Although Santa Barbara hosts many dance studios, it’s safe to say that Ninette Paloma’s Centre for Aerial Dance on East Gutierrez is among the most unusual. Dispensing with the mirror and barre format common in spaces where ballet is taught, this facility is instead oriented on the vertical rather than the horizontal plane. Long ropes known as corde lisse hang from industrial-strength brackets in the room’s high ceiling alongside cloth slings made of soft yet sturdy fabric. On the morning I visit, energy radiates from the nine performers who are rehearsing for the upcoming Floor to Air Festival performance on Friday, May 26, at the Lobero Theatre. Four visiting artists — Danielle Garrison from Boulder, Elizabeth Stich from Salt Lake City, Jenna Ober from Minneapolis, and Allie Cooper from Santa Cruz — join Santa Barbarans Rachna Hailey, Isabel Musidora, Allie Cole, Lydia Johnson, and Emily Stratton for a session that combines intense individual challenges with a palpable sense of community. New York’s Shaina Brafman and S.B.’s Luna Webster would be joining the group later in the week. As I watch these young women twirl, tumble, and float above the floor, trusting their bodies to the apparatus and gravity, it’s clear that the art form of aerial dance, at once an ancient and a relatively new phenomenon, has taken hold in our city in an extraordinary way.
For those who grew up dancing or doing gymnastics in a more traditional, floor-bound setting, the degree to which aerial dance has caught on with a younger generation may come as a surprise. Speaking with the performers during a break, I learn that for several of them, Paloma’s aerial dance classes were not something they came to from another discipline, but rather the first stop on their journey toward public performance. Musidora and Cole have grown up together in this program and have come of age swinging from the ceiling on East Gutierrez. Cole, who has been with Paloma for 10 years now, praises the experience for its emotional depth, saying, “It takes a lot of strength, but you’re also tapping into your emotions in order to have the audience feel something.” Both Cole and Musidora find aerial work fulfilling in a way that nothing else has been for them, and they attribute this to Paloma’s approach as a teacher and choreographer.
On a recent trip to Australia, Musidora experienced what might be the most telling effect of the intensive training these performers undergo. “It was the first time I had taken a break from doing this in five and a half years, and I found myself having this craving to get back off the ground until finally I just went into the backyard and hauled myself up into a tree,” she said. “That’s how much I missed the feeling.”
For those who have not yet seen an aerial dance performance by this group, expect something quite different from the trapeze acts one sees in the circus. Aerial dance as an art form has been cultivated here in California since at least 1976, when trailblazing Bay Area choreographer Terry Sendgraff first affixed a trapeze bar to a single point, rendering its movement multi-axial. Ever since, there have been more and more people interested in the aesthetic possibilities presented by the vertical dimension. The Floor to Air Festival in Santa Barbara has become one of the international destinations for the best practitioners to share their knowledge, and even before Friday evening’s climactic showcase, there are dozens of classes and events taking place all week at the studio, including a Petites Artistes workshop and showing featuring performers between the ages of 11 and 15. Whether you are already comfortable swinging up to 30 feet off the ground or just curious to see what these aerial artists are all about, the Floor to Air Festival has something for you.
411 The 2017 Floor to Air Festival showcase performance is Friday, May 26, 7 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and information, visit lobero.org
or call 963-0761. For more information on classes and workshops, visit sbaerial.com.