As humans, we’re designed to walk the Earth. Yet in our dreams, some of us can fly.

Now in its fifth year, aerial dance studio La Petite Chouette is cultivating a team of artists who seem to defy gravity. Muscular and toned, they have the slightly awkward gait of gymnasts—until, that is, they lift off the ground. Then they appear supernaturally graceful, like fish slipping from a net into open water.

Last Tuesday, La Petite Chouette presented Vesna, its first evening-length performance featuring the studio’s youth and adult companies. Director Ninette Paloma was inspired by Slavic circus traditions—the word “vesna” means “springtime” in Russian—and the influence of that culture came through in a minimalist set, spare costumes in gray and white, and a tone more characterized by technical rigor than by razzle-dazzle entertainment.

La Petite Chouette’s adult company displayed awesome feats of aerial dance while suspended by fabric.
Paul Wellman

Yet astonish they did. The program opened with the youth company: five boys and five girls, ages 9-17. Three of the youngest girls hung from the steel hoop known as the lyra, weaving their tiny bodies past one another to drop into dramatic backbends and full splits. Super-flexible sisters Sophia and Zola Phillips shared a contortion duet, while the older boys showed grace and power on aerial fabrics and corde lisse—a thick rope from which they extended their bodies, making even the most difficult poses look effortless.

It’s one thing to master the technical aspects of aerial dance, quite another to infuse the moves with dramatic intent. On trapeze, Ben Murray and Sophia Phillips delivered a poignant duet full of the hope of young love, while Nolan McCarthy brought slapstick comedy to his tight-wire routine.

While many of the youth company members have been training with Paloma for years, the adult company is a relatively new development. This was the group’s first stage performance, and these six women brought polished elegance to what is for all of them a leisure activity. On fabrics, Helen Dickson, Joanne Terry, Serra Benson, and Livia Menzei flowed seamlessly up and down the bolts of cloth, making tricky partnering look easy, while Jamie Bishop showed lyricism and control on lyra. Paloma herself had a theatrical solo on trapeze.

If there’s one image that stands for both springtime and flight, it’s the emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis. On aerial sling, Emily Garvin seemed to embody the butterfly’s metamorphosis. Beginning in stillness, she hung above the stage, wrapped entirely in gauzy fabric. She began to writhe, then to escape the confines of her cocoon. First, fingers tested the air, then a shoulder, and finally a leg, until she inverted her sling and hung above the stage as if flying, the white cloth rising above her like giant, diaphanous wings.


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