Seattle aerial troupe the Cabiri power up their dance prowess as they get ready for "The Ghost Game: Winternacht," their annual Halloween show, Oct. 21-23 and 28-31, 2011.
Danny Boulet, standing tall, wants April McMorris to land on his chest — to take a running start at him and land feet first on his chest.
Preferably somewhere up around his shoulders.
“It’s more than possible,” he says cheerily.
When McMorris seems doubtful, he calls on tiny dynamo Lauren Kettner to try it. Sure enough, on her second or third try, Kettner flies at him in a tight tuck and lands with her toes pretty much perched on his collar bone.
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Boulet, a sturdy guy, scarcely registers her impact. From tucked position, Kettner unfolds into the vertical, rising high into the air, then sliding down the length of his body, getting some whisker burn en route, until she’s back on terra firma.
Boulet is a newcomer to the Cabiri, an aerial troupe founded in 1999 that re-creates ancient myths onstage. The troupe, led by John Murphy (artistic director) and his wife, Charly McCreary (managing director), is entering a new phase in its career. It’s now composed entirely of performers dedicated to making their living year-round from dancing and/or teaching.
“We’ve phased out our hobbyists,” McCreary said. It has also added some floor-bound dance to its aerial mix. But as Boulet and Kettner demonstrate, “floor-bound” doesn’t necessarily mean gravity-bound.
In September, I dropped by the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Georgetown to observe the Cabiri in early rehearsal for “The Ghost Game: Winternacht,” their Halloween show, opening at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center on Oct. 21.
SANCA is in a big warehouse space, and its windows and doors were open to the warmth of our late-onset summer. From its ceiling, rings and ropes and chains hung, with performers scrambling up and down them with ease.
The aim of aerial performance, of course, is to make the human body look as if it weighs nothing at all. Watching members of the Cabiri when they’re first working out their routines makes clear just how difficult that is. It also reveals some magic moments.
Susan Bienczycka, for instance, is trying to mimic a smooth spiral groove on the rings that McCreary has just demonstrated. At first she seems unlikely to carry it off. But a few minutes later, she’s looking as fluid and as confident as McCreary.
Bienczycka is, McCreary explains, “new to aerial, but an amazing dancer.” And like most of the performers in the Cabiri’s new lineup, she comes from a dance background rather than gymnastics or acrobatics.
With her husband, photographer Gabriel Bienczycki, she ran the Seven Dance Company in Philadelphia. And while there, she did have one experience that had curious parallels with aerial work: performing underwater.
When you’re on the ground, she explains, you have a solid surface (or a partner) you can push against. In aerial or aquatic work, while you do get some resistance from the water or the fabric/ring/rope you’re working with, it’s not as much as you would get from something more solid. “It moves,” she notes, “so your flexibility changes, because you’ve only got what your body can do, what you can do with your strength.”
Bienczycka had withdrawn from her dance career, teaching Pilates instead, until she took a silks class with some friends and got hooked. She would never have auditioned for a dance troupe, she says, but the Cabiri’s airborne antics are something different.
“It’s kind of like being in a playground instead of being all serious. It’s definitely a totally different body challenge. … A little bit more athletic, and not quite as esoteric.”
With professionally trained dancers now on board, artistic director Murphy has ceded some of his choreographic duties to his performers. Boulet and McMorris, for instance, are devising their own choreography in a fight scene, with Boulet giving McMorris “dude lessons” because, he says, she’s “the lead male” in their tussle.
Oddly, McMorris does have gymnastics background — but it’s Boulet, trained in ballet and a variety of other dance styles, who has the greater confidence.
“Dance does wonders,” he says, especially when it’s a “healthy mix” of styles. He and his brother, Sylvain Boulet, first came to my notice when they were apprentices with Spectrum Dance Theater. They’ve also appeared on the local burlesque circuit.
Kettner, now in her second season with the Cabiri, has no gymnastics background either. But she did once spend six months as a cheerleader, she notes wryly.
Kirra Steinbrueck, new to the troupe this summer, was a student with Pacific Northwest Ballet and appeared as the child Clara in PNB’s “Nutcracker” seven years ago. Within a year of seeing her first aerial performance, she was taking classes with McCreary. And she proved such a natural that she joined the troupe one month later.
McCreary’s own teachers have included former Seattleite Robert Davidson, as well as Cirque du Soleil veterans Sam Alvarez (who still coaches the Cabiri) and Elsie and Serenity Smith (now of the New England Center for Circus Arts).
Whatever their background, the performers of the Cabiri use their talents to bring myths from around the world to life. This year’s show includes a tale about a Japanese snow witch and one concerning Boreas, the north wind in Greek mythology. Eleven performers — dancers, aerialists, contortionists — act out seven stories altogether.
The shaggy-haired Murphy says about the show: “As much as I guide, I’m guided by the myths.” Sometimes, he adds, he even feels a little possessed by them.
While most performers create or contribute to their own choreography, Murphy keeps tabs on everything and puts his stamp on it. Only half-joking, he describes himself as “a benevolent dictator running a socialist-anarchist collective.”
Rehearsals are usually videotaped because, as Bienczycka explains, it’s hard to keep track of yourself in a mirror when you’re twirling around in the air. It can be tough to watch yourself on video, McCreary adds, as you try to master a sequence of aerial moves. But monitoring your progress is an essential part of the process. Videos are posted on Dropbox for all the members of the troupe to watch. They then offer one another tips on what works and what needs more practice.
A mid-September preview of routines from the upcoming show — done without costumes, props or stage lighting — brought home just how impressive these athletes-in-dance are. Boulet and Kettner were almost scary as they charged through a conflict in which Boulet tossed Kettner in the air as if she were so much flotsam. McCreary and Biencyzcka achieved a dreamy symmetry on the rings, while Murphy and Kettner slipped through intricate spinning knots in midair.
While every performer I talked to mentioned the fun of “acrobalancing” and doing aerial work, the tone of “Winternacht” will skew decidedly toward the sinister.
“You’ll see what happens,” McCreary tells me. “Bad things, of course. It’s Halloween.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org