Shot in the dark
Nothing says back to normal like the return of A-WOL Dance Collective and its spectacular show Art in the Dark.
Every summer the aerial dance collective rig cables between the Douglas Firs in Mary S. Young State Park in West Linn, build stages, then perform an act where colored lights and greenery combine with the fluid forms of dangling athletes.
The 2020 show was canceled, like most everything else. As a dance form, aerial relies on grappling and lifting unlike many performance arts, and in the time of COVID-19, that was impossible.
However, the founders held the company together and are now ready with a pared down version of the show they intended for 2020. It has less stage space and 200 audience seats instead of the usual 400, but the same combination of floor dance and swinging from silks and hoops.
Co-founder Jen Livengood was in that first summer show in 2005, and she is in this one too.
"One of our strengths is that we have a mastered formula from 16 years of practice," she said recently. "Everyone in the show this year has done the show multiple years. We are all addicted — we have it down!"
This year the costumes are simplified and have a leafy, foresty theme. The audience shouldn't expect much narrative in an Art in the Dark show. Even though you are looking at human forms, the movements are abstract rather than anthropomorphic. They use the same trees every year and label their rigging and put it in storage from September to June. The 2021 ice storm destroyed one of their regular trees, so now they have four stages instead of three.
The soundtrack was written by a local musician Chet Lyster, who also did it in 2019. "It feels very authentic to be out in the forest," said Livengood. "And there's a lot of drumming."
A-WOL is a dance troupe, meaning the action is on the ground as well as in the air. Performers dance on stage and even when they are on stagehand duty, changing sets or hauling people on ropes, they are expected to move intentionally and with grace. This women-run collective has made aerial into a formidable art: It is ballet with better sight lines, yoga without the boring bits and gymnastics without the creepy coaches. Since they have a history of self-sufficiency, they converted the wooden risers from the warehouse into stages and are doing their own rigging. Scaling back has been a pleasant change of pace.
"We're artists, this (pandemic) should challenge our creativity. We've always been this grassroots, on-a-shoestring-budget kind of production, and that's always produced a better result than someone just handing us everything in perfection," said Livengood.
She added, "You get in this habit like 'Blast me bigger and better every time!' And it feels good this year to just draw everything back a little bit and decide what's really the most important thing. People want to go see art and hear music and feel normal."
Strength of feeling
Livengood has seen the art form transform many adults and kids in workshops and camps. "It's not just physical, you're not just lifting weights. There's also this side of expression that has music put to it, and it gives kids a chance to just be themselves and to be free to express themselves," she said.
Livengood keeps an eye on social media. "The world of dance has changed tremendously. When I started aerial, YouTube didn't even exist. We couldn't even watch videos of other people doing it," she said.
Livengood encourages dancers to keep watching videos when they are out injured or pregnant. "Kids these days that have coaches and just learn stuff and sequence well-thought-out sequence. You could be better than me in a year easily! I'm so glad that it's all out there," she said.
On balance, she likes social. "There's a limit to the amount of pressure that social media should be putting on people. But then there's also the side of it, that it's inspirational. And I love like watching people just do funny things. There's so much dance on social media, like fun dance, like all the TikTok dance videos. All these people dancing that would have never danced before," she said.
Double star drop
Dancer and choreographer Olivia Buss came to meet the Portland Tribune straight from teaching a conditioning class on Instagram Live, which is harder than Zoom because you can't see your students.
Buss has a BA in dance and theater from the University of Oregon and is doing a masters in exercise science and kinesiology online at Concordia University, St Paul. Her thesis is on the shoulder and how prone to dislocation it is, compared to the deep socket of the hip.
The shoulder requires a lot of different muscles to work, like the deltoids and the serratus anterior, and an aerialist must build up them all. Drops really stress the joints.
"A very enjoyable drop is a double star, when the dancer is really wide and they just unravel," said Buss. "(The fabric) wraps around the pelvis and a leg, and you have to have the core strength to not get whiplash."
There are other drops that catch the ankle and require total engagement. "It's very rough on the body," she said, showing off a bruise. "It's the season of 'Where did that bruise come from?'" she added.
Not your mother's circus
As a dance form, though, a daredevil attitude helps. Dancers do well in it, but dancers who ski and high dive do better.
"It's not just physical health, it's psychological health and bravery and confidence and creativity," said Buss. "The versatility of aerialists and dancers is something that's getting now mentioned. (You) see a beautiful show, but the work behind it is extensive."
Cirque du Soleil comes to mind. "Coming to aerial taught me a new world of discipline. A lot of it is for show, a lot of (circus) is for the glory of it: Can you do the biggest, baddest skill? Are you the strongest?" Buss said.
But depending on your partner to hold you adds another dimension.
"We are a group of dancers that take it from the ground into the air, and that makes us very unique and cohesive. We strive for healthy bodies and healthy relationships, because there's trust in that," Buss said.
As for what the show's about, Buss can only say, "There's a duet where they kind of fly together. So, I would just say it's about reconnecting, as cheesy as that sounds, just simplicity of relationships and trust."
A-WOL's Art in the Dark 2021 features original music by Chet Lyster, and it'll be Thursday, July 29-Sunday, Aug. 1 and Thursday, Aug. 5-Sunday, Aug. 8 under the Trees at Mary S Young Park, West Linn. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., showtime is at dark.
Advance tickets are sold in pods of two, four and six people for $80-$240.
For more: www.awoldance.org.
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