Pendulum Aerial Arts' revamped "High Art" performance premieres in Portland this weekend

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Suzanne Kenney and Luis Torres perform as two star-crossed lovers during rehearsal of 'High Art.'With a fluidity traditionally reserved for rivers and streams, The Painter glides through her movements on the stage. Hula hoop in hand, it’s as though the artist were made to dance at the extension of a hoop, or two hoops or three. She makes her way to a canvas, places the hoop around them both, and now a paintbrush is her creative outlet. The Painter faces the static figures on stage and begins conducting as though directing an orchestra. And that’s when the paintings come to life.

When Portland’s Pendulum Aerial Arts' “High Art/Full Circle” was conceived in 2009, the message wasn’t as clear. Eleven performers graced the stage instead of seven, and the performance was more about costume changes and less about character development. Five years later, and 15 years after Pendulum’s creation, the show, the artists and the direction have evolved, making the message clearer than ever. Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Lisbeth Mikoleit discovers her reflection in a mirror in a piece inspired by Pablo Picasso's 'Girl Before a Mirror.'

“It’s the story of life, with sort of the overriding themes of birth, rebirth, transformation and death,” said Suzanne Kenney, Pendulum founder, artistic director and “High Art” performer. “Every time I do a show, it’s really personal for me, because it’s really my story and the story of the artists who are in the company with me. So, it’s totally changed this time.”

Since November, former Cirque du Soleil performer Rebecca Sukhanova has taken on the direction of many of Pendulum’s shows. She’s worked with the artists to bring their characters to life and make the message of the show accessible for any viewer.

“Honestly, I didn’t have a vision. I just came in, I watched it, I started to absorb what I saw ... And so I just got into it gradually. I did it bit by bit and then piece by piece,” Sukahnova said. “I try to get them to believe they are what they are supposed to be and not just creating an illusion. Not just pretending, but actually becoming.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Lisbeth Mikoleit emerges from a cocoon during her piece for 'High Art.'

Although five of the artists are original “High Art” performers, the revamped show was made difficult by rare all-encompassing practices. All the performers have jobs on top of their training, and they don’t all even live in the area anymore.

“The most challenging part has been coming here and practicing to this capacity. We do a minimum of 20 hours a week and then we all work jobs on top of that,” said Luna Blakeman, who portrays The Painter. “If I wasn’t here, I was at work and vice versa. So that was a huge challenge. Just pushing my body to its limit physically, but just mentally trying to remember how much I enjoy doing this.”

A driving force of the show, Blakeman has only been working on the production for nine months. That’s when she arrived at Pendulum, and hadn’t even planned on performing until Kenney asked if she’d consider taking on a part. Of course, she couldn’t say, “No.”

“I came here to focus on technique and getting really skillful at my art. But for me, being a performer is what brought me here and the joy of bringing the stage alive,” Blakeman said. “I get an opportunity to practice what I already do and love, but with the character and the performance and the storytelling behind it.”

Though Blakeman dove right into perfecting her character, she wasn’t the only “High Art” performer to do so. Watching the seven perform, it truly is difficult to tell where the act starts and the artist begins. Each character is so talented you may find yourself wondering if the show is actually make believe or just an extension of reality.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - MoNika Ell wears an all-black suit during practice for Pendulum Aerial Arts' production of 'High Art.'

As both the aerial and ground performances move through themes relative to the circle of life, each act shifts to reflect a particular painting, and the characters weave in and out of view. They alter their behaviors and movements to portray paintings ranging from Salvador Dali’s “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man” to Pablo Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” to Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” To render these paintings with movement and expression, Sukhanova worked individually with each artist.

“It’s the points between the tricks,” she said. “The transitions, moving from one thing to another, which you can find a lot of magic in if you look hard enough.”

Adding to the magic of the live performance will be the addition of original music, performed live by Sasha Lazard, Dave Eggar and Chuck Palmer. The contortionists and aerialists of “High Art” are excited to perform with the help of adrenaline and the energy of the musicians alongside them.

“There’s a lot of variety show performance out there, especially in America. But when you’re able to get up and tell a full story, that’s really awesome,” said Blakeman. “The personal odyssey of going through life and the humanity of what we all experience as individuals — life, love, despair — all of that. It can seem cliché, but it’s all something we experience on any level. To get up on stage and be able to share that through an art form, a unique art from, that’s really cool.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The cast of 'High Art' practices at the French-American School of Portland, where Pendulum Aerial Arts is based.

"High Art/Full Circle" performs Aug. 22-24 at Newmark Theatre in Portland. Buy tickets here.

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