Aerial Journal Interview: Susan Murphy
Susan Murphy is the founder of my home studio, Canopy, located in Athens, Georgia. I've trimmed the interview for length and general interest, but for Canopy students who want to hear more about how Susan and Don built that studio, I have an outtake page just for you.
I also have an account of a retreat to Susan's Marsh Studio here.
Susan Murphy's aerial dance career began in Terry Sendgraff's experimental single-point trapeze class in California in 1978. She fell in love with the "dance" trapeze, and wanted some day to have her own studio as peaceful and inviting as that of her mentor. It took more than two decades, but in 2002 Susan and her husband Don Carson opened Canopy Studio, a non-profit aerial arts center in an inexpensive old warehouse in Athens, Georgia. In 2009 Susan and Don retired to Darien, Georgia, where they have built a second, smaller aerial studio, with their home along the edges, enclosing the space. At the Marsh Studio, Susan hosts weekend retreats for aerialists.
Susan's most recent performance work is with Girls on Trapeze. In the show HerSelf Rising, which is about women and their relationship with important women in their lives, Susan remembers her grandmother and great-grandmother, speaking aloud as she performs on the dance trapeze.
Aerial Journal: I just wanted to have you speak on the creative process of that work, because you said you had the dance moves first, and you wrote the text for this piece, specifically for this piece. You didn't have this written down anywhere else before.
Susan: No, no. I wrote it for this piece, and, as I said, it just came out of me… But basically, I just sat down and-- oh my grandmother-- the thing that I loved was that in my letters, she did have that wonderful line in which is so true to her...
AJ: Can you share the opening with us?
Susan: Oh, well there were two places: the opening to my piece, which I was a little shy to use, but Don, my husband said, "It's perfect, you have to say it." But she always began her letters with:
My Precious One,
Dearest, Darling Girl,
My Dearest Susan
Through the years, Grandmama always began each of her many letters to me with those endearments.
Can you imagine?
And then the other part that was quoted directly from her letter was:
My grandmother never felt comfortable at stand-up cocktail parties.
"I couldn't be on my feet that long," she said. "And because I didn't drink, I never knew what to do with my hands. "
And I just loved that. So I used those two directly from letters that I had just been reading from her.
Teaser for HerSelf Rising, by Girls on Trapeze
AJ: Before I ask you how you became an aerial dancer, I was curious about your background before that, and what lead you up to aerial dancing.
Susan: Well, I came into dance late. I was, probably 26 years old… I was a social worker in Atlanta, with Atlanta Adolescents Pregnancy Program, and there was a woman teaching, just like I did many years later, a community class at Emory University.
So I went and started taking just this community class; anybody could come in, and it wasn't very technical; she really loved improvisation, and she loved putting dances on beginner bodies. I mean, you could say she used us, because she had these ideas, and she could make these amazing dances out of people doing very simple things… We did this big sculptural piece in this stretchy bag, like people do in the fabrics now, you know, wrapping [the fabric] around them and pushing them out into shapes and forms. Well, we did it-- we crawled into the bag, we were sewn up into the bag, and we did this crazy organic piece moving through space. Eight of us though! So you can see the kind of creativity she had that she bestowed on beginning dancers.
But I was convinced that I was a dancer because I started performing after taking two months [laughs]. And then I went to visit my friend in Berkeley, California, and she said, "You should go to Mills College and get a master's in dance." Well, that was back in '77, and I went and applied. You didn't have to audition, you didn't have to like, do anything. I just got in!
Aerial Journal: So was your undergraduate degree in social work?
Susan: It was in American Studies. So I did have recommendations from her, and I don't know who else I would have gotten them from. But for whatever reason I was accepted into a master's dance program, after having no dance except this one class I had took, with this amazing lady. And I was not that happy in the dance program there because I wasn't trained as a dancer, and most of the people who came there… had taken dance all their lives and had taken ballet classes and had modern dance backgrounds.
So I started going, at night, to take classes this studio where this woman-- this amazing, innovative, crazy woman-- started doing trapeze on the single-point. So concurrently with getting a master's in modern dance, I started doing trapeze with Terry Sendgraff.
Aerial Journal: Can you help us imagine what it was like to be in this class?
