Expressive Aerialist workshop with Rain Anya
One Sunday in October, I drove to Charleston to take a workshop with aerial theatre performer Rain Anya.
I left my tights at home, so I had to run by Target to get a pair. Then, after missing the street and making a U-Turn, I pulled up to the Circus Building, a warehouse home to the new Aerial Fit studio.
The aerial equipment-- silks, a sling, a dance trapeze, a circus trapeze and a lyra-- hung down from the ceiling, waiting for Rain to begin the workshop with the nine women. I met the owners of the studio, Jordan Anderson and Clayton Woodson, and then, Rain. After seeing her image in dramatic photos and videos of her work with the Paper Doll Militia, it was interesting to see her in simple workout clothes, sitting behind a laptop where she was creating a playlist for the workshop.
Following years of performing and producing aerial theatre pieces like This Twisted Tale, Rain and co-director Sarah Bebe Holmes are codifying their principles and practices into a manual called the Vertical Theatre Method, which is what the material in the workshop was drawn from.
"It's basically about taking the athletic part of circus or aerial arts and sort of how to infuse it with these different elements that make it more than just skill," Rain explained later during my interview with her in Athens.
As we warmed up, Rain emphasized aerial's roots in circus. While both aerial and gymnastics are physically demanding, aerial, like theatre, is performance-based.
"Circus is a performative art, and gymnastics is a competitive art," she said.
We completed several exercises during the two hours at the studio. Throughout the workshop Rain was very approachable, and enthusiastic without being overwhelming, and non-judgemental. She spoke theory with the authority of an academic, but without the arrogance.
Lesson 1: Vary the tempo.
In one of the first key lessons, Rain said that aerialists often move in mid tempo-- neither fast nor slow-- and maintain that speed throughout a performance.
"When we see someone moving in same tempo, it can get really old," she said.
To illustrate the significance of tempo, we performed two exercises. In the first, we walked around the studio, passing fabrics, mats and each other, while Rain called out the pace: fast, slow, still.
Then we took the exercise to the air. Working in partners, one directed the other's pace while she performed a sequence on her apparatus. When I was in the air, I sometimes found it difficult to keep the pace that my partner, Savannah Weber, gave me. My monkey brain started to panic. What will I do now? This is the second time I've slid into an alpha!
Lesson 2: Pause.
Afterward, Rain noted that when we were told to be still, we often shifted to a different pose instead of pausing right away. She encouraged us not to bypass moment of stillness to rush to a more interesting pose.
"A lot of times it's that breath, that pause, that the audience catches onto," she said.
Lesson 3: Don't throw away the ending.
My favorite of Rain's exercises highlighted how critical the beginning and ending are to an act, even if they don't take place in the air.
We were given two emotions or states, one to start with, the other to finish. The apparatus served as the mid-point where we executed our transition, performing just one aerial trick before exiting the floor.
Rain and the students lined up against the wall to observe, and I went first.
As I stood at the edge of the large mat and prepared to perform, I realized how vulnerable I felt without my apparatus. In my mind the mat was an ocean, and I was going to be out in the middle of it without anything to hold onto,flailing my arms wildly. I imagined the audience floating by in a yacht. Hey, what are you doing out there? Do you need some help?
Yet, I began the exercise. I meandered between the silks, approaching one with confidence, then drawing back and seeking another. But nothing was right. This was me, trying to play confused.
The bar! Whoo-hoooo! I remember thinking.
I seized the thick, taped bar of the dance trapeze in both hands, and swung my legs up into a hip pullover, then sent them back the other way, and fell to my knees. Nearly forgetting Anya's instructions to finish the act, I sat with my head in the mat for a moment, then dashed off the floor, demonstrating more "lunatic ecstasy" than "excitement," probably.
"Don't throw away the ending," Rain said. "Sometimes the ending is the most important part. It's the conclusion, the resolution."
Lesson 4: An aerial performance involves more an aerial tricks.
Finally, I stepped onto the thick black mat beneath the single-point trapeze.
The second part of the exercise involved partners. Rain assigned emotions like snarky and ashamed, or confident and drug-addled for each pair. We started on opposite sides of the mat and met our partners in the middle. The results were dramatic and highly amusing.
Elizabeth Ferretti's wild and Tamela Hastie's disdainful states were one of the best pairs to watch. A super-hyper Elizabeth danced like a teenager at a rock show, waving her arms around in the center of the studio and seizing the white fabric, while disdainful Tamela climbed the silks to escape her.
"I started to get attached to these characters," Rain said afterward. "I could see whole pieces taking shape."
Indeed, observing each other during the exercises felt like watching a show, even though there were hardly any aerial tricks at all.
"You don't have to have all the skills that ever existed to make a beautiful piece," Rain said.
Conclusion: Hungering for more
Rain told me that she and Holmes hope to have the Vertical Theatre Method manual completed by the middle to end of 2014.
"I feel like there's been this overall sense of interest and curiosity towards going deeper, in terms meaning, and content, and emotional quality, and story and stuff like that (with aerial art)," she said during our later interview. "So, I feel that now is a really good time for us to be putting the vertical theatre method out there, because I feel like people are almost hungry for it."