Dancing on air

Imagine a dance company that combines the building-climbing abilities of Spiderman with the grace and technique of contemporary modern dance.

Imagine a dance company that combines the building-climbing abilities of Spiderman with the grace and technique of contemporary modern dance.

That, in a nutshell, describes Aeriosa Dance, and Whitehorse audiences will have a chance to see their unique blend of vertical movement when the company performs at the Yukon Arts Centre in early September.

But artistic director Julia Taffe is quick to point out she has no wish to be a dance version of Evel Knievel.

“We’re not daredevils, we’re not stunt performers. What we’re doing is trying to find new opportunities to dance, and to place dance in new environments,” says Taffe.

Those environments have included the sheer rock walls of mountains, the ledges and rooftops of city buildings, and indoors. At the arts centre, the dancers will perform on ropes on the theatre stage.

Creation is a very public process, since pieces are often created on location, says Taffe.

“If we’re dancing on a building, people who are passing by are getting to see the dance take shape, and I’ve found that builds incredibly strong connections between our audiences and our dancers and the work.”

But safety is the first and foremost concern. “We need a lot of help to make sure that what we’re doing is safe and someone’s looking after us,” she says.

That help is provided by climbing riggers, whose function is to free the dancers to concentrate on their performance.

“As performers we don’t want to be distracted and to be multi-tasking,” says Taffe, “so we make sure that we’ve got people taking care of us.”

Taffe describes her company, based in Vancouver, as “a group of dancers and climbing riggers that started working together in 2001.”

They came together to create a special performance for the opening of the Scotiabank Dance Centre, when Taffe and three other dancers literally travelled across the new building.

Aeriosa Dance was formally established in 2005. “The name comes from the word ‘arioso,’ which is a musical term meaning lyrical,” explains Taffe.

“We made it our own by adding the ‘ae’ at the beginning and the ‘a’ at the end to separate it from the Italian language and to represent the feminine. It’s a word that was created to make a unique statement about what we’re doing.”

Taffe has been a dancer all her life, but it took her a while to find the artistic vocabulary she now uses.

She says she was “born to dance,” and was lucky that her parents gave her dance lessons. “I always, always moved. I was a really physical kid, and I was in every kind of training — swimming, gymnastics, creative movement.”

When her parents moved to Whitehorse in 1983, Taffe completed Grade 9 at Porter Creek Secondary and then returned to Winnipeg to continue her dance training.

Ten years later, while working in Dawson City during a summer layoff from a dance company, she got an offer to go prospecting in the Ogilvie Mountains.

“I fell in love with the mountains and I started climbing as a way to be outside,” Taffe says. “After so many years of training as a professional dancer, I really needed some contrast in my life.”

Taffe had gone camping with her family as a child and always loved the natural world, “but being so serious about dance took me away from that for quite a few years. So it was a real breath of fresh air to be physical in another way.”

That adventurous summer in the Yukon led Taffe on an entirely different journey, as she began to explore what was to become another passion.

“It’s the Yukon that really lit that fire for me, and it just burned brighter and brighter, to the point that I was doing more climbing than dancing.”

In fact ,Taffe moved to Vancouver and began working as a climbing guide.

She also went on to train with two different choreographers who were using climbing skills in their dancing — one who was making dances in California’s Yosemite Valley, and another in Colorado who was using sets for her dancers that incorporated climbing holds.

Taffe then started creating her own work, dancing in wilderness mountain environments using a rope and harness and recording the dances on video. But eventually, she says, she found this method too solitary.

“You don’t generally have an audience other than the people who are rigging and operating the camera. You can bring the film back, but dance is a social art form, and I was just lonely, so I started looking for ways to bring other people into these environments.”

“I gathered people around me that I thought would be able to do both things — climb and dance — and began training them. And the Scotiabank Dance Centre ended up being our first performance as a group.”

Taffe isn’t the only dancer who performs in this way. She’s travelled the world with a California company to dance on skyscrapers in Texas, Argentina, New York and San Francisco.

“So there’s other people who’ve invested a lot of time and thought in how to take dance off the floor and create vertical floors and three-dimensional movement that fills up a lot of space.”

Taffe’s dancers are a varied lot, with day jobs as mountain guides and law clerks, as well as others with their own professional dance companies.

“It’s incredibly hard work. Gravity works on your body differently when you’re in harness than when your feet are on the ground, so it creates new possibilities for movement. It also creates different tensions on the body, so it takes a lot of training to adapt to aerial movement.

“But it feels amazing to be able to float through the air and to direct that energy.”

In Whitehorse the company will perform a piece called Stone:drift, featuring three female dancers on stage, two riggers and a projection designer.

The piece was premiered in Vancouver last September and is being further developed in the Yukon Arts Centre’s proscenium theatre.

For Taffe it will be a return to a familiar stage, since she first danced at the opening of the arts centre 15 years ago as part of a Winnipeg company called Dance Collective.

The evening will also feature an informal presentation by local dance students who’ve spent the past three weeks working with members of Aeriosa Dance, an opportunity that has allowed them to experience dancing in harness.

Aeriosa Dance performs at the Yukon Arts Centre on Saturday, September 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the Yukon Arts Centre box office and Arts Underground.   

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