A solo performer steps out onto a narrow cable stretched taut between two points, and all other action freezes. Even the most unruly audience falls silent at this moment, focusing its collective attention on one person’s battle for balance.
Next Tuesday, June 7, Santa Barbara’s aerial dance company La Petite Chouette (LPC) will bring the thrill of the tightrope to the Lobero Theatre. Their show is Vesna—which means “springtime” in Russian—and it represents their first evening-length program for the professional stage. The tight wire is just one of many aerial apparatus they’ll use in the show. It’s also the inspiration for the show’s theme.
Last week, LPC director Ninette Paloma explained that she’d only recently introduced tight wire to her studio, where fabrics, swinging and static trapeze, and the round steel hoops known as lyra have long been part of the repertoire. “The day I set up the tight wire, the youth company got to try it out first,” she recalled. “There’s a certain kind of inwardness and extreme focus needed for this apparatus, so I put on some really eerie Balanchine music. I had them do a series of quick turns, stop suddenly, and immediately get on the wire.” They took the drill so seriously that Paloma was immediately reminded of Russian circus performers. “Suddenly, they had this incredibly dark, poised, stoic emotion,” she said. “The whole concept for Vesna emerged in that moment.”
Paloma herself first stepped onto the tight wire at age 17. The experience was to change the course of her life. She had a background in theater, dance, and gymnastics, but had never felt completely at home in any single form. “I walked into the circus tent, and all of those genres came together,” she explained. Paloma went on to train at the Actors Gymnasium in Chicago, and then with Cirque du Soleil aerialists. Eight years ago, she moved to Santa Barbara and began teaching aerial arts to a small group of dedicated students. And last August, LPC moved to a dedicated studio off lower Milpas.
The upcoming show at the Lobero represents two groups: the youth company, made up of 10 performers ages 9 to 17, and the adult company of six women. Among the adult company members is Emily Garvin, who co-owns Oreana Winery with her husband. In addition to her full-time job, Garvin now devotes an average of eight hours a week to aerial training. “When I first tried it, I thought it was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” she said. “It’s very physically demanding, but it also requires wrapping your brain around things that are counterintuitive, like climbing to the top and letting go. I’m not a daredevil type, but I have really fallen in love with aerial dance.”
Vesna will open with the youth company performing a highly theatrical number that incorporates tight wire, barre contortion, fabrics, lyra, and lots of partnering. The costumes and music will evoke a Russian village awakening to spring. The adult section of the evening will be minimalist and stark, with white costumes and rice paper scrims. Guitarist Chris Fossek will perform live, and recordings of spoken word and rhythm will weave through this half of the show. Among the apparatus in this section are the corde lisse (a rope suspended vertically from the ceiling), lyra, and fabric sling.
It’s an exciting chapter for LPC, and not only because of Vesna. Paloma and youth company member Sophia Phillips recently returned from a trip to Colorado, where Phillips was chosen as the only youth aerialist to perform at the Denver Aerial Acrobatic Arts Festival. And this July, LPC will host a summer intensive with guest teachers from Argentina and the San Francisco Circus Center.
For Paloma, it’s all about maintaining balance: between technique and artistry, growth and stability, passion and control. “That balance is the hardest thing for an aerialist to achieve,” she said. “That’s our biggest goal.”