Watching aerial dancer Elise Knudson’s solo, Visitant, is like looking at an insect undergoing metamorphosis; like inhabiting a daydream. Knudson emerges slowly from a fabric sling 30 feet long, her limbs darting out in strange shapes. Eventually she shakes free, bursting out of the folds and turning in different directions, and then into a series of flips and twists. The difficulty of being suspended in the air is often belied by her serene comportment; the only visible signs of effort are Knudson’s rippling shoulder muscles.
Aerial work has been part of the circus for a long time, but aerial dance is a relatively new development. This form uses traditional apparatuses like trapeze, rope, and fabric, but adds the artistry of dance and theater. Terry Sendgraff, a former gymnast, created this hybrid in the 1970s when she incorporated trapeze into her choreography. In contrast to circus acts, which are sequences of increasingly difficult tricks that highlight a performer’s superhuman physical abilities, aerial dance employs a circus vocabulary in service of a movement theme or narrative. In one of her early pieces, Sendgraff used trapeze to dramatize overcoming fear.
Aerial dance has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, helped by the widespread appeal of contemporary European circus groups like Cirque du Soleil. There has also been a proliferation of independent choreographers and aerialists in Brooklyn making use of the larger spaces in lofts, new studios, and warehouses turned performance venues.
Though more people have been getting turned on to this form, it is not for the timid. Aerial dance is for those who “like the extra challenge,” says Julie Ludwig, artistic director of a Brooklyn-based aerial Fly-By-Night Dance Theater. “A slight move can send a person careening off.” Dancers report frequent injuries, everything from ripped muscles to bruises to rope burns in unfortunate locations.
Dancers are drawn to this unconventional art form for many reasons. Elie Venezsky says he “lives for physical challenges.” Four years ago, Venezsky saw Sarah East Johnson’s all-female modern dance-cum-circus company, LAVA Love, perform. Riveted by their physicality and daring, he had the experience of wanting the show “to go on forever and yet at the same time wanting it to stop; it was a kind of enticing discomfort.” The show decided him on a career in the circus arts.
Elise Knudson, aerial choreographer and performer, discovered it by chance. Attracted by the “idea of spending the summer on the beach and studying dance,” she auditioned for Trapezius, a Philadelphia-based aerial group in residence at Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. She was chosen for the group and began learning the basics of circus arts. To her delight, the dance form allowed exciting possibilities for her to further explore her long-time fascination with altering the body’s shape through use of props. Knudson’s work is as much about merging with the apparatus to create new shapes and tableaux as it is about movement.
For Ludwig, it was an outlet for her “tomboy urges.” An experienced modern dancer, she found the experience of working with trapeze surprisingly similar to contact improv. Much like lifting another dancer in a duet, the prop acts like a counterbalancing weight. Ludwig professes that the “high” one gets doing aerial work can become an addiction, but she hasn’t completely abandoned the floor. In her piece Poured Light, she intentionally uses dancing on the ground to contrast with the aerial work.
Even with the budding interest in aerial dance, it is still difficult for practitioners to present individual work and make a living in the field. Many dancers use their skills to get jobs with traditional circuses, and oddly, aerial work has become a popular entertainment for corporate events. However, like all dance groups in New York City, aerialists face the problem of finding space to rehearse and perform independent works; and the technical requirements, like tall ceilings and rig attachments, present added difficulties. Over the past two years, the Physical Arts Center (PAC) in Williamsburg was a hub for aerialists, providing rehearsal and performance space. PAC hosted a number of aerial festivals as well, but unfortunately owner Gary Lai recently lost his lease—he is currently looking for a new space. In the meantime, other Brooklyn spaces like the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) and the American Can Factory in Park Slope, White Wave Studio in Dumbo, and the Bric Studio in Fort Greene strive to regularly present aerial dance.
Despite such hardships, physical and otherwise, once a person experiences flight, an “involuntary smile will appear,” says Ludwig. To be sure, shooting through the air is an unnatural experience, but humans seem to have an unconscious familiarity with flying. From the myth of Icarus and Daedalus to Superman, flying has long been a part of our cultural imagination. “Flying is innate to everyone,” says Knudson. “It’s like getting to act out a dream.”
SHANTI CRAWFORD is a choreographer and writer based in Greenpoint.