Storytelling in aerial dance

Every new dance piece requires discovery. Telling a story with the body is the essence of dance. With aerial work, we add the wonderful complication of the space above our heads. For the dancer, the use of this space requires a special kind of exploration. We must change the supports we normally use on the floor and rely on new parts of our body: passing from the feet to the hands, for example. We access this change through the use of apparatuses. But which one to choose? Trapeze, Lyra, silks, harness, web, corde lisse …so many aerial apparatuses, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, all amazingly beautiful.

How do we decide?

When creating a new aerial dance piece, we focus first on the main idea: the story. This approach is different from the circus, where the specialized control of a particular apparatus often drives the creation of a routine. In aerial, we look for the equipment that can best support what we want to say.  Finding that apparatus is always a long journey, whether we have already trained with the equipment, or whether it’s completely new to us. At times, we will have to create new equipment to fully realize our dreams.

Adventures with a Tipping Lyra

In the summer of 2016, we were working on the innovative production Mar del Zvr in Panama City. We needed an apparatus which would help our dancers express the concept of time passing. A conventional Lyra, also called an aerial hoop, appeared ideal on paper; it’s circular, just like a traditional clock. However, most Lyras spin from a vertical axis, just like our planet. We needed something that spun forwards on an horizontal axis, toward the audience, giving the impression that time was coming towards them.

So the research process started. Graciela’s idea was to use a tipping Lyra, one that is rigged from the side, not the top. She bought one from UNICYCLE in France, and then it journeyed with her, all the way to Panama. Yeah, we found a winner!

Now came the hard part: learning how the apparatus functions.  We discovered that working with the tipping Lyra was unusually rough: on both the hands and the face! The constant need to reposition your wrists leads to an incredible amount of abrasion on your palms. And all that tipping forward gives you the feeling that you are going to fall flat on your face. Whatever you learned about the forces of gravity at school suddenly acquires real meaning, because you can actually feel it pulling you down. As you go over, you clench every single part of your body — even your eyelashes!

Beyond these technical considerations, we had to listen to the Lyra itself, and discover what story it also wanted to tell. It was almost like a living being, trying to communicate to us what it was willing to do for us in this shared experience.  We trained and worked with this apparatus for about a year before we were able to achieve anything close to a poetic expression of time passing.  Listening to the Lyra was essential to this process, as the technical properties of the apparatus, the abilities of the dancers, and the negotiation between them must work together to produce the story everyone wants to tell.

In the end, the apparatus must support the story. But in the meantime, it’s like what our colleague and friend Roberto Gasca used to say: “Hasta que te adaptes” — “Until you get adapted to it!”

And of course, it’s a lot of fun!

Monica and Graciela Newsam

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