new avenues for kinesthetic experiences and awareness. Improvisation as a way to generate material and develop an individual aesthetic became common practice.

Leaving the ground, of course, also plugs into an ancient dream, probably older than Icarus’ failed attempt to fly. For some the sense of floating, the illusion of defying gravity and leaving an earthbound existence behind became an element of freeing, sometimes meditative practices. Sendgraff called what she did “Motivity”: building a bridge between body and psyche.

Choreographer Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre in San Francisco, has used aerial work for site-inspired pieces for more than 30 years. Her dancers have scaled grain silos and swung from clock towers; they have hung from trapezes above airport ticket booths and climbed along the rafters of a former factory.

“For me, aerial work does several things,” Haigood says. “It alters imagery, and it changes the way people look at dancers and at situations. The floating quality manipulates our sense of time. I can also draw different lines of directions in space to make dancers move vertically, diagonally, and laterally.”

For Haigood the difference between the athlete and the dancer working on aerial equipment is clear. Physical virtuosity—“tricks,” as she calls them—won’t do. “There has to be meaning beyond the movements. It has to have poetics; that’s what you are responding to. There is a big boom in working off the ground. They are calling it aerial dance but it’s really just technical training.”

In 1990, when she started Zaccho’s Youth Performing Arts Program (an arts-education initiative developed to enhance classroom learning for elementary school children), including aerial work seemed a natural. “It lets them live out the fantasy of flying, for one thing. Many of the kids also have to break through a lot of fear, particularly as they get older,” Haigood says.

“In middle school they begin to shut down; girls begin to have issues around body image,” she continues. “But in aerial dance classes they develop self-confidence. Hanging from your arms is one thing; hanging from your heels another.” The students also learn to work together, and develop trust when they see that they can rely on a partner not to let them go.

Aerial dance as a means of fostering self-esteem, cooperation, and trust also led Smith, in 2001, to create Kids Who Fly, a Boulder-based program that is part of her company, Frequent Flyers Productions. They have installed trapezes in three public schools where at-risk youth develop life-coping strategies through aerial work.

Photo by Laurie Wigham.

At first the program used an adventure-based approach, but Smith found that the participants wanted to express themselves more individually. “They want to peel away layers and create from the inside,” she says. “Hanging from a trapeze offers a natural high even as they learn safe risk-taking behavior.” Some of the youths have been mainstreamed into the professional performing company.

Haigood founded Zaccho Youth Company in 2002 as a pre-professional aerial dance company for teens (although this year it includes a precocious 9-year-old). It’s a tight-knit group, which Haigood sees as a direct result of being involved in aerial dance, in which there is no such thing as a solo. They always have other forces to deal with, either in the not-always-predictable apparatus or the human partners they depend on for support.

As ZYC’s dancers work together, their comfort level with each other is clearly evident. The youngest and the most experienced work on different handholds on a hoop, and then each goes to her notebook to jot down observations.

One young woman is spinning around on a window apparatus, making tiny adjustments to control trajectory and speed. What about dizziness? “You get used to it,” she says later. Two others are trying to determine how far they want to stretch from inside a hoop when a third one on the floor sets them rotating. Haigood makes a suggestion about phrasing.

“It’s not that they are not competitive, but they are so in a healthy way,” she says as she observes the dancers.

These dancers take two classes a week; about a third of each is dedicated to warm-ups and preparatory work. They may start with fast walks around the studio, jumping rope, stretching, and modified push-ups and back-strengthening exercises. On the apparatus, they learn to use gravity as an anchor and a balancing tool by emphasizing its downward pull and then stretching against that in various directions. But they also develop an individual movement vocabulary that will feed their choreographies.

In the fall semester they study choreographic principles: working in a small space defined by a circle or that is moving or restricted; the time it takes for the eye to register something; the idea of frontal orientation. Above all, they talk about what makes movement meaningful and think about that all-important transition from the floor to the air. Haigood may also bring in contact improv or Laban experts, and the students then translate those approaches into their choreographic thinking, with Haigood’s input.

In the spring they develop and refine their pieces. One year, for an immigration theme, they created individual family histories and talked with day laborers in San Francisco’s Mission District. Most recently Haigood chose “Food for Thought: Dances About Nutrition, Health, and the Choices We Make” as a theme to explore.

In July ZYC traveled to Atlanta to study and perform with a “sister” institution, the D’AIR Project. Director Nicole Mermans, who founded D’AIR in 2007, considers Haigood a mentor and Zaccho “a model” for her teen and outreach programs.

The 25 teens who take classes at D’AIR twice a week pay no tuition; however, they are required to work one day a month on studio maintenance; they also teach younger kids during the year and in the summer programs. It’s all part of this studio’s belief that “everyone is a teacher; everyone is a student.”

“Initially,” Mermans says, “our training is technique heavy to give them the strength they need to do what they want.” Some of the students may have little background in movement arts, so they do core work and learn body awareness—how to locate the source of movement and engage the big muscles. “But the goal,” Mermans insists, “is always the creative process and storytelling” that leads into the dances the students develop for the year-end performances—this year’s shared with the visitors from California.

In Tucson, the 10 dancers in ZUZI!’s Youth Company, in addition to a rehearsal, take one aerial and one modern dance class per week. “One of ZUZI! Dance Company’s co-founders [in 1998], Nanette Robinson, has always incorporated aerial with modern dance,” explains Youth Company director Carie Schneider. So creating a specialized teen company, in 2004, was a natural progression.

For the small fry (4- to 6-year-olds), ZUZI! offers classes with 40 minutes of creative movement and 20 minutes on very low-flying single-point trapeze “to create physical awareness,” Schneider says. From there the students can move up, some eventually becoming part of the apprentice company and understudying the professional ensemble.

“We recently ‘lost’ one of our dancers [to college],” Schneider says. “She had been with us for 10 years and we saw her grow up. But we’ll make her come back as a guest artist.”

To the youngsters who come in full of excitement at the idea of “flying,” Schneider and her colleagues say, “we don’t teach aerial like circus tricks to show off, but as a way to express yourself through dance, and so that you can make it work for your own body. You don’t have to dance only on the ground—you can also do it in the air.”