In the drafty expanse of a former city substation, Tim Scofield and Mara Neimanis perform an aerial pas de deux that has the playful, fluid feel of a romp on the moon.
Harnessed by cables between steel yokes, Scofield, a solidly built sculptor, and Neimanis, a wiry aerialist, use their heft against that of a hinged counterweight shaped like a wedge of pizza. The two leap 15 feet in the air, turn somersaults, crook their legs and make like Peter Pan as they swivel aloft for yards and yards.
Scofield and Neimanis are finding their way, exploring what they can make the twin flying machines do - and what the machines can make them do. It is less than a week before their "Aerial Sculpture," an improvisational flight of fancy, which debuts Saturday evening in the Oliver Street space, in a warren of warehouse studios and shuttered factories.
As they dip and turn, carving unpredictable arcs through the substation, the creaking machines, powered by Scofield and Neimanis, resemble two enormous dinosaurs. Unlike "no strings attached" illusions spun by conventional circus stagecraft, Scofield wants his audience to see the engineering and artistry required to experience the sensation of flying.
Constructed of found objects and Scofield's fabrications, their function is what renders his machines into works of art, he says. "Functionality is the aesthetics," he says. "I like the turnbuckles, cables, nuts and bolts and all of the mechanicalness of it."
The machines swivel on circular bases attached to several Rollerblade wheels. On top of the base, a steel sawhorse supports the counterweight, which is controlled by each artist from their yoke at the end of a 10-foot arm. Their flying corsets, made by local costume designer Melanie Freebairn, hitch at the hip to cables on the yoke.
"It really gives you an extraordinary experience with where you are in the moment and where you are in relationship to everything. That's why aerial work is so powerful to work on and powerful to look at," Neimanis says.
As a kid in Illinois, Scofield, an instructor and manager of the machine shop at the Maryland Institute College of Art, was a thrill seeker who savored that "moment of weightlessness" when he left the ground by way of a soaring bicycle, snowboard or skateboard. Now that he is 35, weightlessness isn't as easy to attain. Now, "It hurts when I fall," Scofield says.
Creating human-powered, kinetic pieces didn't occur to Scofield until he was working toward a master of fine arts in sculpture at Syracuse University. In a slump, he was urged by an instructor "to get more into my work," he says.
"I took him literally," says Scofield, also a stone carver and certified in structural steel welding. That meant creating works that came to life when he became a part of them.
But none of the frolicsome, large-scale sculptures that followed entirely captured the joy of flying that Scofield may have found in his elegantly industrial flying contraptions.
He still has a lot to learn about his invention, such as, what will happen next each time he propels around the room. Scofield describes his continuing discoveries as a "dialogue with the machine. As much as I want to control it, it doesn't always let me." (A life-size model of Scofield's obsession was installed for last summer's Artscape and remains at Mount Royal Avenue and Lanvale Street.)
In her first moments of flight, Neimanis makes the same kinds of discoveries as she struggles to orient herself in space. Soon, though, she gracefully navigates the room, catapulting toward the ceiling, fluttering this way and that like a leaf, turning a forward roll and planting her feet on the yoke just as it reaches its peak. "Amazing!" she cries.
Neimanis, an artist in residence at the Creative Alliance, met Scofield when she needed mechanical advice for another airborne project. With sculptor Laura Shults, she has created "Air Heart," a portrait of aviator Amelia Earhart's interior life. In February, Neimanis will perform the piece in Shults' aluminum plane sculpture as part of her master of fine arts requirement at Towson University.
During this week's rehearsals, Neimanis, 42, is devising a movement vocabulary based on the attributes of Scofield's flying machine, such as its rhythm: "How it works on the body, how it feels on the spine and on the legs. The landing has got a real pulse to it," she says.
Her choreography is also about "partnering with air. This machine is not like anything I've ever worked on," Neimanis says.
As they collaborate, Scofield and Neimanis are inventing a hybrid of theater and sculpture that he hopes one day to take on the road. It's a hybrid, Scofield says, that "doesn't fit into any category that I've encountered yet."
Aerial Sculpture will be performed to live, improvised music at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday in the Substation, 306 E. Oliver St. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, contact Tim Scofield at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 443-226-9639.