Aerial Arts Festival: Between the Ground and Heaven

by Jean Schiffman

Local aerial arts legend Joanna Haigood spearheads “one intense festival” at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in August.

When choreographer Joanna Haigood of Zaccho Dance Theatre first produced an aerial dance festival two years ago, it was a small event at her Bayview studio-a testing ground, says Haigood, "to see if this was something the aerial community needs here, and if we had an audience."

The answer? A resounding yes. "We learned we have an extraordinary community," she says. "The work has really developed into a strong aesthetic. I think the Bay Area is the hub of this particular art form."

Now, the biennial San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival, produced by Haigood (who founded her company in 1980) and Chris Wangro, former ringmaster and czar of special events for the City of New York, and Haigood's former college classmate, opens at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (the festival's organizational producing partner) on one intense weekend in August. Internationally acclaimed troupes such as Zaccho, BANDALOOP and Flyaway Productions are joined by newer companies and performers in what is sure to be rarefied air, indoors and out.

Of the emergence of the aerial arts, Wangro says, "Circuses, sideshows and the dance world started paying attention to one another about 25 years ago, and suddenly choreographers started playing with aerial techniques. Now there's globally this new art form with influences from all different disciplines."

But, he avers, aerial arts have not been seen on a large scale in this country until now. "It's come of age as a form, a spectacle and also high art," he says, but "like any new form, it takes a while . . . Something as difficult as dancing on the side of a building, for example: Techniques have to be developed, funders have to believe in it." Although aerial festivals do take place outside the United States, most are still focused on practitioners, adds Wangro. This one big festival for performers and the public is a quantum leap.

UpSwing Aerial Dance Company -- How Much Longer

"One of the things unique to our area," observes Haigood, "is people doing site-specific work. So we're focusing on that this year. For me, and for us, it's important to bring that forward."

In fact, Haigood is known for site-specific choreography. She also likes to draw from history, especially African-American history. "I'm particularly interested in place," she says. "What does place mean in the larger scale of things? How do our experiences define our relationship to it? Place is like a poetic container for all the events and energies and relationships that happen there." Her brand-new piece, to be performed inside one of the two long, narrow buildings commandeered for the festival, explores the World War II history of Fort Mason. Originally called the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, it was an army post for 100 years and was the principal military port for the Pacific campaign during the war. (Now, the lower part, where the festival takes place, comprises the arts campus.) To prepare, Haigood interviewed World War II vets to explore themes around preparing for war, dealing with fear. Fort Mason's expansive warehouses stored materials that were moved on and off ships. "The scale fascinates me," says Haigood, "making spaces contract and expand-in this case it's a very long space." She'll use suspended ladders and rope, plus moving platforms, for the piece, titled "Embarkation." Jazz musician Anthony Brown composed the score. Says Wangro, "There are very few people using the aerial form in the way Joanna does, as a narrative piece about something specific-this is a different territory than most people work in."

Among the outdoor performances, BANDALOOP, formed in 1991, presents what will likely be a duet, says founder/artistic director Amelia Rudolph. Rudolph, who calls her work "site-reactive," is considered a pioneer in vertical dance on the sides of buildings; her recent project, "#SFPublicCanvas," performed in June on a seven-story wall in the Tenderloin, with stunning video projections and live singers on a stage below, drew ecstatic crowds. "Her work is born out of her deep interest and engagement with nature," notes Haigood. For the festival, the duet, with music by Mark Orton, is set between the two two-story buildings. She envisions the performance as an inauguration into the festival itself: Audiences pass through a sort of liminal tunnel in between in order to reach the festival pavilion. "The dancers [each on a rope] come out windows, and the movement itself is enabled and constrained by the architecture of the place," she explains, "so they're grabbing onto things, interacting with the shape of the building-grabbing and releasing and flying across the architecture. Part of it is quite dynamic and fast." A second piece, a quartet, will be performed at the water's edge, or possibly suspended over the water itself.

For Jo Kreiter of Flyaway, the festival is an opportunity to give greater exposure to "Wall Ball," a 2011 piece with music by Beth Custer, originally staged on the outside wall of Sunnyside Elementary School. "Jo is really interested in female strength," points out Haigood, "and politics, and how social issues relate to women." A 10-minute excerpt from "Wall Ball"-which, both pointedly and poignantly, addresses the woeful lack of funding for California public schools (the state now ranks 42nd out of 50 in education spending per student)-is performed on the side of a building. It's a trio, says Kreiter-that is, two women on a rope playing with a red tether ball affixed to the rooftop. "It's a piece I loved and have only done once," she confides. "Now that my company is 20 years old, I'm trying to go back to some of the things we've done in the past." She describes the piece as "nice and contained" yet incredibly technically difficult: "You always have to know where the ball is and where the other dancer is." When dancers work with rope and harness, explains Kreiter, the more height you have, the easier it is. "[But] on our two-story building, for this festival, with a short rope, you have to make the same motions happen-in a shorter amount of time. There's more wear and tear on the body."

For Jodi Lomask of Capacitor, which she established in 1997, it's all about the intersection between science and the human being. "Jodi combines circus nouveau and dance," says Haigood. "Her real interest is in these incredible sculptural environments that she creates, and a lot of her work focuses on scientific research." For the festival, Lomask presents an aerial solo (performed by Micah Walters), with music by Danish composer Toni Martin Dobrzanski, in Gallery 308; it is an excerpt from her piece "Synaptic Motion," which premiered in 2014. Wondering what exactly happens inside her brain at that aha! moment when she first has a creative idea, Lomask discussed creativity and the mind with a group of neuroscientists. Collaborating with a robotics engineer at NASA, she developed the aerial apparatus for the solo, which has been described as "a work-specific acrobatic device . . . suspended in the air." Made up of steel pipes and bungee cord, it resembles a giant cat's cradle; the performer moves around inside it, manipulating its shape-analogous, says Lomask, "to the way our thought patterns affect the structure of the brain." She adds, "I think I'm a sculptor that works with bodies, sometimes hanging, sometimes onstage. I've gone into aerial space because some sculptures operate best in the air, make more sense there."

Flyaway Productions Wall Ball

Cherie Carson is the new kid on the block-she created UpSwing Aerial Dance Company in 2006, having been trained by aerial dance pioneer Terry Sendgraff and taken over Sendgraff's classes when she retired. In fact, Carson had started out as a site-specific performer and was drawn into aerial work by Sendgraff. UpSwing now specializes in merging dance and low-flying trapeze. "This will be our big show," says Carson, of the new piece that she'll premiere at Gallery 308, "How Much Longer?" It is a tissu duet, each woman on her own tissu, and is set to a recording of "Wie lange noch," a Kurt Weill torch song. "It's about being alone in a relationship," explains Carson, "about being promised something, being disappointed, losing trust. It moves through a process to a finish, or a freedom." The tissus hang from ceiling to floor, 10 or 12 feet apart, and the performers dance both on and off the ground. "One of the characteristics of our company is we do use the floor," explains Carson.

Among other acts on the program is tree canopy biologist/rock climber Karl Gillick, who has been producing his own aerial dance work since 1998, inspired by his love of nature. The events of the festival include nine other performing groups, including a youth company, all at Gallery 308, historic footage screened in the Firehouse and videos of what European counterparts are doing abroad.

"We're still at the beginning," says Haigood, of establishing the festival as a permanent fixture in the Bay Area. She describes the gravity-defying aerial arts-a wondrous mix of theater, dance, music and circus skills-as charging the space "between the ground and the heavens." The time for this festival has come, declares Wangro: "The art form is mature."

San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival

Aug. 19-21

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco

(415) 822-6744)