High up on the southern side of Bear Peak at the southwestern edge of Boulder, the rock feature known as The Maiden hooks from the ground toward the western horizon. The rock monolith, dusted in lime lichen, catches the setting sun, holding on to the light after everything around it has drifted into shadow for just a few minutes. The west, overhanging face of the feature became the stage for an unlikely aerial play — a solo aerial dancer, who, with the help of a rock climber and in the company of a filmmaker/musician/art ist, would anchor her red fabric about 200 feet above the ground, and lower into it on a harness she would then slip out of to dance, free solo, held at times only by the grip of her own hands on the fabric.
While that dancer, Ashley Smith, worked her magic in the air, filmmaker Craig Muderlak rappelled from the top of the feature and scrambled to adjacent rock formations to film her in action.
She spun on more than a dozen feet of red fabric, fluttering in the breeze below her, in the closing scenes of “Maiden Light,” a short film by Muderlak. But the film isn’t just about this fleeting moment of dance; it tells the story of a group of people — Muderlak and Smith, along with Tim Davis who had the vision for the project, Jen Friedberg who assisted with photos and audio, Jack Ellenberger who helped film — slowly coming together around a project perhaps only they could have created.
“Tim [Davis] at some point said, ‘This wouldn’t be possible without all of the different people coming together,’” Muderlak says. “So that, to me, in some ways was the story. Almost more than Ashley [Smith] dancing, the story was the collaboration.”
The group faced the challenges of working with a natural lighting “sweet spot” that lasts 20 minutes, as well as the ever-changing weather conditions of Colorado summer afternoons, and filming was delayed multiple times by wind and rain after a two-hour hike to the location.
“In some ways it was good that it didn’t go as planned the first time because it made for a more interesting story,” Muderlak says.
Davis, one of the producers, was not only the centrifugal force that brought together the creators and performers for the film, he played the linchpin role of teaching Smith the rock climbing skills she needed to get to the top of The Maiden. He free-soloed the easier route on the face, a multi-pitch climb rated at 5.6, to drop a rope down for Smith, who used an ascender to climb the rope — something much easier on practice runs in the garage than on the rock.
Couple pulling yourself up a couple hundred feet of rope with having hiked in with a load of climbing gear, she says, and her arms were wearing out. “By the time I went down to the fabric I was like, ‘Come on grip strength, you can do it, you’re still there,’” she says.
Smith studied dance at the University of Colorado Boulder and was there while the artistic director for Frequent Flyers, a local aerial dance company, was completing a residency there. Eventually, she was invited to dance with them and offered as many classes as she wanted as compensation.
“I just went crazy with it and was taking six different classes a week with them on top of a full schedule at school,” she says. She also completed their professional training track program and is now teaching at and dancing with Iluminar Aerial in Broomfield and performing with Moth Poetic Circus in Denver.
Davis recruited Smith after a photo shoot under a bridge in Boulder for a show Smith was producing.
“He was like, ‘Oh I have this idea to do it off this rock in the Flatirons, would you be interested?’” Smith recounts. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ I love doing what I do outside and it sounded really amazing — I just didn’t realize it was so high up.”
The initial response to seeing The Maiden, she says, was part nervousness and part excitement to get to take her art outdoors in a beautiful, wild location.
“It’s kind of freeing, I guess, I get to be out in nature, kind of be suspended in mid-air and get to look around me and see mountains and trees and it was blue sky when we did it, so yeah, kind of a cool experience,” Smith says.
There was talk at one point of rigging up more than one dancer, and a preliminary round at Royal Arch included other aerial dancers, but in the end, only Smith lasted for The Maiden.
“I was the only one, I don’t know, dumb enough,” Smith says and laughs. “No one else wanted to go up that high. Everyone else was like ‘No, that one’s not for me.’ And I was like, ‘Oh sure, why not?’”
“I don’t know how many people would be willing to do what she’s doing,” Muderlak says. “Ashley’s pretty quiet — not someone I think of as an adrenalin junkie or a thrill-seeker. It felt very controlled, it felt like she seemed like she felt pretty comfortable up there, but I think the head game and just being in a different environment was intimidating for other folks.”
In a note of cautions, Smith says, she opted out of doing any drops — a dancer wraps up in the fabric and then spins down the length of it, unfurling it as she goes.
