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Aerial modern dance is a subgenre of modern dance first recognized in the United States in the 1970s. The choreography incorporates an apparatus that is often attached to the ceiling, allowing performers to explore space in three dimensions. The ability to incorporate vertical, as well as horizontal movement paths, allows for innovations in choreography and movement.
There are two types of aerial dance. In vertical dance a dancer is suspended in a harness from a rope or cable and explores the difference in gravity, weightlessness and varied movement possibilities offered by the suspended state. In the second type a dancer or acrobat intertwines the use of the floor or a wall with their aerial apparatus. The first utilizes the strength and expression of dance with an altered state to communicate contemporary ideas. In the second, the dancer uses dance as a way to indicate that their work is less trick-based than circus arts, and in some cases hopes that disassociating with the circus makes their work appear more contemporary and artistic.
One of the first choreographers to utilize what we now think of as aerial dance was Trisha Brown. She called her dances (1968–1971) "equipment pieces". Please see the video of a reproduction of one of her early pieces. They are not “dancey” pieces, but by placing the pedestrians on the side wall, Brown illustrates the choreography of everyday movement. She was notably the first choreographer to pull dancers up into the air. She choreographed multiple pieces off the ground, some involving projection and multimedia, using air and wall surfaces in novel ways.
In the late '90s an Argentinian aerial dance troupe named De La Guarda gained notoriety in London for their show combining performance art with aerial dance. The troupe is no longer touring, but some previous members have started a new company called Cuerda Producciones that continues to create aerial dance theater pieces.
Wanda Moretti of Italy is creating a vertical dance network aimed at collecting knowledge for artists and professionals in the field. Moretti says, “From its beginning 30 years ago, vertical dance evolved from the multiple practices and influences of its initial instigators. It was born from the desire to explore space, environment and become a place where everything was possible.”
Aerial modern pieces, whether solo or ensemble, often involve partnering. The apparatus used has its own motion, which changes the way a dancer must move in response. The introduction of a new element changes the dancer’s balance, center, and orientation in space. Aerial modern dancers gather annually for workshops in Boulder, Colorado, County Donegal in Ireland, Brittany, in France, and Italy.
In Boulder, Frequent Flyers Productions produces the Aerial Dance Festival which been held every year since its inception in July 1999. Here workshops, performances, and discussions bring together dancers, gymnasts, circus artists, and other aerial enthusiasts to showcase their own works and learn about new developments in technique and technology.
In Brittany, in northern France, the festival is called Les Rencontres Danse Aeriennes (LRDA, or "Aerial Dance Encounters") and was founded in 2008 by Fred Deb.
The Irish Aerial Dance Festival is organised by Fidget Feet, an aerial dance theatre company based in Ireland, run by artistic directors Chantal McCormick and Jym Daly. It is held every year in Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland.
Lindsey Butcher of Gravity & Levity, based in Brighton, England, runs the European Aerial Dance Festival in Brighton, England every summer.
Fred Deb was one of the forerunners of aerial dance using fabric in France. Deb started her company Drapés Aériens in 2001. She has choreographed and conceived many works in collaboration with Jacques Bertrand. Originally a dancer by training, Bertrand is her assistant, partner, and technical director.
Another early influence on aerial modern dance, Terry Sendgraff, is credited with inventing the "motivity" trapeze. Sendgraff actively performed, choreographed and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area from the early 1970s, until announcing her retirement in 2005 at the age of 70, when she handed over her aerial dance business to Cherie Carson. The motivity trapeze came about as a result of an exploration on a low-hung circus trapeze. The ropes twisted together, causing the apparatus to spin. By formalizing this, hooking both ropes to a single point of attachment, Ms. Sendgraff used the apparatus to spin, twist, as well as fly in a straight line and in a circle.
In Italy, an emerging aerial dance company, brought the contemporary dance discipline to a vertical stage. The performance of the Company is distinguished from others by the details of the choreography and the harmony of the movement, typical elements of classic dance. Aerial dance is an art form that is incredibly demanding and requires a high degree of strength, power, flexibility, courage, and grace to practice.
The first and only book detailing the history of aerial dance was Aerial Dance by Jayne C. Bernasconi and Nancy E. Smith, published in 1988 by Human Kinetics.
Aerial dance mixes strength and beauty. The practice of Acrobatic Tissue brings a lot of benefits to the practitioner:
- Overcoming fear of height and drops
- Works artistic expression
- Memory (to memorize the sequences of movements)
- Group work (it is necessary to trust your partner or teacher)
Other examples of aerial modern dance are the site-specific works of Joanna Haigood of the Zaccho Dance Theatre, Amelia Rudolph of "Project Bandaloop," Sally Jacques' Blue Lapis Light and Karen A. Fuhrman of Grounded Aerial. Haigood’s work is based on careful research of the history, architecture and societal impact of found spaces, and the translation of these memories into the movements performed in that space. Project Bandaloop combines rock-climbing with dance in performances that scale and/or descend canyons, rock walls, and tall buildings across the world. Video of their outdoor work is sometimes integrated into indoor performances, projected onto screens or trampolines behind the dancers on stage. Blue Lapis Light uses multiple apparatuses, such as aerial silks, harnesses, and bungees to create dances on bridges, office buildings, hotels, and other outdoor spaces.
- "Terry Sendgraff - About Terry". www.terrysendgraff.com. Retrieved 2018-07-13.
- Zaccho Dance Theatre web site Archived January 15, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. - Artistic Directory Joanna Haigood
- "Blue Lapis Light". Blue Lapis Light: Site-Specific Aerial Dance. Archived from the original on December 19, 2014. Retrieved 27 March 2018.
- Kloetzel, Melanie and Carolyn Pavlik, editors. Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces; University Press of Florida; 2009.
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