Art Talk with Frequent Flyers Productions

By Victoria Hutter
Orchestra on stage performing, while acrobats are also performing on the same stage.

Frequent Flyers. Photo by David Andrews

Summer is just around the corner which means it’s almost festival season. If you attend a dance festival in the coming months, you may expect to see ballet, or modern dance, perhaps jazz or traditional dance. But dancing in the air? It’s called aerial dance and it emerged from modern dance and the culturally experimental times of the 1960s and ‘70s. Using different types of equipment typically suspended from above including trapeze, bungee cords, ropes, or fabric, aerial dance explodes the possibilities for bodies in motion.

Frequent Flyers Productions in Boulder, Colorado, has been creating, performing, and teaching aerial dance for 28 years. This summer they will present their 18th annual Aerial Dance Festival, a two-week immersion into classes, performances, and workshops, featuring local and guest artists. Frequent Flyers received an Art Works grant to support the festival. The NEA spoke with company Founder and Artistic Director Nancy Smith about learning and creating within this dance form.

NEA: What is aerial dance technique? What does one need to learn and to practice to be a successful artist?

NANCY SMITH: Aerial dance is like any dance form in which people have a specific technique. In our [Frequent Flyers’] case, our technique comes from dance as opposed to circus. Some of the primary dance principles we practice are the use of breath, the use of release, economy of movement, effortlessness, and lines that you want the body to make. 

Aerial dance technique starts on the ground and it comes with the doing as conditioning develops in the classroom. And then, we weave that strength into being expressive whether that's through improvisation, or learning a phrase of movement and working with that phrase.

NEA: What is the apparatus that provides the best transition if you are coming from a modern dance background?

SMITH: The low-flying trapeze or single point dance trapeze is probably the easiest apparatus to transition from a ground-based dancer to moving in the air. But most people want to study fabric (also called silks). The difference is that the single point dance trapeze is horizontal and provides more resting positions when you are training. You get further faster in terms of learning how to dance in the air. Fabric or rope are super challenging because you're holding your weight in your hands and your arms for long periods of time. It’s a trade-off between starting to make progress with aerial technique and developing strength, coordination, and stamina first.

A male and female dancer performing on stage with an apparatus.

Frequent Flyers. Photo by David Andrews

NEA: With aerial choreography, how does one balance the ideas for what physical bodies can do and what an apparatus can do? Typically, does choreography start with movement of bodies on the ground or with what an apparatus makes possible?

SMITH: I’ll answer that question by starting with invented apparatus. There are things you can buy off the rack that you can do aerial on or you can go to a welder to have something built. Sometimes I have an apparatus made because I have an idea in mind or I just want to have something new to play on. Generally we'll start improvising on the apparatus to see what we can do that is unique to its shape.

I’ve also started with ground-based movement. Through improvisation, the dancers manipulated the movement phrase by either amplifying things, or repeating things, using a canon form, etc. Then we'll take that phrase into the air and make an aerial version of it.

But the core of aerial dance is not so much about the whiz-bang, breath-catching element. It can be, but the aesthetics are more from modern dance.

A group of performers on stage in dancing pose; some dancers are hanging in the air by an apparatus.

Frequent Flyers Star Sailors. Photo by Preston Newell

NEA: What are some of the trends?

SMITH: When I started in the art form 28 years ago, there were just a handful of us in the country who called ourselves aerial dancers. Fast forward, and aerial dance and circus began to cross-pollinate. It has burgeoned beyond anything that I could have imagined when I started.

In terms of aerial dance companies, I think people are trying to carve out their niche and are homing in on whether they have more of a ballet, modern dance, or circus aesthetic. Some are doing lots of collaborations with digital technology, or composers, or DJs. It is inherently an art form that pushes the envelope physically and therefore the mindset is pushed creatively.

NEA: Is there a moment you've had in teaching your community classes when somebody had a moment of real insight or inspiration because they were flying?

SMITH: I have thousands of stories, and in some ways it's why I keep doing this and it’s why many of us keep teaching. But for a specific example, we have a graduating high school student who had been in the ballet community and, I don't know the details, but she was having a hard time. She came to a sampler class we had, fell in love with it, and in a very short time had joined our student company.

She had to write a paper for her senior project on the theme Goodbye High School. Turns out that this student is being treated for depression and is on medication that flattens her emotions. In what she wrote, she said that doing aerial dance is the first time that she has been able to feel exhilaration, joy, release, and beauty. I know this student, and I had no idea that she had these kind of challenges in her life nor that we had touched her in this way. This was one of the most transformative experiences that she's had in her life. She also has just received a scholarship for dance at a university.

We have a youth at-risk program called Kids Who Fly, and the basic tenet is safe risk-taking and achieving things you didn't think you could achieve. This can translate into all kinds of healthy replacement behaviors and successes for youth. 

NEA: Do you have any final comments?

SMITH: The only thing I would say is that we've been so grateful to the NEA for the funding we've received. There is more to be done to educate people about the history of this art form and its direct relationship to modern dance, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it as an example of NEA's dance funding.