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Learn about the origins of aerial dance

by Jayne C. Bernasconi and Nancy E. Smith  


He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.

Friedrich Nietzsche


The story of aerial dance begins in the late 1960s and unfolds withinthe world of postmodern dance. Modern dance began evolving from traditional to postmodern in the late 1960s. This postmodern dance era began to remove dance from the proscenium stage and place it in site specific spaces such as outdoors in parks, on rooftops, and underwater.The Judson Church era pushed the limits of what could be considered appropriate movement for choreography, and in so doing changed modern dance forever.

Challenging tradition and rebelling against the norm were the new face of postmodern dance. By the early 1970s the Judson Church era had turned out pedestrian movements (or nondance, nontraditional movements) by the likes of Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Kenneth King, Douglas Dunn, Meredith Monk, Sara Rudner, and Steve Paxton. Paxton challenged the dance world with his investigation of space between two or more dancers sharing weight and following a line of contact between their bodies. Paxton’s invention was eventually coined contact improvisation because it blended his background of dance (as a former Merce Cunningham dancer), aikido, and gymnastics. Perhaps not coincidentally, the partnering aspect of aerial dance with a low-flying trapeze is very much like the concepts and experience of contact improvisation. Rolling around on another body and using the mechanics of weight shifting, which are key in contact improvisation, apply equally to the exploration of improvisational aerial dance: weight being shared between a body and the apparatus where both can shift and move in unexpected ways.

As the cradle of postmodern dance, Judson Church moved modern dance into a new era in which all assumptions about dance were questioned, ignored, and turned upside down. Audiences saw choreographers changing spatial orientations as well. Dancers were suspending themselves in space!

Trisha Brown, another Judson Church artist, explored dances from rooftops and walls. Brown flirted with gravity, alternately using it and defying it by choreographing “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building,” which foreshadowed her innovative use of flying in the 1998 opera production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. But the man who we believe planted the seed for aerial dance was Alwin Nikolais.

For nearly 60 years, Alwin Nikolais was modern dance’s pioneer of multimedia. He invented not only the choreography but also the electronic music, costumes, and lighting design for his works. Nikolais worked improvisationally, placing obstacles in the way of his dancers, to confuse the process of dance and create a new investigation of space and movement. He created “Sorcerer” in 1960 (revised in 1983), putting a dancer in a rope and harness surrounded by a movable circle of fabricthat served to distort the space and hide the aerial component until it was revealed later in the dance. Nikolais also choreographed “Ceremony for Bird People” in France. The piece took place on a city street and was performed by local gymnasts on ropes hanging from trees.

Nikolais’ focus was on achieving a particular effect, however, not on exploring aerial dance as its own form. Around the same time as Nikolais, a noted postmodern choreographer, Trisha Brown, also altered the audience’s perspective by using dancers hanging on a wall. She made some works that explored nontraditional spaces, including vertical space, but that was only a small piece of her overall body of work, not an end unto itself. The pioneers of aerial dance, Stephanie Evanitsky and Terry Sendgraff, were heavily influenced by Nikolais’ work and the experimentation and improvisation springing from the postmodern movement.

This is an excerpt from Aerial Dance.

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View a video clip from the DVD included in the first book ever on aerial dance.


Aerial Dance

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