Dancing On Air

Part ballet, part trapeze and part exploration, local troupe's gravity-defying program seeks to wake something profound in its audience.

April 03, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

For a nanosecond, the six dancers suspended from two steel hoops are motionless. Their tautly arched bodies, framed by the rings, personify an ageless tension between earth and sky.

The moment passes, as members of Air Dance Bernasconi soar sinuously across the chilly loft of a Baltimore gymnastics studio. In Space Craft, a piece to be performed this Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, they partner and push, sway, flip upside-down and twist in an endless cycle from floor to air to floor again.

Established two years ago by Jayne Bernasconi, a member of Towson University's dance faculty, the six-member, low-flying trapeze and aerial dance company is an unconventional tonic for Baltimore, where dance companies have always struggled for recognition. The art form emerged in California in the 1960s and now is performed by 25 troupes in the United States and others scattered around the world.

FOR THE RECORD - The performance times of two events were incorrectly reported yesterday in the Today section. Air Dance Bernasconi performs at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A show including Welcome to Baltimore, Hon by Brandon Welch and Here Lies Dorothy Parker by Niki Lee opens Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Creative Alliance, 413 S. Conkling St. The Sun regrets the errors.

Aerial dance not only defies gravity, it defies our everyday somnambulance, Bernasconi says. To explain, she cites Terry Sendgraff, an aerial dance pioneer: "`You're either dreaming or you're asleep.'

"That always stuck with me because I see many people going through life asleep," Bernasconi says. "And when I feel like I'm sleeping, I give myself a big nudge to wake up ... and dream!"

Through aerial dance, "I really want to give the audience a dream/fantasy experience," she says. "Something that is very exotic but at the same time familiar. Before we were born, we were all floating around in that gravity-less place ... the amniotic fluids of the womb."

Aerial dance is not a flying circus. Rather, low-flying apparatus grant dancers an extra dimension through which to move as they continuously flow between ground and air. And, unlike the circus trapeze, rigged from two points, aerial dance hoops and bars "are hung from a single point of attachment, adding a dimension of circular flight."

As a young diver and hurdler growing up in Vermont, Bernasconi first became enraptured with the sensation of flight. Until college, though, her gravity-defying activities were limited to sports.

Then, without ever having had a tap or ballet lesson, she declared a major in dance, and a new world opened for the student who had struggled with dyslexia. "Dance was what really turned my life around," Bernasconi says.

In 1995, she brought her unorthodox approach to learning and dancing to Boulder, Colo., where she formed Forces of Ability, a dance troupe that included members with physical disabilities. There, Bernasconi, 41, also discovered aerial dance.

She studied with Nancy Smith, another aerial trailblazer, and was invited to join her company, Frequent Flyers Productions. Dancing aloft was a revelation for Bernasconi, who had always felt "stuck on the ground." Suddenly, she had a way to "melt up into the air," and to feel grounded there.

When Bernasconi moved to Baltimore with her husband and two daughters, she founded her own aerial dance company, composed of both seasoned dancers and relative newcomers without a dance background.

Therese Keegan, a modern dancer, loves the playful, improvisational aspects of aerial dance. Her rural Maryland home includes a new addition with ceilings high enough to include a trapeze and other equipment. Keegan is also teaching a yoga class that incorporates aerial movement.

For some students, aerial dance is a return to childhood notions of play. Others must struggle with their fears and learn to "fall back in order to ride" the trapeze, Keegan says. Still, it's "a surprise to a lot of people how good this all feels."

On a foggy Tuesday morning, company members drive from as far as Keegan's home near Harpers Ferry area to rehearse at the Gerstung School of Movement, where Bernasconi also teaches. First, they gather into a prayerful huddle, in preparation for the work ahead.

They run through the ethereal Space Craft, choreographed by Bernasconi and performed to the music of modern composer John Adams, and Sacre Bleu! My Souffle is Sinking, a whimsical interpretation of a children's book about an aspiring pooch/poet bound for Paris.

After the company leaves, Bernasconi quickly rehearses her solo, a dance performed from a doubled length of stretchy, aerial fabric. Holding the fabric, she climbs 10 to 12 feet into the air, demonstrating awesome upper-body strength. At this height, Bernasconi has developed a "sixth sense" for pinpointing her place in space.

She twists and turns, creating foot locks and shelves with the fabric that support her in various moves, including a stunning "straddle back," that holds her upside down. "It's actually very comfortable," Bernasconi says.

Each apparatus urges Bernasconi to explore another. "Once I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the beast ... I'll move on. In terms of the fabric, it was very rugged and straining at first to climb up and shape around my body, but now as my breath and body mechanics are more familiar, it can have a soft angelic flow, or it can be extremely percussive and bold."

What's next for Air Dance Bernasconi? "Bungee will be our newest wild animal," she says.


What: Air Dance Bernasconi

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art

When: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $15; $13 for museum members, students, seniors, children under 12

Call: 410-377-4199

Online: www.airdancebernasconi.org

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