No one at the nineteenth International Aerial Dance Festival seems to be afraid of heights. At Frequent Flyers’ Boulder studio, dancers dangle from an arm wrapped in swaths of fabric or hang upside down, practicing a swift unfurling movement that will drop them onto the thick blue mats below.
Aerial dance, says festival founder Nancy Smith, is “anything that gets you off the ground dancing.” Imagine a cross between the soaring acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, the Peter Pan flying on Broadway and the storytelling of modern dance, all requiring immense core and upper-body strength. People don’t realize, Smith says, “how hard it actually is, since the aesthetic is effortlessness.”
Compared to ballet, which has its origins in French courts in the fifteenth century, aerial dance is in its infancy. Smith would know; she literally wrote the textbook on the history of aerial dance. The art form began in the twilight of the 1960s, pushed along by experimental choreographers like Alwin Nikolais, Terry Sendgraff and Stephanie Evanitsky, who began taking modern dance off the ground with the aid of various apparatuses.
Smith vividly remembers her introduction to aerial dance. While in Seattle to visit Joan Skinner’s American Contemporary Dance Company, with which she had formerly danced, Smith watched a rehearsal for co-artistic director Bob Davidson’s upcoming work. The piece involved a single-point trapeze. “The second I saw [it], I said…that,” Smith recalls, pointing to an invisible trapeze. Enchanted by the three-dimensional canvas created by midair dance, Smith “locked [herself] in a studio eight months” and experimented with movement. In 1988, she founded Frequent Flyers, an…
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