Dancing on – & in – Air
by Kate Dobbs Ariail
Every year, the American Dance Festival presents companies that explore various aspects of modern dance, from the rhythmic to the lyric to the narrative to the purely kinetic, and from slow to fast, but even when a company uses leaps and turns, much of what one sees at ADF is earthbound. Not so with the Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Company, performing in Page Auditorium through July 2 (see our calendar for details). This company explores one of the great human dreams: to fly, to escape gravity.
They do this with the aid of circus-worthy rigging and three riggers who manage the invisible apparatus controlling the ropes and flex-cords to which the dancers are harnessed. Although the dancers are securely strapped into their body harnesses, which attach to the ropes with mountaineering hardware, the level of trust that they must have in each other and in their riggers goes far beyond the considerable level required in any enterprise involving hurtling bodies connecting and exchanging places. As in the flying trapeze act or in rappelling or rock climbing, the danger is part of the thrill –for the dancer and the audience alike.
The Brenda Angiel Dancers do not emphasize the dangerous aspect of their art, but the knowledge of it sharpens our awareness and heightens further our perceptions of both body and space, freshly aroused by the novel uses Angiel makes of both. On June 30, when the curtain rose on the program opener, the world premiere of Air-Lines, the entire audience gasped with a common vertigo. Five dancers hung suspended midway down a wall running across the stage. Each was lit in his or her own separate shape of projected color, and we seemed to be looking down at them from a height. We were looking at the tops of their heads, their bodies radically foreshortened and abstracted. Throughout the evening we were to be presented with many such unusual views.
As the suspended dancers twisted and turned, their gestures building into rhythmic arcs of motion and wonderful patterns, the shapes of color within which they moved squished and morphed as well. At moments, since the dancers stayed close to the wall, they seemed almost to be part of a larger projection. After a while, it became hard to say whether the shapes were affecting the dancers or the dancers, the shapes – or maybe it was all driven by the cooly humorous music by Juan Pablo Arcangeli and Martin Ghersa. Whichever was doing what to whom, Air-Lines is a highly unified piece of pure dance, unafflicted by narrative and most refreshingly pleasurable.
The second work, Air Part (from 2000), is memorable especially for its final section, in which three suspended women interact with three earthbound men. The women are swinging away when the men come rolling onto the stage beneath them, and they tangle in various ways. What is wonderful is how you feel the lightness of the airborne – and the heaviness of gravity on the rolling bodies. Like Air-Lines, Air Part has little to do with emotion but everything to do with physics and an exhilarating physicality.
The second half began with another premiere, of Air Force, again with a score by Arcangeli and Ghersa. Here we saw the big flashy show-off aerial stuff: l-o-o-ong swings, sustained horizontal flying, weightless moonwalking, impossibly high jumps, and some emotion-generating contact. A few of the flying bits were just a tad too much like Mary Martin as Peter Pan, but there is great stuff where two dancers wrap their ropes together and move in tandem, separate, move away, and return, all without crashing or missing a beat of the music.
From Air Force, the troupe segued without pause into the fabulous South, Wall and After, which was commissioned by the ADF and premiered as part of the 1998 International Choreographers Commissioning Program, and which hasn't lost an iota of its thrill. The music is Milonga del ángel by Astor Piazzolla (arranged by Joaquín Apesteguia), Chopin's Prelude in e minor (arranged by Apesteguia, Arcangeli, and Ghersa), and an original score by Arcangeli and Ghersa, and these diverse pieces flow together seamlessly. The dance opens with the tango, and if you think you've seen tango, just wait until you see it done by dancers hitched to flex-cords! This has all the sexy stuff you know and love, plus more. By necessity, these dancers must emphasize the elasticity of the style, rather than its more abrupt aspects. This increase in languor raises the erotic temperature and the possibilities for tenderness, which are further explored in the second section. For two dancers working high and to one side of the wall, it is unabashedly tender and a little sad. The work ends with a spectacular crisp five-dancer parade across the wall, echoing the superb pattern-making of Air-Lines. The only thing wrong with it was that it ended.