The Real Story: Aerial Dance Chicago’s “Road to the Sky” with Artistic Director Chloe Jensen
We’re used to envisioning the paths in our lives as horizontal roads that stretch toward the horizon. The many forks, twists and turns in our journey are opportunities for us to grow and reach (or possibly discover the limitlessness of) our potential. But imagine a path that could take you upwards towards the stars — one where the sky is literally the limit, if only you are brave enough to take the risk and climb higher. Luckily for the concert dance community, we don’t have to imagine that path. It exists, thanks to the artists at Aerial Dance Chicago, who are bringing back Road to the Sky — a new works initiative that provides Chicago choreographers with the opportunity to take their creativity to new heights by allowing them to create dance that incorporates aerial elements and apparatus.
For the last 20 years, Aerial Dance Chicago Artistic Director Chloe Jensen has been working to craft, hone and share her vision of what aerial dance can be on the concert dance stage. Historically, we can trace some of the first aerial elements in concert or classical dance back to the late 18th century, where Charles Didelot created “flying machines” to give his ballet dancers the illusion of weightlessness (which would later lead to the first instance of a dancer performing “en pointe”). As the age of American post-modern dance began to bloom in the 1960’s and 70’s, influential choreographers like Alwin Nikolais and Trisha Brown began rigging their dancers for performances outdoors, on the sides of buildings and rooftops, extending the possibilities for how and where a choreographic vision could take shape. To date, the most recognizable use of aerial apparatus comes to us from major global companies like Cirque de Soleil, yet Aerial Dance Chicago remains unique as one of the only companies in the world whose focus is purely on aerial dance in a concert dance setting. ADC combines aerial dance with the most breathtaking contemporary, ballet and modern dance to create choreography that is effective in captivating, emotional expression and story telling.
Now, over 20 years later, with a dedicated space of our own rigged especially for dance-in-flight, the artists of ADC have the freedom to explore this art form in depth. And this is an opportunity we want to share and extend to other artists in our community.
But, the path to innovation has not come without its hardships, and although ADC is celebrating two decades of multi-dimensional dance, it is only in the last two years that they have been able to bring Road to the Sky to the stage. DancerMusic Editor Kristi Licera recently caught up with Aerial Dance Chicago Artistic Director Chloe Jensen to learn more about how Road to the Sky came to be and more on the in-studio process of introducing choreographers to a new dimension of dance making. Here’s what Chloe told us:
The aerial apparatus is quite literally a “road to the sky,” and along this less charted road–from earth to sky–is expansive potential for dance expression.
Kristi Licera: Aerial Dance Chicago’s 20th anniversary season opens with two performances of Road to the Sky – a concert as unique, innovative and inventive as the company itself. The program consists of new works created by Chicago dance makers who have strong, clear choreographic aesthetics but are working with and incorporating aerial elements for the first time. Can you tell us about why and how you developed Road to the Sky and where your inspiration for the name of the concert came from?
Chloe Jensen: When I first had the idea to create choreography in the air, it took several years for me to gather the resources needed and to find a space that could support the rigging. Now, over 20 years later, with a dedicated space of our own rigged especially for dance-in-flight, the artists of ADC have the freedom to explore this art form in depth. And this is an opportunity we want to share and extend to other artists in our community.Through the years, we have introduced the aerial dance form to guest choreographers – most often one guest choreographer per production. But Road to the Sky is a more robust program, formatted in a way to extend these opportunities to 6-8 local choreographers per production.
Not everyone understands what we have set out to do in Aerial Dance Chicago. We are a dance company, not an aerial company. It is just that we choose not to limit our choreography to the horizontal stage. We develop dance techniques in the air that help us access the potential for artistic expression along the entire ground-air continuum. Perhaps the Road to the Sky program can help our audience and our artistic community better understand the vision of our company.
We introduce aerial dance to new choreographers while offering as much support to them as possible. Entering the realm of aerial dance choreography can be intimidating at first, yet we find that the choreographers who join for this project come in rather fearlessly.
