`Aerial Illusions' dancers take flight, merging 2 worlds

A feeling of freedom at Towson University

Stage: theater, music, dance

April 07, 2005|By Claire Wang | Claire Wang,SUN STAFF

Have you ever wanted to fly?

You might get some semblance of that feeling of freedom watching Air Dance Bernasconi, a Baltimore-based aerial dance company that is presenting three performances of "Aerial Illusions" tomorrow through Sunday at Towson University.

With its roots in gymnastics, modern dance and circus performance, much of what is accomplished in aerial dance is made possible using apparatuses such as the lower trapeze. Differing from a circus trapeze, which is rigged from two points high in the air and swings back and forth, the lower trapeze hangs approximately 4 feet from the ground with both lines attached to one point. This offers more variation, allowing dancers to form conical shapes and demonstrate circular flight.

"In aerial dance, the performers swing and combine the ground with the air," said company founder and Towson University dance professor Jayne Bernasconi. "It's really just a form of using space that lets the two worlds merge."

"Aerial Illusions" features aerial dancers, who perform on the ground and in the air and have a background in dance, and aerialists, who perform in the air and have a background in circus arts.

Set to music by Handel, the company's work "Caught in Time" will combine dance movements on the ground and in the air with the help of ropes, harnesses and a new apparatus called an aerial net, resembling a hammock that dancers can manipulate to make shapes and illusions. "It's almost like a fish caught in a net, but it looks more aesthetically pleasing," Bernasconi said with a laugh.

Collaborating with the company are former Cirque du Soleil performers Elsie and Serenity Smith. Known as the "trapeze twins," these aerialists will demonstrate intense acrobatic movements in their "Duo Spinning Trapeze" act. Serenity Smith will also appear in the "Partner Acrobatic Act" with her husband, stage dancer and Hollywood stuntman Bill Forchion.

The five-member company was founded in 2000, when Bernasconi moved to Baltimore from Colorado to teach dance at Towson University. It is one of about 25 aerial dance companies in the United States and is the only aerial dance company in Maryland. On average, it performs two to three shows a year, as well as at local performing arts festivals, including Artscape.

Aerial dance got its start in the 1970s with Terry Sendgraff, a dancer, gymnast and high flier who wanted to combine all her loves through the use of the low-flying trapeze, which she coined as "motivity," and contemporary dance. According to Bernasconi, Sendgraff first showcased the art in a solo performance on her 41st birthday. Fellow dancers became interested and joined with her to promote the dance form. It gained greater popularity in 1999, when Nancy Smith of Frequent Flyers Productions founded the Aerial Dance Festival in Colorado, drawing participants from around the world. Since its inception, the festival's crowd has expanded from 30 to 300.

"The form itself is expanding," said Bernasconi. "We see it in the Olympics and in pop culture - the movie Chicago featured aerial work with a trapeze."

The general public is also taking an interest. In addition to performing and teaching at Towson University, Bernasconi holds classes to teach new dancers basic aerial dance skills, develop upper body strength and learn the dance vocabulary.

"People love it," she said. "They think its the closest thing to the dream of flying."

"Aerial Illusions" runs tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The performances are at Stephens Hall Theatre, 8000 York Road, Towson. Tickets are $15-$20, $40 for a "meet the performers" benefit after the Saturday show. Call the Center for the Arts 410-704-2787 for reservations or visit www.air dancebern.com for more information.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

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