Established just four years ago, D’AIR Aerial Dance Theatre has already made its mark with a high-flying repertoire that includes clenching ropes, hoops and the trapeze. But it has also distinguished itself in another way, with an ambitious series of five full-length shows that wrap, both metaphorically and literally, around a larger collective titled “Always” and that explore how our conscious selves evolve. The latest chapter, titled “Shadows of Doubt,” opens Friday, March 30, at the company’s Grant Park studio.
Though the music is jazzy and upbeat, the work is intended to delve into “the darkened hollows of one’s mind,” says D’AIR Co-director Nicole Mermans. The seven dancers embody seven aspects of one character. One struggles to break free from society, one is an ultimate perfectionist, one is extremely needy, one is manipulative, one is accusatory and one is nurturing and loving.
When D’AIR began work on the piece in November, performers reflected on their lives and experiences and chose characteristics they could relate to. The ensemble then collectively crafted the storyline and choreography. Hoping to give the plot an element of mystery, Mermans said, she structured the production like a game of “Clue,” with “finger-pointing throughout the show.”
Swinging on hoops hanging from the ceiling, the troupe suggests both a circus and a gymnastics team, with a splash of Cirque du Soleil. The dancers’ diverse backgrounds, from tumbling and acrobatics to classical ballet and cabaret jazz, are evident. But aerial dancing tends to be equipment-heavy, and that can be distracting.
“Often the aerial work does feel like there is a disconnect between the floor and the equipment,” Mermans said. “What we have done is try to erase that line, although it can be difficult. We incorporate elements going up and down, and try to see the dance equipment more as our dance partner than a foreign object we are dancing on.”
In a group tango, dancers drag and pull hanging fabrics to floor level. Mermans said that choreographing that dance challenged the company in a new way. To brainstorm for ideas, D’AIR used improvisation in rehearsals for it.
“We try to let all technique go and just follow our storyline,” she said. “Sometimes we will let two dancers improv and the rest of us will sit out and watch. If we forget there is equipment there, then we know we are going in the right direction.”