The sun has set, yet darkness hasn’t quite fallen; it’s that liminal part of the day poet T.S. Eliot referred to as “the violet hour.” For her latest aerial dance production, the director of Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Arts, Ninette Paloma wanted to capture the beauty and suspense of that moment between day and night. Last Friday evening at the Lobero Theatre, her company La Petite Chouette presented The Violet Hour, a nuanced performance in three acts.
Indigo lights rose on three dancers suspended high above the stage, each one wrapped in a thick rope. To the sound of tolling bells, they descended, taking their time as they slid incrementally downward. Sophia Phillips rose again on the corde lisse to perform a solo of great intricacy, including a series of innovative wraps and slides. The longest-standing member of the company, Phillips gives the impression of being completely at ease air, performing technically demanding feats with riveting presence and grace.
Aerial dance has its roots in the circus, an art form whose origin in freak shows and death-defying acts primed audiences to expect tricks and thrills. By contrast, Paloma’s aesthetic is solidly nouveau cirque; she’s more interested in using emotional expression to evoke a world onstage than she is in eliciting gasps. The Violet Hour realized that intent beautifully in Serra Benson and Livia Mezei’s duet on aerial frame — a mesmerizing slow-motion act requiring tenderness and trust to pull off delicate balances. At one point, Mezei released her grip on Benson’s fingers, yet rather than the anticipated drop, there was an achingly slow unfurling.
In the second act, Phillips returned for a more dynamic duet with Hannah Caldwell on aerial kite, and younger apprentice members of Paloma’s troupe got a chance to show their stuff, as did the director herself in a dramatic, unleashed solo for dance trapeze set to the soulful music of Bettye Lavette.
The greatest challenge for this company, and maybe for all aerial dance artists, is in the transition from the ground to the air and back again. In The Violet Hour, Paloma experimented with slowing down these moments, sometimes leaving a number of dancers in complete stillness onstage as others rose from the ground.
There’s no aerial apparatus with more fluid beauty than aerial silks, and La Petite Chouette brought out these eye-catching bolts of brightly colored fabric for their final act, when all six members of the adult company swept across the stage before taking to the air: their chosen element.