Northcenter’s Aerial Dance Takes Flight

By Patty Wetli | Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Aerial Dance Chicago combines artistry and athleticism. Credit: Patty Wetli

It’s natural to be a little nervous during an audition. But tryouts for Aerial Dance Chicago (ADC) tend to provoke actual fear.

Founded in 1999 by Chloe Jensen, ADC raises dance to new heights…literally. Using hoops, ropes, swings and suspended fabrics, dancers take flight during routines that combine athleticism and artistry to dazzling effect.

“I didn’t even know aerial dance existed,” says Jensen, who happened upon the art form while a student at Northern Illinois. One of her professors was a former performer with Ringling Brothers and Jensen asked to use her trapeze. Despite her background as a gymnast, she confesses, “The first time on the trapeze I was scared. You’re up in the air, you’re not on a stationary object–it can be intimidating.”

Naturally she was hooked and immediately recognized an opportunity for choreography. “I saw the potential, going up into the vertical space.”

“Really Chloe’s a visionary,” says Danielle Garrison, who joined ADC in 2007 and was named assistant director in 2010. In fact, Jensen was so far ahead of the curve, it took her two years to find a studio willing to accept the fledgling company and accommodate its rigging apparatus. Eventually ADC found a home at Margaret Reynolds’ Belle Plaine Studio, 2014 W. Belle Plaine Ave., which Jensen calls “a beautiful space to create work.”

Despite the way in which she discovered aerial dance, Jensen is careful to distinguish ADC from circus acts. “We’ve had to really fight to get into dance festivals,” says Jensen. The skepticism and resistance are gradually giving way as ADC’s reputation grows. “People are gaining interest and giving us more credit.”

A recent production mounted in late March, Aerial Works Raw, demonstrated the qualities that separate ADC not only from earthbound dance companies but other aerialists.

On the one hand, the intricate choreography requires incredible precision and strength, particularly when two or more dancers share a single piece of rigging; flips, twists and turns demand immense control and concentration. At the same time there’s such fluidity of movement, the dancers appear to float effortlessly in air. Garrison, in the premiere of a solo work, Finale Primordiale, used the “silks” (fabric ropes) to create the illusion of wings, drawing audible gasps of appreciation from the audience. “It’s about using the equipment to tell a story,” she says.

Like most of ADC’s dancers–the company consists of six dancers and three apprentices–Garrison had no aerial experience prior to auditioning for ADC, in large part because the format is still so rare. “There’s a natural knack,” she says. “You either feel it right away or you don’t.”

During tryouts, Jensen and Garrison look for strong dance technique, as well as an interest and potential to learn aerial work. Applicants are put through the equivalent of an Aerial Dance 101 class to determine their comfort level with the equipment. “If you’re not calm, the audience will know,” says Garrison.

In training new members of the company, as well as youth and adult students, “We start really low,” says Jensen, “and we have mats.” The troupe spends hours each week developing strength, typically just by climbing the ropes. Most ADC dancers augment thrice-weekly rehearsals with yoga, Pilates and running to maintain fitness. At a recent rehearsal, this reporter noticed bandaged knees, taped fingers and rope burns on legs and arms.

Chloe Jensen works the silks. Credit: Patty Wetli

Given the emphasis on athleticism, it’s surprising that ADC is currently an all-female company, though males have occasionally joined the troupe in the past. For starters, there’s the ego factor. “We intimidate them,” Jensen says. “The women are so strong.” And then there are financial considerations. “We’re not at the point where we can pay much, and our apprentices don’t get paid at all.” With so few men pursuing dance in the first place, males are in high demand and can follow the money. (ADC’s dancers sign one-year contracts and receive monthly stipends. Jensen and Garrison are full-time employees but hold other jobs to pay the bills.)

Funding is a constant challenge for ADC, particularly given the low profile of dance on Chicago’s arts scene. “There’s Hubbard Street, Joffrey and River North,” says Garrison. “Any company besides that is in the same pool. New York City has thousands of dance companies, we maybe have 50. It’s a much smaller community.”

ADC stays afloat on a stream of grants, tickets sales, tuition for classes and earned income from contracted services (meaning they often provide aerial entertainment at parties and events), which provides a modest income for the dancers and covers the expense of maintaining the rigging equipment. The 20-foot silks (actually made of a nylon material similar to that used in swimwear), for example, lose their stretch and require replacing every few years.

“At a certain point there are no more grants,” says Jensen. The company lacks major sponsorships and “donations have gone down, down, down the last few years.”

Though Jensen recognizes the need for ADC to do a better job of marketing itself, members of the company are already wearing multiple hats. “I feel like when the company first started, I was dancing in everything. Now I feel lucky when I get to dance.”

Among the roles she juggles: mother to a young son and daughter. (Husband Kip Conwell, a member of the biology faculty at Northeastern Illinois, is ADC’s co-founder and director of rigging, which is a totally awesome title.) The kids frequently join Jensen at rehearsals. “I set up a little silk and they spin,” she says. “They think every mom does this.”

Catch Aerial Dance Chicago’s newest production, Garden of Souls, at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St. Performances are May 17 and 19; June 2, 9 and 10. Visit ADC’s website for more information and tickets.

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