Gymnasts flip into modern-dance territory

On its first US tour, 'Aeros' is a high-flying fusion of athletics and art

"Aeros" is a concept whose time has not only come, but is long overdue. Combining the strength and elasticity of the gymnast with the choreography and expressive potential of modern dance would seem to be a natural. Yet for the most part, traditional gymnastics has remained tethered to the rigid requirements of competition and a style that consists largely of trick, trick, pose.

Enter Italian producer Antonio Gnecchi Ruscone, one of the modern dance world's most dynamic choreographers and 20 award-winning Romanian gymnasts. They have collaborated to create a fusion of dance and athletics that takes gymnastics to a new level.

"Aeros," which began in Milan, Italy, and now is on its first tour of the United States, is one of the most viscerally explosive and satisfying exhibitions of physical prowess ever to hit the theater circuit.

Under the direction of choreographers Daniel Ezralow, David Parsons, and Moses Pendleton, and with theatrical guidance by "Stomp" creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, the show is a series of vignettes tied together by loosely recurring material, stunning lighting (Howard Binkley), clever costuming (Ann Hould-Ward), and a dynamite, largely electronic score by the Toronto band Two Tall Guys. Just as "Stomp" put industrial tap into theaters, and "Riverdance" was a showcase for Irish step dance, "Aeros" offers a new way of using gymnastics, blending it with the connections and transitions of dance.

It's still gymnastics, but "we do an art, not sport," says Izabela Lacatus, one of the principal gymnasts in the troupe. "It's more expressive and artistic."

In "Aeros," during a recent show in Boston, the explosions of jumps, spins, dives, flips, and cartwheels are given visual depth through the use of a large ensemble, with eye-catching layering and patterning of movements, and flurries of entrances and exits. There is form, structure, development, and content, not to mention a wicked sense of humor that leavens the high-powered virtuosity.

"For the three of us [choreographers], it was a matter of working with whatever we had," Pendleton says. "We had to go in, and through an organic process, determine what was natural for [the gymnasts], then make a viable piece of movement theater."

The show is a fluid series of collaborative vignettes, yet one can see the distinctive aesthetics each choreographer brings: Pendleton's sculptural invention (he founded the dance ensembles Pilobolus and Momix); Ezralow's hard-edged, high-energy dynamism; and Parson's buoyant athletic exuberance.

In one scene that takes place behind a bubbled scrim, the performers become swimmers. Trampolines send their bodies soaring through dive rolls and midair flips before one last diver takes a hilariously gawky belly flop onto the unseen mat below.

Two women in long flounced skirts, bending, twisting, and rolling with remarkable control and flexibility, resemble sped-up films of blossoming flowers. Seven dancers draped across two sets of parallel bars and a gymnastics horse move in slowly changing rhythms, their bodies creating arresting patterns against the brilliant backdrop, as if cogs in a complex machine.

Yet often these vignettes are one-trick ponies. Once you get the concept, the movement can fail to hold interest. A black-lit number with the upside-down performers in Day-Glo unitards looks like nothing so much as dancing chicken carcasses. And a section involving Michael Curry's kinetic sculpture (a 25-foot-high metallic head), while eerily memorable, goes on far longer than is compelling. But the show's ultimate drawback is that it doesn't go far enough into the realm of dance to connect emotionally. There is no real human drama, and the pieces ultimately don't say much.

However, as a celebration of the extraordinary athletic prowess of the human body, "Aeros" is unparalleled and hugely entertaining. It's the show's visceral thrill that Pendleton says will keep audiences coming back for more, perhaps enabling "Aeros" to find a theater in which to settle down for a long run and more fine-tuning.

"There's something fascinating about bodies that seem to be defying gravity, that seem to be flying through space," Pendleton says. "And when the group is up there cutting through space in a new way, it's really quite spectacular." Indeed. "Aeros" is a kinetic feast.

The national tour of 'Aeros' continues through April. For tour dates, log on to aeros.org/itinerary.shtml.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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