Aerial Dance

IMAGINE dancing two feet off the ground, or how about 10 feet? You might twirl from a trapeze, bob from a bungee cord, swing from a rope sculpture, or "fly" in a harness.

We're not talking circus. While aerial dancers clearly take risks, their focus is not on "death-defying" feats but on art - not on flips but fluidity.

Dancers and choreographers have been experimenting with such movement en l'air in the past decade. And while their efforts may still be considered groundbreaking in the traditional sense, aerial dance is well on its way to establishing a place in the world of movement.

"As people look for new ideas to express themselves, new 'leaps' of expression, I think we're going to see a lot more people trying it," says Jeremy Alliger, executive director and producer of Dance Umbrella, the Boston organization that hosted the first-ever Festival of Aerial Dance here last week.

The dancers, who also could be considered actors, entertainers, and performance artists, came together from all over the country with one thing in common: to dance off the ground. The four-day festival, featuring 12 companies, was presented with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and, appropriately enough, American Airlines.

In an art form such as aerial dance, the "feat" aspect cannot be ignored, especially with the required apparatus and the traditions that go along with it. (Several members of the Big Apple Circus, also performing in Boston, attended one night's show.) And whether the audience expected quick tricks, fluid movement, performance art, humor, social commentary, or intense theater, the festival's offerings provided plenty of variety. Teasing gravity

In many of the works, the dancers were not defying gravity so much as teasing it. Some moved suspended in the air for seconds at a time, some for minutes.

The works ranged from snippets set to popular tunes to excerpts from lengthy dramas. The mood varied from cutesy, such as parts of the Multigravitational Aerodance's "The Elvis Dance," to bizarre and humorous commentary, such as Janet Craft and The Moving Company's "Snake in the Grass," which could have been subtitled "Dances With Toilets." The performers swung from rope sculptures and perched on the backs and seats of three moveable commodes, with all the scatological implications.

Joanna Haigood and the ZACCHO Dance Theatre's intriguing "Time Ship" and Robert Davidson's excerpt from the mystical "Airborne: Meister Eckhart" were more theatrical than pure dance. "Time Ship" was a haunting and intense work, with heavy performance-art overtones. "Meister Eckhart" focused on the life and philosophy of a 14th-century German mystic, and used storytelling and singing in Latin and English. Even as an excerpt, Mr. Davidson's work was too long to fit comfortably into a program of this kind.

The simpler works in the festival, however, made the most impact on the audience. Most importantly the piece "Hovering," in which pioneer aerial artist Terry Sendgraff symbolizes her own experience of balancing between life and death. Ms. Sendgraff, who has had a mastectomy, chose to perform this intensely personal work nearly nude. Cradled by just one thick bungee cord, she balanced, slowly curling, coiling, stretching, and twisting. Although it sounds peculiar, Sendgraff was able to pull it off with gr eat dignity and poise. As the dance unfolded, it was impossible not to admire her courage and athleticism.

"Passione Del Passato," performed by Lisa Giobbi and Alexandre Sacha Pavlata, was an exquisite display of strength, control, beauty, and grace. The romantic and traditional trapeze piece was first created for Circus Flora.

One of the most eloquent performances was that of the Axis Dance Troupe, featuring six dancers, three of whom use wheelchairs. With a low-flying trapeze to inspire and support movement, they danced with one another in elegant harmony.

Their work "Helix" was answered with a standing ovation.

In an interview, Thais Mazur, founding member and artistic director of Axis, and Judy Smith, a dancer and administrator, explained that the company, which calls itself a "dis/Abled" dance troupe, focuses on integration.

"We really want to stress disabled and non-disabled people moving together," says Ms. Smith.

It also deals with shedding misconceptions, adds Ms. Mazur. "I was raised not to look at people in wheelchairs. 'Don't stare at that person,' and I think that's most people's experience. It's this taboo thing. There's a lot of ignorance and there's fear. It's the unknown.

"But in lights, on a stage, people can watch - and have permission to look - and see people [who use wheelchairs] in their power and not underneath the veil of assumptions, societal stereotypes," she says.

Axis's dance pieces are based on improvisation and member collaboration. Low-flying trapeze and contact improvisation (using someone else's body for momentum or support) make for unique movement and creative diversity.

"For me, dance is an expression of the instrinsic self and to create something that moves an audience is the gift," says Mazur. "We don't work with a lot of movement and try to stuff the audience; We tend to have a very pure, clear, form in our choreography."

In the performance, wheelchairs serve as a tool for mobility for all the dancers. At one point in "Helix," for example, Mazur and Smith danced together with Mazur perched on the back of Smith's chair. Another time, the trapeze supported two male dancers (one disabled dancer out-of-chair and one with full use of his body.)

The notion of being "wheechair-bound" and "confined to a wheelchair" is a misnomer, says Smith, "because what these things do is give us our mobility, we're not confined to them, we're not bound to them, but they allow us to move.... Our intention is to make them visible. Avoiding sentiment

"The way wheelchairs move is really very beautiful ("like ice skating," Mazur interjects) and that's not seen very often. In some ways people don't want to see you - there's such a denial of the disabled population and yet we're so visible just by virtue of being different. So we really try to use that and work with that," says Smith.

One of Axis's first works, "In This Body," was created around a story of a dancer who becomes disabled and progresses from dispair to celebration in reclaiming her dancer-self. Although one might think disability is a common theme for Axis's pieces, it is not.

"We don't focus on doing pieces on disability," says Smith. "Part of the reason we don't is that ... the message we want to get across about disability comes through [naturally]."

At the same time, members of Axis don't want to be viewed as inspirational, says Smith. "We don't want to be 'super-cripples.' We don't want to be seen as exceptions to the rule, because the truth is we're not exceptions - there are a lot of disabled people out there doing really great things."

Both Smith and Mazur admit to concern that their popularity might be hooked into sentimentality. Smith recalls the standing ovation they received for the premiere of "In This Body" at Oakland's Dance Brigade's "Furious Feet III" in 1988: "The tricky part is we didn't know if it was just that they liked it because there were disabled people up there doing it and 'isn't that nice?'..."

And, Mazur points out, whereas most dance troupes are "discovered" after years of work, Axis was launched very quickly.

She remembers getting offers in the Bay Area and wondering: "Why are these choreographers and artists who are well-known in the area - which is very competitive, especially for modern dance - why are they so interested in us?"

That vulnerability and questioning happens with any artist, she reckons. But, she continues, "as time has grown and I've been able to step back and get more perspective, I realize that what we do is really good...."

Smith says, "We've had people say that when they've seen us perform, they feel like they've been invited into a very intimate space. We have that connection [to one another], and it comes across."

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