As much as a ballerina counts on her partner, an aerial dancer relies on ropes, hoops, trapezes and such for balance and support. These apparatuses can limit the dancer’s vocabulary, but they are also keys to freedom, adding breadth in the vertical dimension and drama to flight and fall.
On Friday, the D’AIR Aerial Dance Theatre’s “Shadows of Doubt” used those tools to present a narrative work as packed with serious risk-taking as it was with lighthearted humor. It was also performed Saturday, and it will run again June 21-22 at the troupe’s home, an old church in Grant Park.
Though cables and flying machines have long been part of Western theatrical dance staging, today’s aerial dancing is said to have developed from the postmodern aesthetic of the 1960s and ’70s, when many choreographers left traditional theatrical spaces to create site-specific works. Trisha Brown’s “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” and Alwin Nikolais’ “Ceremony for Bird People,” for example, featured gymnasts hanging from trees along a city street. Aerial-dance pioneers Stephanie Evanitsky and Terry Sendgraf subsequently merged circus arts with dance aesthetics.
“Shadows of Doubt” showed few ties to postmodern dance; rather, the choreography seemed more in keeping with vaudeville and silent movies of the 1920s, creating an entertainment with broad appeal. And appeal it has. With opening night attendance high, it’s clear that D’AIR Executive Director Nicole Mermans has built a loyal audience base, not only through performances but also through multifaceted youth development programs. As part of a larger effort to strengthen and build community, “Shadows of Doubt” is a winner.
Artistically, last year’s premiere of “Shadows of Doubt” was a breakthrough for D’AIR. It eliminated circus-style “ta-dah” moments, smoothed out transitions and heightened expressiveness through metaphor.
Company members have since experienced a number of setbacks: injuries from a cruise ship accident, a bicycle accident, two automobile accidents, an extended illness and several petty thefts. Considering these challenges, it’s remarkable that the five-year-old troupe is still in flight. So if ballet-straight leg extensions, fully stretched feet and honest acting were lacking at times, the aerial sequences at the core of the production looked stronger than ever.
This year, the group created a pre-show “speakeasy,” complete with a secret entrance that led into the church sanctuary turned Roaring Twenties nightclub featuring jazz pianist Nicolette Emanuelle.
Under a red canopy, a story unfolded in a series of sections, revealing aspects of a “lunatic lady” played by Beth Del Nero. Flappers trotted through the Charleston, Lindy Hop and burlesque dances, producing a Jazz Age setting for a comic, at times slapstick, psychological exploration.
In “Classical Conditioning,” the accused Del Nero confronted her dark side, Shel Swenson. Pivoting on pointe, supported by a large hoop, she mirrored and pushed against Swenson as the spinning ring enhanced their spiraling body shapes.
Del Nero landed in an insane asylum in “Self-fulfilling Prophecy.” Fareedah Aleem, a dancer with a natural, diva-like stage presence, emerged from a chorus of straitjacketed women, charming a lab coat-clad Justin Evans. After he unbound her jacket (to David Rose’s burlesque tune “The Stripper”), Aleem escaped into the upper space on a green fabric swath. She entwined the cloth around her waist and thighs, then spread her arms as if in flight, relishing newfound freedom.
Later, in “Kleptomania,” Aleem and Mermans became partners in crime in a jewelry theft. The pair evaded a bobby club-wielding constable (Shad Sterling) and escaped up onto a trapeze. The ensuing duet, “Double Trouble,” was an evening standout. With wondrously mutating exchanges of weight, the two alternated places above and below each other. When one fell, the other caught her — by a wrist, an ankle or leg, so that one woman’s weight-bearing hold gave her counterpart freedom. Facing each other, fingertips matched to toes, they slowly pivoted several times around the trapeze, building momentum, reciprocity and mutual support.
In a silent movie-style police chase, Evans — also a natural performer — mixed agile tumbling passes and played hide-and-seek through the audience as Sterling tried to hunt him down. Keyvious Avery, a student in D’AIR’s teen program, found himself caught up in the chase and fled to the air, his light frame sailing gracefully around the hanging rope.
Invention carried Act II with a romantic, tango-style ladies’ quartet all in red. Later, dressed as jailbirds, they climbed and hung from a large black grid that resembled giant jail cell bars; two extra-wide trapezes hung from four strips of black fabric, creating a matrix of possibilities for dancers to flip, drop and evade pursuit.
The strength of “Shadows of Doubt” lay in its metaphors and invention. Its story may have been too literal, or obvious, for some dance connoisseurs. But the plot was just a foil for a complex aerial style that continues to evolve. And against odds, D’AIR is establishing a unique place among Atlanta dance troupes, demonstrating the powers that aerial dancing offers: inner strength, mutual support and the freedom of flight.
View more photos from the performance here.