Birds of a feather

Aerial artists flock to Boulder

photo by Kate Russell



For centuries, humans have been inspired by witnessing their fellow citizens attempt to fly. Despite a lack of wings, we have been awed and amazed when people propel themselves off the ground and into another dimension. A popular 19th-century folk song captures this thrill with the words, “He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease, that daring young man on the flying trapeze.”

Now ask yourself this question: Would the young man in the song be “daring” if he had been clinging for dear life on the bar? More like “terrified” while surviving a dangerous act. It is that the man flows with “the greatest of ease” that makes his feat seem exotic and therefore perfect for the adventursome folk of Boulder County.

Boulderites love to exert themselves, and we appreciate the dedication it takes to become a world-class talent at something. So it should come as no surprise that Boulder is practically ground zero for an activity that combines the strength of a rock climber with the grace of gymnast. It combines aspects of art and dance into brilliant physical displays that are increasingly wowing audiences around the globe.

Frequent Flyers Productions in Boulder has provided an outlet for aerial artistry for nearly 25 years. Its Aerial Dance Festival, now in its 14th year, has become a renowned event in modern dance circles and for anyone involved in the art. Running through Aug. 11, the 2012 ADF will be highlighted by showcase performances Aug. 3-5 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Company founder Nancy Smith says she has seen the pool of artists grow since first landing in Boulder decades ago.

“When I started Frequent Flyers, there were only a handful of us in the world doing this,” Smith says.

The current festival has grown from modest beginnings in 1999 and spread out to four studios in three locations, with classes running from morning to night. By bringing in top professionals in their field to the area each year, Frequent Flyers has been on the leading edge of the aerial dance movement since its inception. Smith wrote a book on the genre in 2008.

Aerial dance grew out of the modern dance movement, and often uses an apparatus that allows dancers’ feet to leave the ground and fly through the air. These apparatuses range from ropes to fabrics to chains, and even other humans. Low-flying trapeze and bungee cords stretch the possibilities even further. Aerial dance has roots in the circus arts, where the grace of movement is sometimes sacrificed in the name of entertainment. Yet where the circus atmosphere lends credence to the death-defying nature of these acts, aerial arts embrace the flow of the body and the natural beauty of movement.

“Circus arts, which have been around for a long time, require tremendous skill, strength and artistry,” Smith says. “What’s different about aerial dance is it leans a little more towards the dance aesthetic. The dance aesthetic is about effortlessness a lot of the time.”

Perhaps the most stunning takeaway from these types of performances is the ability of the artists to make incredibly difficult poses, moves and lifts appear smooth throughout an entire five- to eight-minute performance. It’s equivalent to a few rounds of boxing, with the discomfort and bruising to go along with it.

Like any exercise, repetition leads to strength. And in this art niche, strength can mask just how hard the movements actually are, given the graceful performance that is the final product.

“The thing about aerial work is a lot of it can be painful, but over time your body stops feeling the pain,” Smith says, though she admits it’s sort of a chicken and egg conundrum. “I’m not sure if it stops hurting or your brain just gives up on telling your body it hurts.”

Despite the obvious strength necessary, subtle movements and technique can temper the need for brute force that can tire out any performer. Mastery of terms like centrifugal force, spinal propulsion and gravity are essential for success in aerial arts. It makes the endeavor as much cerebral as physical.

Attendees of the showcase performances, being held at 8 p.m. on Aug. 3-4, and 2 p.m. Aug. 4-5, will be entertained by a unique roster of performers — the instructors for this year’s festival. Multiple formats of aerial artistry will be on display by professionals from across the country. With performances using the full gamut of apparatuses available to the sky artists, the showcase promises a buffet of bite-sized options for those intrigued by the power and grace involved in this emerging genre.

“There are 11 different pieces in the show, and they’re all completely different,” Smith says. “There’s no overarching theme, we just invite the artist to bring a piece to perform. Work the artists are performing is often work that has never been seen before, so an audience will never get to see this kind of show with these different artists at this moment in time.”

With the Olympics going on in London right now, and the diverse geographic background aerial arts has cultivated, is there any chance this unique mesh of athleticism and creativity one day becomes a judged competition worthy of medals and anthems?

“I don’t know if it ever will be an Olympic sport, but aerial events are very popular for entertainment at events like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and even musical performances. It’s become more mainstream, and we’re seeing it as part of big entertainment events,” Smith says. “It’s the combination of mind/body/spirit that makes a complete artist when doing this work. It takes tremendous physicality, it takes mental focus, and then it takes the creative spark for the artistry — the ability to convey whatever you’re trying to convey as an artist.”

In the past it was enough to awe audiences with the appearance of ease. As our thrill-seeking culture has searched out ways to increase levels of entertainment, it is somewhat ironic that aerial arts have come full circle in highlighting the grace of the human form.

No matter the future of aerial artistry, the physicality, mental focus and creative spark necessary to convey a vision will only continue to push the boundaries of this burgeoning movement.