“When they’re on their fabric, they’re pretty darn secure-feeling, so, mentally, I think it could be challenging, but she felt very different from soloing on a rock climb,” Muderlak says. “She was pretty locked in with her hands and feet.”
As he was filming, he says, it was easy to be so caught up in the rush to get the footage that he wasn’t worrying about her so much, he says, but in the months since August, as he’s been editing the film, he’s had more chance to look, and he notes, there are a couple moments where she’s just holding onto the fabric with her two hands.
“Actually I got more comfortable when the harness finally came off because it’s more familiar for me, I was just on my fabric,” Smith says. On one of their first trips up, she got into the fabric with the climbing harness and a rope still on. “It was just getting tangled, and I was like, this is scarier than anything, I just need to get this harness off.
It was a little nerve-wracking at first, so I just kind of locked in on the fabric, sat and took a couple breaths, and was like, ‘OK, this is all right now, it’s gorgeous. I’ll just do what I normally do.’”
In post-production, Muderlak has added illustrations, done with pen and ink and water color, that re-animate in the film and music he wrote and played himself. His illustrations of rock features recognizable to climbing and mountaineering aficionados — the faces of the Diamond on Longs Peak and Half Dome in Yosemite — as well as footage of him playing the film’s soundtrack on guitar, build an aesthetic for the film that trends more toward art and story than it does toward sports and adrenalin junkie fodder. It also, he says, adds a little bit of himself into the film — a person otherwise behind the camera and not really seen on screen.
“I think I’m always compelled to just add something unique to my films beyond the cinematography, and really, cinematography is relatively new for me. I’ve been a musician and illustrator and painter for a long time,” he says. “The story was all of us coming together and so, at some level, the filming was part of the story. So I just felt very connected to this film and so I felt like adding a little of myself into it, and I think I like to make my films pretty personal, intimate.”
Now, the posse is looking to reassemble themselves this fall to take their collaboration, now called The Restorative, to Utah to film a second installment. This time, Muderlak will be documenting the story of them wandering through canyon country, looking for an arch from which to hang another strip of fabric and let Smith dance in the ideal natural frame.
“We know it will work on the arches, we know it will be beautiful, but I think what made the first film work well for me was the fact that it was challenging and there were unknowns,” Muderlak says. So they’re deliberately cultivating some of those unknowns — planning to go into a backcountry setting where they’ll search for just the right arch.
While where they go may be left to chance, Smith says this time around, her dance routine will be more choreographed.
“On The Maiden, it was a lot of improv, to be honest. There was a few things I’d thought about before going that I wanted to do,” Smith says. “But for the Utah trip I really want to have a very set routine that I choreograph in advance and have it be more like a show, more like a full piece, instead of little glimpses of poses.”
While The Maiden has established climbing routes and fixed bolts at the top they could use to anchor the rigging for Smith’s fabric — a similar rig to the climbing gear Davis and Muderlak are more familiar with — working on arches in the Moab-area backcountry will require building natural anchors or setting only removable gear. They’ll be careful, he says, both about following a leave no trace ethic and not ruining anyone else’s experience of the desert.
“We gonna play by the rules,” Muderlak says. “The story that we’re doing and the places that we’re doing it is not set in stone, we just know we want to do it in the southwest, in southeastern Utah and in canyon country. I don’t want people thinking that we’re going to sneak into Canyonlands and set this up on the arches and aggravate people.”
They’re running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the trip, asking for a relatively modest $4,600 — primarily to pay for the gas required to drive the crew to canyon country, food for them while they’re out there and a little for the time they’ll have to take to spend five or six days filming, not to mention the shipping and handling for the art given as incentives to people who donate to the campaign. A dream is to somehow acquire a quadchopper for aerial shots.
“It’s a really hard kind of game to play, the Kickstarter, because it’s all or nothing, so it’s like, ‘What’s the least you can do it for?’ and then hope for more, because it’s going to end up being a lot of work, beyond the videos, all the stuff after it,” says Muderlak, whose post-production work will include completing the illustrations like those that spice up “Maiden Light.”
“I’m excited to collaborate with everyone again,” Smith says. “It’s a great group of people, everyone kind of has different talents, and doing the project wouldn’t be possible without everyone contributing their different skills.”