An exemplary perpetuator of the festival atmosphere, Santa Barbara excels at throwing a great party — from the rowdy decadence of Old Spanish Days to the star-studded red carpets of the Film Festival. This past week, the Floor to Air Festival, brainchild of Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Dance founder (and Indy writer) Ninette Paloma, has been occurring in spaces around town and has included workshops, studio sessions, and cocktail receptions designed to introduce the aerial arts to the community. The festival culminates with a full-length aerial dance performance, Elemental You, on Friday, March 25, at the Lobero Theatre, which features six international artists and six career-track students from Paloma’s studio.
For Paloma, the festival illustrates her longtime passion project: the development of an explicit style of expression and composition that defines her technique in this niche of the dance universe. “A few years ago, I was inspired to create this movement language,” Paloma said. “I wrote down my exact method, approach, and intention, and explored how to train dancers in both technique and conceptual development simultaneously. I call that movement language ‘Floor to Air.’” Paloma continued, “We’re creating work that starts in a very grounded sense and takes off seamlessly. You don’t even realize that line between the ground and the air, and there’s no real distinction between the intention of the choreography on the floor versus the choreography in the air. It’s interconnected.”
The Floor to Air Festival demonstrates Paloma’s work in dance, but it also presents the community with the chance to work with (and admire) professional dancers from across the world, artists that Paloma has connected with throughout her years of performing. This year, the Floor to Air Festival will utilize the new Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science and Technology (SBCAST) to provide residence and performance spaces for the visiting artists. SBCAST is designed as a creative work and residence environment for artists and scientists. One of SBCAST’s guiding ideologies is to develop relationships between artists and the Santa Barbara community, which makes this space an ideal location for the Floor to Air Festival. SBCAST provides housing for the visiting artists and space for hosting festival events, such as workshops and cocktail receptions, which bring community participants and artists together. The festival’s events also include studio sessions at the Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Dance.
The final ambitious performance that brings the Floor to Air Festival to a close, Elemental You, features artists-in-residence and six dancers from the career-track courses at the Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Dance. “It isn’t necessarily a performance that features a narrative or a storyline,” Paloma said. “The story is the effort, athleticism, and choreographic creativity involved in creating the piece.” Paloma wants spectators to feel emotional connection with the material on a primordial level. At its best, aerial dance look effortless, as though the performer and the apparatus they utilize, usually suspended silks, a trapeze, or a lyra (a large hoop), are defying physics. The audience can suspend their knowledge of gravity’s constraints as the dancers swing and fly through the entirety of the three-dimensional stage space. “There’s a reverence in flight,” Paloma said. “We are daring to defy the laws of gravity, and it looks beautiful.”
Elemental You includes three pieces choreographed by Paloma. “Empathy in Blue Minor” is based on the human ability to detach emotionally from atrocities they see in the media. To capture this level of societal dispassion, dancers in the piece do not interact or acknowledge one another, despite struggles and triumphs. Paloma notes, with irony, that the performers all work off each other’s energy, so there’s a level of connection being purposefully denied in the piece.
Another piece, “Drinking with Men,” is an ode to Paloma’s relationship with the stage crew at the Lobero. She admits that during her first show at the Lobero several years ago, she felt like a “gajo,” the gypsy word for “outsider.” Aerial dance is still a fairly new art form — its roots are in circus performance and contemporary dance — so Paloma understands the exclusiveness of artistic groups. “Aerial dance is steeped in the traditions of tribal exclusivity from the old-world circus families,” she explains. After a few years of performances at the Lobero, the crew finally invited Paloma for a drink post-show, eliminating her “gajo” status. The staging for “Drinking with Men” reflects this relationship. The stage will look as though it’s in mid-rig, with ropes and pipes in various formations, the chaos of pre-setting a show.
Paloma describes the final piece, “Elemental You,” as “romantic and otherworldly. It’ll be fabrics all over the stage; people will be wrapped in fabric, climbing up the fabric, wrapping themselves, cocooning themselves … it’s the sense of wanting to return to authenticity but feeling tentative about leaving the nest.” These three pieces highlight the sensuality, humanity, and fearless beauty of aerial dance.
The Floor to Air Festival is a one-of-a-kind event in Santa Barbara, one that allows exploration of an art form in its nascent stages of development and a view of the masters at work. It incorporates a week of workshops, events, studio sessions, and training opportunities, all concluding with the mesmerizing and gravity-defying Elemental You at the Lobero on the March 25.