Upward movement

Frequent Flyers celebrates 15th Aerial Dance Festival

Photo by Susan France

Due to the altitudinal nature of aerial dance, Frequent Flyers Productions founder Nancy Smith says the spaces where her company can rehearse and train around Boulder are limited. One of those spaces is the Black Box Theatre on the CU campus, and on a Monday night just six days before her company will perform at the 15th annual Aerial Dance Festival, the dancers are working out the kinks of the choreography and even now are trying out new things.

“I have an idea,” announces David Clarkson, co-founder of the Australia-based Stalker Theatre Company that is collaborating with Frequent Flyers for a performance called Mapping, on Saturday, July 27, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Four slings hang roughly 20 feet off the ground, with secondary loops hanging off maybe 8 feet up. Clarkson instructs the dancers to hang from their feet with their arms flat to their sides. The dancers effortlessly scale the slings and suspend themselves. (One comments on how good being upside down feels.) Then Clarkson tells the dancers to spin themselves around in circles as fast as they can.

As they do, the image projected on the giant screen behind them — a mercurial, moving image, like grains of sand in an earthquake — begins to roil and swell, parts of the image spinning in time to the dancers’ movements. Clarkson observes for a minute then thanks the dancers, and they take a break.

Clarkson was testing out the technology behind the dancers, a motion-based, interactive fluid simula tion designed and adapted for performance by fellow Australian Andrew Johnston.

“This particular simulation was designed for games,” Johnston says, noting that he took an open-source program and “hacked” it in the name of performing arts.

Aerial dance is a different type of modern dance in which performers soar through the air, aided by apparatuses such as fabric, rings, low-flying trapeze, static trapeze and more. The collaboration between Frequent Flyers and Stalker is emblematic of the Aerial Dance Festival. For 15 years now, Frequent Flyers has invited the top talent in aerial dance to come to Boulder for a few weeks during the summer for a series of performances, workshops and classes. In fact, Clarkson first attended the festival as a student more than a decade ago, and Smith asked him to return the next year as a teacher. This year marks the seventh time he’s visited Boulder.

It’s been a long flight for Frequent Flyers, which is celebrating 25 years as a company. When Smith, trained in ground-based movement, first saw aerial dance, it was love at first sight.

“I was with a dance company in Seattle and I moved to Boulder, and I went back to visit and one of the people I danced with was doing an aerial show,” Smith says. “Once I saw it, I knew I had to do it.”

She locked herself in a studio for months and experimented with the form. Soon, she started inviting friends to come play in her studio, and in 1988, she founded Frequent Flyers. She realized what drew her about aerial dance appealed to others as well.

“Aerial work is accessible, and exciting, and compelling to the point where people who wouldn’t go to dance concerts would come out and fall in love with us,” Smith says.

“Men tend to watch what we do more than most traditional modern dance, I think, because of the physicality,” she says. “That’s one of the things that I realized early on in the company, where I realized that we might make it, because we were drawing a nontraditional dance audience.”

Smith’s first risk came when she designed a performance for the Boulder Theater, called Theatre of the Vampires, based on the novels of Anne Rice. It was a risk, she admits, because if the company hadn’t sold any tickets, the company would have gone under then and there.

Photo by Susan France

But it was a roaring success, selling out and drawing repeat patrons. Smith knew she had something special.

The grace and strength of aerial dancers is apparent to all, Smith says. Everyone can relate to the desire to fly through the air, to feel weightless.

“Almost everyone can appreciate the amount of strength that’s required. We have an aesthetic that’s effortlessness. … Dancers make stuff look easy,” Smith says. “I think that’s what an audience responds to. They know that it’s hard and yet we make it look really beautiful and easy.

“Beyond that, I think everybody’s had the experience of floating in utero, of weightlessness. I think there’s an element of flying and spinning and swinging that actually has that feeling in it, that everyone can connect with.”

Now, Frequent Flyers hosts 13 dancers as permanent members of the troupe and offers classes for everyone from beginners to professionals. They perform roughly 30 shows a year, and with the addition of a new portable apparatus from which the dancers can suspend themselves, Smith imagines the company will be performing much more in the future.

For now, the focus is on the upcoming festival. Clarkson says that Mapping is very much a work-in-progress, a continuation of a three-year experiment his company has conducted with interactive technology.

“I think it is a very strong future with theater and dance,” Clarkson says of technology. “It’s a new addition to the palette.”

“Theater is ultimately dealing with universal truths,” Clarkson states, turning the conversation toward the vast amounts of data being produced every day all over the world. “[We are] looking for meaning behind all this information.”

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Mapping a collaborative performance between Frequent Flyers and Australia-based Stalker Theatre Company. Saturday, July 27, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., Black Box Theatre on the CU campus.

Showcase Performances — Frequent Flyers dancers and guests of the Aerial Dance Festival will perform individually. Aug. 2-4 at the Dairy Center for the Arts.

Student Repertory Performance — A showcase of Frequent Flyers students. Saturday, Aug. 10, 2 p.m., at the Dairy Center for the Arts.

Intimate Encounters — An opportunity for the community to interact with performers and pick their brains. Tuesday, July 30, 8 p.m., at the Charlotte York Irey Theatre on the CU campus.

Visit www.frequentflyers.org/page/adf/ for a complete schedule of classes as well as tickets and more information.