Report from Denver, Revised Vol. VII, No. 5

New Circus Activity in Denver

by Cindy Marvell

A recent “new circus” weekend in the Denver/Boulder area involved history, fiction, youth and some first feats. The Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance company continued its 30th anniversary season with a retrospective, Flight Path. Aerial dancer and choreographer Nancy Smith began the company in 1998. FPP offers a yearly Aerial Dance Festival and the company recently performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. with the Boulder Philharmonic.

The retrospective included work from 2002. Aerial dance, in which modern dance techniques and choreography combine with trapeze, fabric, and just about any other apparatus that performers can fly on is a relatively new art form. When Smith began creating pieces, inspired by such innovators as former diver-turned-dancer Terry Sendgraff, there had not been such diversity of apparatus.

An act called Soulever employs a device Smith refers to as “the rack,” basically a ladder that hangs parallel to the floor above performer height. Climbing the rigging as the performers do creates trapeze-like tricks. Now and then they pose in unison though the progression seems more about the individual styles and theatrical awareness. Danielle Hendricks, Valerie Morris, and Maya Muenzer followed Smith’s re-staging to the music of William Orbit.

Introducing the next piece, In The Mood, as a “buoyant and animated rendition,” Smith explained the Dairy Center was her favorite venue for this staging. Aerial dancers propel each other on bungee-like straps. Playfully choreographed chaos thrives in the vivid colors of the costuming by Annabel Reader, Jennifer Aiken, and Danielle Hendricks. Smith also joined the cast in this and a few other routines. With her were Angela Delsanter (whose work was also included in the retrospective), Sarah Harrison, Jessie Loisel, Alysha Perrin, and Megan Cattau.

In Origins of Now, an aerial rope dance performed by Valery Morris and Liam LeFey, also the co-choreographers, the duo explores all aspects of vertical relationship. It proceeded as if, “in the end escape was my only option.” Given the interaction of the performers, sometimes climbing past each other and varying the stronger roles, Origins seemed almost like a contact improv. LeFey commented that it had to be very carefully choreographed to achieve this effect.

Angela Delsanter, another longtime collaborator within the company, choreographed Micro-Waves. The ensemble piece explores cancer treatment, using radiation masks as props that hang from above. Dancers swing in hand loops and occasionally put their faces in the masks to convey the reality of the patients as they cope. “It was interesting to re-visit that piece through a different lens. I was more removed from the experience though the context was still relevant,” Delsanter said. “My son would have remembered seeing this when he was younger.” Smith, who also has a son, Gabriel, performed in the work along with Angela Folz, Sarah Harrison, and Alysha Perrin.

A Quadrille of Sorts, from the 2010 Aerial Dance Festival, featured stilt-walking by Danielle Hendricks and Valerie Morris amid acrobatics. The stilt walkers and dancers emerge as if at a party with mobile dress costumes (skirts by Annabel Reader). There may be a dash of New Orleans surrealism in addition to the Pink Floyd soundtrack. Quadrille features some continuous techniques in addition to being very fanciful. A duo on lire had the panache of a circus act as did a trapeze duet. A cello seems to float off the ground.

Various shapes and rolls, straddle hangs, toe climbs and aerial stilts culminated in a harum-scarum finale to the first act. The second act featured the live music of Spinphony, an energetic string quartet that clearly enjoys playing together. The New Work featured here by Smith and collaborators had a lot of verve and technical achievement. It culminated in Medley, with Danielle Hendricks performing aerial on sphere and Spanish Web on stilts. The new work was equally intriguing for the audience and the company in its 30th year.

In the same weekend, MOTH Poetic Circus performed a fusion of circus and literature at the Newman Center in Denver. Deena Marcum Selko, the director, started the MOTH Contemporary Circus Center in Denver and some of the performers train there on a regular basis. This “circus adventure,” a multimedia rendition, had some novel ideas, costuming, and unexpected approaches to Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic, Alice in Wonderland.

Mario Diamond engaged the audience as the White Rabbit, a mime with a clock. These drew in a variety of age groups perhaps not familiar with the beginning of the story in which there are two sisters. Originally from Montreal, Diamond has worked with MOTH for ten years and has coached many in circus pursuits from Olympic athletes to politicians.

