Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance?: Dancing on Air

By Amy Brunvand

Revolve, Salt Lake’s new aerial dance company, takes modern dance to new levels.

by Amy Brunvand

If you have seen aerial dance before, it might have been at a Cirque du Soleil show, or maybe the 2002 Winter Olympics when a group called Anti-Gravity performed at the medals ceremonies. The idea of aerial dance is to liberate the dancer from the floor-to dance on air.

Julianna Hane, artistic director of the Revolve Aerial Dance company in Salt Lake City, first encountered aerial dance when she saw Cirque du Soleil on television: “I said I’ve got to learn to do that. My mother thought I was crazy because I’m afraid of heights,” she says. Nonetheless, Hane followed through. She went to a circus school in Vermont to learn aerial dance techniques. brunvand_dance

Aerial dance has elements of circus, acrobatics, gymnastics and rock climbing. Dancers use apparatus made from rope, trapeze, stilts, bungee cords or whatever they can invent that facilitates the particular movement quality they want. One especially beautiful technique, sometimes called “silk dancing,” uses a long swath of fabric that dancers can wrap around their bodies in order to suspend themselves hands-free. The techniques give them superhuman powers to climb like a kitten up the drapes, or descend like a spider spinning silk.

Aerial dance has long been familiar to everyone as a circus trick (after all, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” was the hit of 1867) but it’s relatively new in the world of fine-art dancing. A 2002 article in Dance Magazine, describing the experimental and innovative state of the art at the annual Aerial Dance Festival in Boulder, Colorado, speculates that all the ways of dancing in air have not yet been discovered; even with the techniques they do know, dancers must still find practical and safe ways to perform the routines they can imagine.

And so as the four members of the Revolve Aerial Dance Company worked to develop choreography on a fabric apparatus for their performance this May they were not only exploring aesthetics and spatial architecture, but also exploring the physical question, can we do it?

“Maybe monkey climb would be easier on the single drape,” suggested Julianne Hane, as she observed the less-than-graceful ascent of another dancer. Then she grabbed hold of the fabric to demonstrate another idea, gripping the fabric with her knees to swing upwards. As in ballet, one of her goals was to make the difficulty of the move disappear into a visual impression of weightless, easy grace. “We are pushing our physical limits by going upwards,” says Hane. “We train really hard to do these amazing tricks, and then we integrate them with dance.”

There is a spirit of playfulness in the group as they explore the possibilities. “We look like carousel horses!” laughs Elizabeth Stich, watching a video of the developing dance. She explains, “We are taking a modern dance movement vocabulary to blend aerial skills and ground. We speak about the quality of each section of the dance, and from that quality we ask what kind of aerial skill exhibits that quality.” But Stich also agrees that the impression of danger and difficulty is an appealing aspect of aerial dance. “There is something exhilarating about the circus and making the audience gasp, and it’s an exhilarating feeling for us, too,” she says.

The other two members of the group are Nancy Carter and Stephanie Howell. All four had previous experience in aerial dance, and all but Howell (who is a theatre major) are currently MFA students in Modern Dance at the University of Utah. They are relatively new as a performing group and are clearly pleased by the positive reaction to their first performance last Decem­ber. “A lot of audience came who were not our personal friends and family,” says Stich with some amaze­ment.

“Don’t try this at home,” warns Hane. The fabric they use has been specially tested for strength. The rigging is made out of some of the same gear that technical rock climbers use and it, too, has been tested to withstand thousands of pounds of force. When Revolve Aerial Dance performed at outdoor venues such as Park Silly Market or the Gallivan Center Monster Circus, they had to figure out how to safely rig their apparatus from some existing object like a bridge or the beams of a building. “I worked at a rock climbing gym,” says Hane, “so I’m the safety person. If I can’t take care of it, we hire a professional rigger.”

But if watching is not enough and you would like to try aerial dance, you can take a class at Sugar Space – Julianna Hane teaches classes for ages 7 thru adult. “I like teaching beginners because of their excitement,” says Hane. “On day one you can’t climb at all, but by day two you are climbing and next thing you know you’re upside down.”

Amy Brunvand is adance enthusiast and a librarian.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2009.