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by Giovanna Marcus,4/7/10

The Aerialists are a wild band of the height obsessed.

The art form is a relatively newer brand of circus craft,originally started in France in the late 1970s. The trick is that these flexible and muscle-bound carnies make it look easy,when in fact,taking a week off of practice will render them out-of-shape and huffy once back on the rigs. They work tirelessly on each piece,carefully choosing lighting and music,as well as dedicating hours to the actual routine.

The Aerialists are also continuously shaping their acts to fit the audience they perform for. At their free monthly show the first Wednesday of the month at the Brotherhood,and every third Saturday of the month at the Royal lounge,the audience is as much a part of the scene as the performers. They are separated from the crowd mostly by vertical space and a small patch of barroom floor sectioned off with a thin strand of silver tinsel garland. The ground below them is covered by a gym mat that would barely soften a spine-shattering fall. The Aerialists,however,give no such hope to the tragically-minded,exuding confidence and perspiration,sometimes spending more time setting up a move,only to spin it out in a mind-boggling splatter of limbs and dance tights.

Largely self-taught through watching YouTube clips and by watching other troupes in the “fabric circuit,” the group was formed just under two years ago. The emotionally-charged performances have been developing over to time towards their own unique style,originally inspired by Olympia’s now-disbanded Femme De Fabrique. The group creates artistic pieces on either fabric silk or the trapeze. Each act is like a character skit,complete with time-period costumes and lots of fishnet.

The Aerialists are as much about building community and inclusiveness as they are about the creativity,although the bruises and ropeburn that follow a hard session in the practice studio tend to filter out less diehard novices. Kim,one of the regularly performing Aerialists loves it because “it’s a unique physical activity” where she gets to feel in her body. She shows me a recent rash on her neck,and says that “you get used to the pain and after a while it doesn’t bother you.” When asked about what originally attracted her to the Aerialist,she says that she loves performing,and that the group is excited to make people happy.

There is a strong bond between the Aerialists,who practice together anywhere from 3-5 times a week. The members have become a tight-knit group in a short time,as they support each other with positive critiques and a strong focus on non-competitiveness that differs from some Seattle aerial networks. They have a dedicated “philosophical resistance to making it into a business,” says another member,Abel.

All of the Aerialists have their unique strengths that they bring to the group,which is comprised of about 10 regularly performing members. Abel tells me that he is most interested in the creative process and loves the harmonious quality of bringing a show together. Aerialist Erica’s appreciation of fashion always creates a one-of-a-kind costume composed of a spectacular blend of spandex alongside vintage stylings.

One of the founding Aerialists,Wes,has been generous with his time and space,and is particularly interested in the community aspect. His barn on Olympia’s westside hosts an open studio practice twice a week,on Tuesdays from 4-7 PM and Fridays from 6-9 PM,for anyone interested in how to learn,or who just wants to play around and be physical. Beginning classes are also being offered at the barn.

Last month’s show at the Brotherhood opened with a featured guest,Jill from the Seattle-based Aerialistas. She performed a swanky burlesque number,which turned into a mid-air strip tease. Brass horns blaring,she became a suspended pin-up girl,doing kama sutra poses and removing her already scant articles of clothing to reveal a set of red sequined pasties during the piece’s finale. With her head tilted back,she strode,peacock-like off stage,leaving all aghast with her brazenness and talent.

The next piece was a trapeze artist contortionist who became one-with-the-trapeze to the tune of an tender piano number. Unnervingly doll-like,she propelled herself through the air,no gesture extraneous. The piece was reminiscent of a a modern dance number,as she let out breathy exhales as part of the performance. Fluttering and delicate like a bird,she unweaved herself from a tangled limb and trapeze situation gracefully,and strolled off,holding her head up with one finger.

Another piece had an oceanic feel;the performer’s outfit was fish-like,complete with tattered fabric scales and blue lighting. She gained height quickly,doing angel fish splits alongside deep bass washtub music. I could practically see bubbles floating through the air,while she meticulously wound herself up,only to unravel in a sudden burst.

Carlin came to the mat and lifted herself up,first without music,and cuddled the fabric like a teddy bear before letting it go exuberantly. Then the music came on – yes,Debbie Gibson singing “I Think We’re Alone Now” – and Erica joined the stage. She wound herself up the fabric,sparkly petticoats and all,seemingly propelled only by her wrought iron arms and a pony tail. The duet was full of party tricks;she somehow made herself into the shape of an anchor,garnering audience applause as she mouthed the words to the song. Seeing only each other,the piece was part wresting match,part airborne lover’s embrace. I’m pretty sure they made a dodecahedron with their bodies. They hoisted themselves up the rope like a sports car going 0-60,then dropped down in a graceful tumbling movement. Fabric dancing has come a long way since I first saw it. More rock and roll and kooky,and undeniably campy.

An accordion dirge bellowed as Wes acted as ringleader,setting up between each set from a variety of rope,fabric,and carabeners,arranging and rearranging with precise Navy Seal knots. By the second act,people were kneeling around the ring,and Abel came on as an old man with a gray mustache and an ascot. He hobbled for a bit,using his cane and corn pipe as props,and suspiciously considered the trapeze dangling before him. The Buena Vista Social Club began to play as he started to maneuver the rope device. Once ascended,he lit his pipe,and wrestled the trapeze while aromatic blue smoke puffed out. He swung,suddenly childlike for a moment before twisting himself in a complicated move that would have taken stop motion film to break down,not unlike the complexity of a bird’s warble.

This is all part of the circus movement. Brute strength and carnival wonder. A traveling roadshow of biceps and back muscles I forgot existed. Pretty men and women who will slay you with their splits and make you love them with their ropeburn. They are exceptionally poised,with arched backs and good posture. There is general jovial atmosphere of the bar;the state senators sitting next to me offer to buy me cocktails,while hipsters and hippies convene to enjoy the show. The patrons range from the Very Very Drunk,of the who-brought-that-guy? variety,to smiley daytime acquaintances and strangers,flirting from across the bar.

The last act was an industrial,post-apocalyptic piece,the silk fabric consisting of a five-foot series of knots,enough to make a boyscout tremble. The Aerialist had on a ripped shirt that was part-Flashdance,part-Waterworld,with painted-on muscles. She danced slowly around the silk like it was a cobra,and she its charmer,writhing in a variety of scintillating positions before making her way over to the pile of rope. She pulled herself from a sitting position up the silk,stopping several feet above the ground to make a lotus pose before the sound of a roaring train threatened to plow through the bar. Moving mechanically,she tied herself up by her feet and did a free-hang for at least a minute,as if praying,before twirling herself down,suspended upside down by only her forearm’s strength. She hugged the rope for dear life,as if there was no bottom below her. At the piece’s end,she ripped off her tattered t-shirt with exasperation,and sauntered off stage.

The crowd exploded with applause and the performers gathered within the tinseled boxing ring to take their bow. Several of them then proudly worked their way through the crowd with an outstretched hat for audience donations,perfectly concluding the old-timey traveling circus appeal,as people gladly added their dollars to the pile. ◙

For more information or to contact the Aerialists,the group is listed on Facebook as the Tallhouse Arts Consortium.

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