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Angel of the good air

Aerial dance troupe takes flight at Rialto

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What do you get when you cross rock-climbing, bungee-jumping, circus trapeze, gymnastics, modern dance and maybe even a couple of exotic dancers on a pole? The answer is, one of the hottest new movements to swing through open air since Dick Grayson left the big top to fight crime with Bruce Wayne. Blending an X-Games mentality with a poet's aesthetic, aerial dance is wowing crowds around the world. Men who would typically consider an evening at the ballet tantamount to a cultural vasectomy are falling in love with the amplified leaps and legato ascensions of lithe dancers' bodies rigged to cables, cords and silks.
Brenda Angiel, whose aerial dance company performs at the Rialto Center Sept. 6-7, first experimented with aerial dance in 1994. She was creating a work for an arena where the audience would be watching from three sides. Rather than choreograph to the three sides, she decided to suspend her dancers with wires from the ceiling and use the back wall as the floor, giving the audience the perspective of looking "down" upon it from a God's-eye vantage. The first full-length work that came out of Angiel's shifted perspective, "Tres partes y una pared (Three sections and a wall)," premiered to great acclaim at the Rojas Cultural Center in Buenos Aires and remained on stage there for five months.

It's thrilling, of course, the sight of dancers leaping 30 feet or wrestling at perilous heights. But what's surprising is the grandness and fluidity of the motion. Aerial dance aficionado Annie Bunker, founder and artistic director of Orts Theatre of Dance in Tucson, Ariz., describes it this way: "Circus work is about arriving at places. With aerial dance, it's about what happens between those places." That's not to say the distinction is always clear. Are the aerialists of Cirque du Soleil exceptionally well-choreographed stuntmen or aerial dancers with a circus pedigree? The form is still evolving, so the boundaries aren't always obvious.

Angiel's work is distinctly on the dance end of the spectrum. In "Otras partes (Other parts)," the dancers in a mid-air duet move leisurely through a series of abstract shapes. "De parte en parte (From, in part)" offers fast, dynamic movement, but the pleasure is more in the complex interplay of bodies than in the thrill of near misses or an impending collision. "I think that the movement has its own poetry," says Angiel.

There is one loss worth mourning here. Aside from the glue and cardboard toes of a ballerina's slippers, dance has traditionally been about the vigor of the unaided human body. The cables and cords of aerial dance introduce an Oz-like element of illusion to the discipline. There are people behind the curtains, working pulleys and rigs, liberating the dancers from gravity's despotic rule. "You have to deal with another level of technical production," says Nancy Smith, another pioneer in the world of aerial dance with her Frequent Flyers troupe in Boulder, Colo. "I'm always joking that my next piece is going to be barefoot, naked, under a single light bulb."

This is not to say that aerial dance is easy. These dancers may not have the crushed toes and cranky knees of on pointe ballerinas, but without the support of a dance floor to depend upon, aerial dancers must rely on core strength sufficient to make a Pilates master weep.

Watching Angiel's dances, it's easy to forget the rigging. She doesn't conceal the lines so much as she looks beyond them to the possibilities they permit. Unbound from the earth, the angels take marvelous flight.

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