The circus has come a long way from the horse-and-chariot races of ancient Rome or the traveling freak shows of the late 19th century. Founded by Ninette Paloma just six years ago, Santa Barbara’s La Petite Chouette (LPC) aerial dance company belongs to the tradition of nouveau cirque; the circus’s contemporary, theater-based offspring. Last Tuesday night at the Lobero, LPC presented Indah, their latest blend of modern dance and aerial acrobatics. Forget ringmasters and clowns, elephants and midgets; Paloma hones it all down to the beauty and grace of the airborne human form.
It’s no surprise, then, that this all-female company is at its strongest in the air. Onstage, the performers look slightly stunned, like birds whose wings have been clipped. Yet give them a hoop of metal or a bolt of silk suspended from the ceiling, and they soar.
This three-act program opened with junior company member Luna Webster darting down the center aisle with a bunch of red balloons, a Romantic tutu skimming her shins. From this vision of youthful wonder, the scene opened onto a world where coquettish stilt walkers beckoned to the audience and trapeze artists stroked their ropes suggestively. On aerial frame, Webster and Sophia Phillips were like playful squirrels, rolling over each other’s bodies, counterbalancing their weight, and using each other’s limbs to dangle into thin air.
Phase two marked a shift from metal apparatuses to fabrics, and a change in tone from lighthearted to somber. A single chandelier hung above a funeral procession; Serra Benson used the aerial sling to cocoon herself in sorrow, and bolts of white silk became shrouds for the women who climbed them, slid down them, curled inside them, and finally hung suspended like spiders in their webs.
The music for this program ranged from French cabaret to acoustic guitar. For the third and final act, the live drummers of Santa Barbara-based group Panzumo brought pulsing energy to an opening section where dancers crossed the stage, matching the beat with rhythmic torso isolations and stamping feet. From there, they rose above the floor on vertical ropes known as corde lisse, using each other to gain lift-off.
Watching these women fly, it’s easy to forget that this is a company of amateur performers: full-time teachers, engineers, students, and business owners who commit up to 16 hours a week to their aerial training. LPC is one of the most ambitious performing arts projects ever to launch in Santa Barbara, and already, they’re achieving moments of magic.