Susan: Yes, what we're doing here in this class [the retreat at the Marsh Studio], is a lot of what we would do. Sensing, feeling, eyes closed, sharing with each other, but certainly the technique was very simple. Hanging your knees over the bar. "How can you move within a knee hang? How many different ways can you move your body in a knee hang?" Or, just holding onto the bar, "How many different ways can you move your head?" Simple structures. And very few tricks.
Aerial Journal: When you were in Terry's class taking trapeze, did you have this ah-hah moment, "Oh, this is it for me!"?
Susan: I loved it from the beginning. And then she had me perform with this group called Fly by Night. So she had me perform, and then I got another hit from a teacher who use beginners for performing, and decided "Oh, I must be a performer." And then, I was also taking something called "Action Theatre," which was spontaneous improvisational theatre, where you actually speak, but you wouldn't have scripts; you would speak in the moment. We would perform and we wouldn't know what we were going to say, but we would just speak out. It was called Action Theatre. And then I was also taking contact improvisation, and I was taking theatre classes, so it was a rich time, a very rich time.
Aerial Journal: What is it about the trapeze-- can you put that into words-- what is it about it that you really connect with?
Susan: I think it's having a partner that is very flexible, especially, you know the dance trapeze, that is stable but flexible. I mean, there's the bars, there's ropes, but then, depending on how far above you are, you can use the floor. I like the tactile feeling of it. I like the feeling of the bar on my body, and the ropes on my body. I like that very tactile feeling. It does harken back to when I was young and would love climbing trees, so it had that kind of tactile, sensuous quality to it. I loved monkey bars. So I think it was the sensory stimulation, just on that level...
It opened up possibilities for expression that I couldn't do in just having solos. I didn't have a dance company I was working with, so it was my only partner for many years I did solos. Which I'm doing now in this show [HerSelf Rising], but I'm with a company and there are some group pieces that we do. But even at Canopy I mostly did solos. And it's ok, it's probably my form, and yet having the trapeze as a partner is not really like doing a solo. So it's a hybrid. A solo-hybrid.
AJ: What do you most hope your students take away from your classes, and your workshops and retreats?
Susan: Just trusting that quiet place where there's nothing that seems to be happening, but that everything is happening, but on another level… It's really trusting to go inside yourself, and find the sources of your own authentic creativity, that can't come if you're too busy, too busy trying to make movement happen, or do tricks, or looking at what other people are doing, or you know, kind of working from the outside. But from the inside… that's where your richness lies…
I do think creating pieces has a spiritual component to it. And can be transformative, for yourself and then certainly for the audience.
AJ: What is your perception regarding the aerial world today?
Susan: I'm just loving to see what's happening. I think it's just breaking all kind of barriers. I actually think people are kind of at a zenith of technical virtuosity, and that's incredibly exciting to see, and I do feel now that there is something they're wanting to bring to that from their soul and their heart that's going to bring what Terry started out with, that's going to actually imbibe what this technical virtuosity-- this plateau we're at-- where now, "What else? What else can happen from here?"
And if people can take that-- which I don't have that kind of technical virtuosity, you know, I can't do that any more, but I can see that people are yearning for something to animate that, to nourish it, to make it juicy and palpable and quality of deep feeling, that people are yearning for. And I'm loving that that seems to be a value now…
And I don't know how Terry feels. I don't know if she's connected with it or not, but I know the Aerial Dance Festival is trying to bring that back into it. I taught there for a couple of years and I was really touched by how much people did want to make dances that are authentic, and that's why all of you are here, because I know that there's a place in you, that not only wants a technical like what Molly's able to give, but also that spiritual, and more in-depth quality of moving, feeling, sensing, sharing.
AJ: Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you would like to share regarding aerial dance or your life or your teaching?
Susan: I'm just amazed that I'm still doing it here in this most perfect place! It is like, "Ok, I get to do it some more." And each time it gets more perfect.
I mean, Canopy was just such a culmination of so many years-- 25 years-- since I started with Terry and wanting to do it. And now I have this [the Marsh Studio], and now I'm seeing I can, this place can be-- maybe theatre groups will come here. Maybe poetry groups will come here. It doesn't have to be all aerial. I can see that people could come here for different reasons. And maybe we'll find ways to integrate poetry and art, even. Or writing, dancing...
This is such an amazing spot, and you know there's not many places like this, for aerial dance at all, or just to have a studio like this that's dedicated to the creative arts. I'm just curious to see where it leads.
Top photo: Martin O'Connor
Bottom three photos of Susan at the Marsh Studio: Lauren Blais