Dancing on the Wind
Aerial art takes flight in Chicago
By Jen Billock
The room sits in darkness, a single spotlight shining on the stage. A band of thick elastic hangs, slowly spinning, in the middle of the illuminated circle. Then, music. A dancer slips out to the stage, close to the floor, moving in time with the beat. Flowing, hypnotic movements fuel the artist as she leaps toward the bungee, grabbing hold in mid-air and flying toward the audience, then pulls back in an empyrean flight around the stage. The mystical movement, the flowing form—this is aerial dance.
Aerial dance takes the traditional art form to a new level. Using equipment like the silks, lyra, and trapeze, the dancers rise up from the depths of the dance floor and explore an uncharted, vertical space. Aerial Dance Chicago, a studio and school in an unassuming north side neighborhood building, is pioneering this dance form in the city. “We’re trade marking our own type of movement vocabulary,” ADC Assistant Director Danielle Garrison says. “We’re bringing our own essence into the dance world. It’s not really being done many other places, this idea of using the apparatus as part of the dance and not being able to tell the difference between the ground and the air.” Dancers once constrained to working on solid ground or on the hands of another performer now float free from those restrictions, seamlessly making a transition from floor to sky in an astounding display of physical strength. The liquid-like movements that result resemble the age-old dream of flying. “When movement can be done without the constraint of gravity, the range of movement can be fully realized,” Rose Mulvey, a student at ADC, says. “Since I was a kid I have wanted to fly and aerial dance is the closest you can get to that feeling.”
Aerial dance has introduced a new standard to the world of contemporary dance—and its effects on the art form are palpable. “Movement gains a new freeness and a larger vocabulary,” Francesca Bourgault, another ADC student, says. “Other forms of art might take this example to explore the melding of mediums and new ways for creating.” Mulvey agrees. “In dance it allows for expression and exploration on a totally new movement plane,” she says. “The ability to utilize this space is exciting to watch and its possibilities are endless.”
ADC is the only school in Chicago dedicated strictly to art-dance performance. For a different type of daring, check out Aloft on the near west side, a circus-oriented aerial studio. The performances still push the boundaries of gravity, but Aloft brings in more of the big top. The studio’s monthly show, El Circo Cheapo Cabaret, attracts top-name circus performers from the world over.
Traditionalists, don’t be turned off by the greenness of the aerial dance form. The style rivals the intensity and emotion of traditional dance. “Using the vertical dance floor, it makes your story come to life a little bit more,” Garrison says. “When you’re just on the ground dancing, the level of emotion you can portray in your body is limited to the floor. When you’re in the air, you can really accentuate that feeling because you’re floating and your body can do things that it can’t do just on the ground, which opens the possibilities for more emotions to come through physically.”
At a time when most contemporary dance has reached an almost pedestrian level, aerial dancers strive to take you to another realm, another world outside the limitations of everyday life. Gone is a feeling of, “I can do that,” when watching a performance. Introduced is the idea that anything can happen, that you are part of something bigger, something beyond the ordinary. The idea is quite freeing—and quite overwhelming. But try to avoid ascribing a meaning to the dance. The best piece of advice for a spectator new to aerial comes from Bourgault: “Treat it like a piece of music. Let the work wash over you and take it all in rather than trying to pick out a meaning or story.”
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