Cressie Mae interpreted the role of Alice with some complexity, avoiding what could become a standard ingénue. Mae trained in single point trapeze with Elena Panova at the San Francisco Circus Center and is also a graduate of the Frequent Flyers Pro Track program. She will teach a dance trapeze series at the MOTH studio in Denver starting July 1. A clever device in Alice was the use of three sizes of hula hoops, from giant to mini, signifying the rabbit hole. A water set image led into slack rope and “A Pool of Tears.”

Like the book, though largely told without words excepting songs by Janet Guenther, this production was crammed with creatures and masquerading archetypes. Guenther accompanied the show live. “Most of the lyrics were connected to the original story,” said Selko, and the original mix contributed a lot to the show’s diversity and lively pace. Guenther’s music, with a combination of world influences, has been featured in adventure films and at events in the Denver/Boulder area.

“A Caucus Race” included a panorama of fanciful characters including the Dodo Bird (Kenta Benoit), the Mock Turtle (Wil Fields), and the Eagle (Nicole Fleit) on a bungee apparatus with a cat duo. In Who Are You, performers on cord lysee, straddle flips, and a Caterpillar (Ariana Ferber-Carter) astonished with her techniques. The Cheshire Cat (Kristina Shelton, Cassidy Vallin and Arija Williams) seems a natural for circus. A quartet of purple “Caterflies” (Corcoran Kane, Juliet Johnson, Callie McGinlay, and Ray Ryan) provided divertissements above.

In her debut with MOTH, Ferber-Carter proved an accomplished contortionist with Chinese-style balancing and acrobatic skills. She managed to evoke the Caterpillar’s attributes while in a chin stand and took many good-natured curtain calls. A native of Kansas City, where she participated in Quixotic, Ariana co-founded Pareidolia Contortion and worked with Circus Smirkus, Circus Bella, Celebrity Cruises, and Lucia Aerial.

Benjamin Domask of Milwaukee, WI played the Mad Hatter. Using a variety of mime and manipulation skills Domask employed character-driven tricks and teamwork. Domask has collaborated with Thom Wall of Cirque Du Soleil. He also co-founded the experimental theatre group, Curiousita. With MOTH, rather than the usual juggling he performed choice vaudevillian innovations with tables and teacups. Plate-spinning on a curve illustrated Carroll’s fanciful notions.

Marshall Jarreau, a 2011 NECCA graduate “from practically everywhere,” reached many hearts as the Red Queen. He performed skillfully on strap loops amid a chorus of flamingos and playing cards. Jarreau has also performed with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. He commandeered the stage role with happy villainy. The posse of playing cards led by Selko’s daughter, Ruby Frank, enlivened the ensemble. She said they worked on the show for the better part of a year.

The Gryphon was portrayed by Elizabeth Smith, who collaborated with Wil Fields (the Mock Turtle) in a fabric duo. Costume creations by Alisia Silliman and Tonje Williams enhanced matching fabric. One pose involved holding the fabric in a diamond shape.

“We took pieces we had both performed in other acts… experimented with them and came up with new exciting variations,” said Smith. She particularly enjoyed learning the “trust fall,” where she fell backwards to be caught by the ankles, and the “Jilly Split,” a move by Jilly Katzenberger. MOTH plans a larger version of the show next spring and encourages performers to audition for their productions.

Frequent Flyers Productions, which has a studio space in Boulder that offers ongoing programs, hosts the 20th Annual Aerial Dance Festival, July 29-August 11, 2018. This event features all kinds of classes with guest instructors such as Alex Allan (Rope & Fabric), Jayne Bernasconi (Choreography), Elsie Smith of NECCA (Fabric), Valerie Morris (Rope & Harness), Danielle Garrison (Sling), and Yuki Tsuji (Handstands).

To conclude my “new circus” weekend I performed in an aerial routine. As a juggler I find aerial arts to be challenging and joined the Aircat Student Recital on fabric at Boulder Circus Center. Cathy Gauch of Aircat Aerial Arts introduced the “Space” theme, illustrated by her students’ choreography. My trio partners Janae Magee and Diana Poulden performed for the first time. Erica Martin and Heather Passe gave an operatic rendition of skill and artistry. Professionals Laureleye MaQi Ananda and Jilly Katzenberger created a virtuosic sequence. The weekend needed no greater finale.