The arts first took to the sky in the late 1800s, when French choreographer Charles Didelot lifted his ballet dancers onto their toes with wires.
Audiences were so enthralled by the ethereal quality of the dancers’ movements created by Didelot’s “flying machine” that other choreographers began to incorporate pointe work into their routines.
It hasn’t stopped there.
In everything from musicals like “Peter Pan” to movies with green screen special effects, artistic productions have shattered the old expression “the sky’s the limit.”
Unlike many performances in which artists pretend the wires holding them up are not there, Boulder, Colorado-based aerial dance company Frequent Flyers, which will perform at Sweet Briar College this Thursday, is keenly aware of the apparatuses it uses.
In fact, its entire performances are based around them.
“It’s wonderful to take the human body into a different level, a different space onstage,” says Mark Magruder, head of Sweet Briar’s dance department. “Instead of just being confined on the stage space, you get to fly things off the ground. … It’s quite mesmerizing to watch.”
In its simplest form, aerial dance is classified as any time someone dances with or on an object that takes them off the ground, says Nancy Smith, founder and artistic director of Frequent Flyers.
This could be anything from dancing off the side of a building — something Frequent Flyers has done three times at varying heights — or performing backspins across a stage on stilts.
It could be dancers turning through the air attached to ropes with loops for their hands, twisting and extending the body around metal hoops, called lyras, or spiraling toward the ground in graceful arcs with just an aerial silk to catch them before they hit the floor.
“It is magical, intricate,” company member Laura Burgamy says of working with the silks. “It's kind of like being in a Boy Scout knot-tying class, but using your whole body. You literally are pretty much tying knots around your body and then they behave all different ways.”
A relatively new and uniquely American art form, aerial dance first made an appearance in the 1970s when modern dancer and gymnast Terry Sendgraff lowered and changed the point of attachment on a circus trapeze, says Smith, who literally wrote the textbook on aerial dance.
When she started Frequent Flyers in 1988, there were 12 artists in the country performing aerial dance.
She says that number has grown, in part, because of Frequent Flyers’ International Aerial Dance Festival — which brings artists from across the world together to study and is now in its 19th year — but also because of the increasing popularity popularity of Cirque du Soleil.
“If you talk to other people [about] how they got started, one story is from the playground of monkey bars — ‘I was always climbing things on the monkey bars’ — and here we are, it's like an adult version,” says Burgamy, who is now in her second season with the company. “The stakes are a little higher, but I think it kind of relates back to that childhood upside-down spinning. How fast can I spin? How long can I hang on?”
Since its founding almost 20 years ago, Frequent Flyers has become internationally known for its shows and inventive techniques in the art form. Cirque has even hired the company twice to dance on the sides of buildings for corporate functions, and the troupe’s first performance on the Kennedy Center stage is set for March.
While both Cirque du Soleil and Frequent Flyers work in the air, the performances have distinct aesthetics, says Smith.
Circus arts focus on individual acts and tricks inside of the overall spectacle, while aerial dance has its roots in modern dance.
“It has a very acrobatic quality about it, but it can be incredibly sensitive and incredibly moving,” says Magruder, who has had students study the art of aerial dance.
This does not mean aerial dance doesn’t have spectacle-like moments, but the emphasis is less on the trick and more on the overall dance.
“I enjoy that attention to the flow of the movement and the lines,” says Burgamy. “Creating one long sentence of dance in the air. ... I'm more interested in how to embed the tricks and skills inside the dance I'm doing and [to] make the skills that I'm doing relevant as a whole, so I'm making one statement in the dance that I’m doing.”
While Frequent Flyers’ performances are all about the dance, it still takes tremendous strength and focus to glide through the air while making it appear effortlessly beautiful.
After all, if you lose your concentration for even a moment, it can result in serious injury.
“There is something very compelling for all of us who do this about that laser-focus in the moment experience,” says Smith. “When you are really in the moment, it's almost like you're being danced. If you’ve ever read ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ or things that have written about what it’s like to be in that flow when you’re so in the moment — it is a powerful, mysterious and magical thing.”
When Frequent Flyers swings its way across the open air of the Murchison Lane Auditorium, it will perform a slightly different kind of show than the ones company members put on back in Boulder, which have an overarching theme or story.
Each of the 11 pieces the company will perform at Sweet Briar, says Smith, is meant to show off the variety of apparatuses and styles that can encompass aerial dance.
Some routines will feature aerial ribbons, while others will utilize the lyra. The show also will include both a bungee and stilt routine. Smith will even perform a special number on the low-flying trapeze while completely blindfolded.
“It will be something that Lynchburg’s never seen,” Magruder says. “We do aerial work in all of our concerts, but for a professional company to come in, that's going to be something on a whole other level.”