The first thing you notice is two bolts of pink fabric that hang from the theater roof, touching down in the aisles. Only once everyone is seated do red rose petals cascade from the ceiling panels, fluttering off the silky cloths as they make their descent. Heads tipped back now, the audience inhales collectively as high above them a foot emerges, then a leg. Two female aerialists come into view, each one twisting and wrapping her limbs in fabric as she descends slowly, stretching and sliding her way to the floor.
Nearly eight years since opening the city’s first aerial dance studio, Ninette Paloma has launched the Santa Barbara Contemporary Floor to Air Festival. Saturday night’s show at the Lobero Theatre marked the culmination of the inaugural weeklong event, which drew together artists from France, Portugal, Costa Rica, and the east and west coasts of the United States for workshops and collaborations.
Among this year’s participants were some of the art form’s founding figures: France’s Fred Deb, who was instrumental in the creation of aerial silks, and Boulder, Colorado’s Nancy Smith, founder of the nation’s first aerial dance festival.
Both Deb and Smith had moments to shine in Saturday’s program; Deb performed a lively solo in red velvet bell-bottom pants, the ankles formed by hoops from which she hung and swung. Smith’s more meditative solo on aerial frame demonstrated one of aerial dance’s newer apparatuses.
Among the many other highlights of the evening was “Eterea,” in which Costa Rica’s Carolina Cabañas soared above the stage on a bolt of white fabric while below, two dancers pulled the cloth at extreme angles.
Watching these aerial artists from around the world dance through the air and skim close to the ground would have been reason enough for a festival, but Paloma’s primary aim was to foster connections between European and American aerialists, newer and more established artists. The evidence of those exchanges was in the transitions between numbers, particularly in the quality of movement on the floor, where Paloma’s own company members took on some of the dynamic fluidity of France’s Magalie Lanriot, who was brought in to teach modern dance for the festival.
Lanriot also closed Saturday’s program with a brief but riveting solo. In a pale backless dress with a billowing train, she lay motionless onstage as Santa Barbara’s own Sophia Phillips gave a powerful performance on trapeze. Finally, Lanriot rose for a dance of explosive impulses and simmering reverberations in which the distinction between floor and air nearly disappeared. Rolling and bounding across the stage, she seemed almost to be in flight; hanging from the trapeze, she appeared grounded. These final moments of the night expressed the magic of the boundary where floor meets flight.