Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds…and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of…wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence….
— from High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr
Gravity is the bane of most dancers and choreographers. They struggle against it for years. Many will spend countless hours in the studio perfecting their technique. All in a vain effort to loosen gravity’s tenacious grip – to lift the body higher, to leap farther, to spin longer and faster, and to make it all look effortless.
But over the last 10 years, a small Vancouver-based dance company has taken a radically different route.
Julia Taffe and her group of dancers use mountaineering skills and climbing hardware to work with gravity, rather than against it. No pointe shoes, no skirts of tulle and feathers. Instead, they have carabiners, pulleys, mechanical braking systems, climbing harnesses, rope and running shoes. These are the tools the dancers of Aeriosa use to perform.
With gravity as a partner, the company creates vertical dance – awe-inspiring spectacles on the sides of buildings, or on sheer cliffs of rock; performances that are strange, disconcerting and breathtaking at the same time.
Twenty years ago, Taffe was in Winnipeg on the same well-worn career path that most young dancers follow – a slow progress from student, to company apprentice, to a place in the corps and, hope- fully one day, to soloist. Until, on a visit to the West Coast, she tried rock climbing for the first time and was immediately smitten.
She began climbing seriously in 1991. In 1993, she received a grant to study with two choreographers who specialized in vertical dance in the U.S. The boundaries between the disparate worlds of rock climbing and dance began to crumble.
For the next two years, Taffe performed on buildings in New York, Texas, Istanbul, Taipei, São Paulo, and on the granite domes of Yosemite dangling 1,000 feet above the valley floor.
In 1997, she was certified as a professional rock guide. The Squamish Chief – Canada’s premier rock climbing area – became her “office” and stage. When she wasn’t guiding clients up routes on the Chief, she was choreographing pieces on its sheer flanks.
“I started developing my own voice,” says Taffe. “And I wanted to connect to others who were doing this work. Creating Aeriosa was a way to do both.”
The company’s first public performance was Let’s Dance in 2001, to celebrate the opening of the ScotiaBank Dance Centre atDavie and Granville. Taffe and three other dancers perched atop the
building, like gargoyles, then lowered themselves onto the facade and performed eight stories above an audience of open-mouthed, amazed and appreciative fans.
Aeriosa has since made an international reputation of dancing in vertical environments, having worked with Cirque de Soleil and Banff Centre for the Arts, won awards, and performed at dance, music, art and mountain festivals across North America.
The performances question the traditional definitions of dance, space and performer. It’s groundbreaking work, literally. By dancing on the walls, by harnessing gravity, Aeriosa challenges the very nature of what constitutes the “ground,” both for performer and audience. It creates a world where the normal rules don’t apply, where it’s no longer clear what is up or down, where bodies hover in space or soar like spiders ballooning on the wind. These are powerful, three-dimensional statements, often best viewed lying down, looking up the face of the building. For 30 minutes, everything is suspended: dancers, disbelief, gravity, reality itself.
“The choreography of each work is recreated and adapted to highlight each venue. It’s a creative process that promotes our connection with the communities we visit,” Taffe explains. “We try to engage communities through free performances and workshops. We believe art enriches lives and that all people, regardless of income, status or other barriers, should have access to dance.”
Last fall, with help from Vancouver Foundation and its donors, Aeriosa celebrated its 10-year anniversary by commissioning a new work – Being – and premiering it at the Dance Centre’s 10th- anniversary celebration.
“We started in the theater as a more traditional performance,” says Taffe. “The audience could decide where they wanted to sit in the theater. Then one of the dancers led everyone outside, around to the back of the building. One hundred feet above, the other dancers proceeded to cascade down the wall. We used all three danceable sides of the building as well as the interior.
“The $15,000 grant from Vancouver Foundation enabled us to use original music, costumes, lighting and projections. And it enabled us to offer the piece for free.”
Taffe has strong opinions about performance in general, and about dance in particular: She eschews the traditional notion of a concert where the audience is passive, sitting statically while the artist creates all the action. She believes performances should be free and presented in public, not just to people who have chosen to purchase a ticket. “Part of what I and the other dancers of Aeriosa have to offer is a broadening of that idea,” says Taffe. “I feel like there are bridges that have to be built because there’s a lack of education about dance. It’s not part of general school programming. In some places it’s not even offered at all, and it becomes very alien.
“Dance is part of being human, and our culture would be better served if there were more opportunities for everybody to feel connected to dance and be part of dance.” VF