At 6:30 in the evening, the sidewalks of downtown Boston are teeming with people on the move.
But on the corner of Arlington and Columbus, music begins to blare from giant loudspeakers, and foot traffic starts to slow.
Within moments, crowds on all sides of the intersection are gazing upward, transfixed, as members of the California-based dance/climbing troupe Project Bandaloop swing off the roof of the Castle at Park Plaza and slowly dance their way down the sides of the building.
They soar and twirl, sometimes intertwined in tightly choreographed maneuvers, other times bounding horizontally off the building's surface, transforming our perception of gravity's pull.
It's the opening event of Dance Umbrella's International Festival of Aerial Dance in mid-June. The skyscraper soaring gives the Boston-based organization's motto, "Expect the unexpected," new meaning. Four days of concerts, outreach programs, and conferences marked the first time aerial artists from around the world have had the opportunity to perform, and explore this burgeoning dance form together.
For the public, this meant two alternating programs of gravity-defying works by 11 companies using bungee cords, ropes, harnesses, trapezes, ladders, poles, and walls as the means to sweep dancers and audiences off their feet with imagination, daring, and impressive skill.
No circus tricks here
The works ranged from the poetic to the athletic - some had enough context to evoke meaning and emotion, others were more abstract and imagistic. In certain cases, the apparatuses were the focal point, and the choreography paled in light of the exhibition of physical skill and daring. But hardly ever did the work fall into mere circus tricks or gimmickry, as one might have expected.
"These works are not just about spectacle and tricks," explains Dance Umbrella director Jeremy Alliger. "They're about the integrity of the movement and the artistic vision of the choreographer ... using another element in their palette to explore with, rather than the [aerial] element being the primary focus."
In the most effective works, the choreography was enriched and expanded by the ability to take movement into the air.
Bodyvox's "One," for example, was an exquisite duet for two men on a low trapeze. Choreographed by Eric Skinner and performed by Skinner and Daniel Kirk, the work took the sculptural invention of Pilobolus and Momix (companies with which Bodyvox's founders danced) airborne, allowing their sensuous, intricate couplings a sweeping lyricism.
Similarly, the trapeze, harness, and rope work of Britain's Momentary Fusion (Sophy Griffiths and Isabel Rocamora) had both tight choreographic construction and a solid emotional core, so the audience is pulled in less by the mere defiance of gravity than by the power of the movement and its corresponding effect.
Bungee cords and ladders
The works with bungee cords, flexible lines from which the performers hung, afforded an unprecedented sense of rebound that was viscerally thrilling to watch. In an excerpt from "Otras partes," by the Argentina-based Brenda Angiel Dance Company, Cristina Tziouras and Luis Della Mea created a delightful duet by mirroring one another as they bounced, tumbled, and dived off a small table. The springy cords allowed gravity not only to stretch them apart but pull them back together. In Bodyvox's "Night Thoughts," the cords allowed the white-robed Cristina Betts to dip and glide in rapturous swoops, an angelic muse to the earthbound Jamey Hampton.
There was poetic richness to Joanna Haigood's new work for the mixed ability AXIS Dance Company.
"Descending Cords" used a tall, slowly spinning ladder as the vehicle for connection between a disabled and an able-bodied dancer. There was a slightly surreal quality to the explorations of balance and support between Uli Schmitz and Nichole Richter as the ladder continually twisted and turned in the soft blue light. However, the work lost focus with the addition of two dancers spinning on chairs.
Carmela Weber, who calls her work "vertical dance," used a rock-climbing wall to focus and frame changes in level and perspective. Her playful quartet, "Moments of Full Aperture," was a deft, comic blend of modern dance, climbing, and theater.
The Seattle-based Lela Performance Group used aerial mechanisms sculpturally, blending modern dance, theater, and music with a specially created five-foot-tall, 16-stringed instrument called a Stamenophone.
Display of strength, agility
Less effective, though still entertaining, were those works relying more on held poses than motion. In these works, the choreography was oftentimes restrained by the apparatus, and the focus was more about daredevilry and defying gravity than artistic expression.
Lisa Giobbi's "Temptation" played off a palpable sense of danger, as Timothy Harling, suspended upside down from the ceiling by the ankles, manipulated the untethered Giobbi through a variety of sensuous poses. Pilar Cervera (also known as Fura) from Barcelona, Spain, relied on her background with Cirque du Soleil in a series of exotic aerial posturings on red-cloth streamers. In "Test," Jo Kreiter used an anchored steel pole, which she climbed and dangled from in an impressive display of strength and agility.
Surprisingly, one of the most effective works (and certainly the danciest) on the program used no apparatus at all. Instead, David Parsons' masterly "Caught" (beautifully danced by Jaime Martinez) used only the brilliant pulse of strobe lighting to create the illusion of continuous suspension as each of the dancer's leaps was lit only at its pinnacle.
Ultimately, it was the juxtaposition of all these aesthetics that made for a satisfying and provocative experience. As Project Bandaloop's Amelia Rudolph says, "It takes you out of the traditional way of thinking, and that's an incredible thing for art to be able to do."