Chloe: Sometimes we refer to aerial fabrics and ropes as our “vertical dance floor.” The aerial apparatus reach to ground level and extend upward where they originate in the sky, giving us the means to move up into the vertical space, as well as move in new ways along the horizontal dance floor. The aerial apparatus is quite literally a “road to the sky,” and along this less charted road–from earth to sky–is expansive potential for dance expression.
The art of aerial dance is a challenging and fascinating dance realm to explore. And after nearly 20 years of taking dance into the air, we wanted to develop a program that would more widely extend this art form to our artistic community. That is exactly what this program intends to do–each year providing more local choreographers access to the “road to the sky.”
What ties the works together is that they are all short, each no longer than 3 minutes, resulting in a concert that is highly accessible to audience members of all ages and all walks of life–even people that may be new to attending dance concerts.
Kristi: This season, Road to the Sky features new works by Tracy Von Kaenel, Lauren Reed, Nadia Oussenko, Braeden Barnes, Hanna Brictson, Taylor Mitchell, Ted Seymour and Jessica Miller Tomlinson, as well as works by yourself and ADC Associate Artistic Director Karen Fisher Doyle. Creating effective, impactful choreography is a challenge, even for the most seasoned and experienced dance makers. Adding aerial elements effectively doubles the area of the performance space, as choreographers must now consider the vertical dimension. That added space creates a multitude of both possibilities and challenges. Can you tell us about the process of introducing the new choreographers to the world of Aerial Dance Chicago, as well as more about the works that will be in the program?
Chloe: We introduce aerial dance to new choreographers while offering as much support to them as possible. Entering the realm of aerial dance choreography can be intimidating at first, yet we find that the choreographers who join for this project come in rather fearlessly. It is amazing to watch the new work take shape and very inspiring to see the fresh perspectives our guest choreographers bring to the art form.
To help get them get started, the guest choreographers are invited to come watch our dancers in improvisation sessions using the aerial apparatus, are provided access to our studio space with the aerial element to explore, gain free access to classes within our school at Aerial Dance Chicago and both myself and Associate Artistic Director Karen Fisher Doyle are on site during their rehearsals to provide support with rig set up as well as any questions they may have along the way. RTTS artists also have the support of the dancers whose training and experience in both traditional dance forms and aerial dance serves as a valuable asset to the choreographers during their process.
This program shakes up our season a little, gives our dancers new challenges and opportunities that they crave and connects us to the greater Chicago Dance Community.
Chloe: Our 2nd annual Road to the Sky is going to be an incredible line up filled with very distinct choreographic voices. The work reaches a wide range of styles and moods–from fiercely intense to light and comical. What ties the works together is that they are all short, each no longer than 3 minutes, resulting in a concert that is highly accessible to audience members of all ages and all walks of life–even people that may be new to attending dance concerts.
One thing I love so much about this production is the adventure of having so many guest choreographers in the studio with us. Each guest leaves me in complete awe in some way. This program shakes up our season a little, gives our dancers new challenges and opportunities that they crave and connects us to the greater Chicago Dance Community.
With the circulation of new energy in the studio, funny things happen too. I’ll never forget during Taylor Mitchell’s rehearsal, dancer Gena Brady flying on the rope so high that her foot tapped the large clock hanging on the studio wall. In a split second surprise, the clock came tumbling down. It made for a very good laugh, and now that moment is forever frozen in time. And while kicking a clock off the wall might not be the choreographic intention of any of the artists for this program, the audience is in for lots of surprises at Road to the Sky 2019.
We develop dance techniques in the air that help us access the potential for artistic expression along the entire ground-air continuum.
Here is more on the choreographers’ experiences from the dance makers themselves:
“Having the experience to choreograph with an apparatus, in my case with a “rope harness”, taught me a new dimension of possibilities with momentum and suspension. I was intimidated at first getting acquainted with the equipment, but quickly fell in love with this new tool and hope to explore more with aerial dance-work in future opportunities.” –Taylor Mitchell
“Having the opportunity to create on Aerial Dance Chicago has been both a wonderful and inspiring experience. There is a willingness and drive from the dancers to learn and grow from any outside choreographer.” –Braeden Barnes
“Working with aerial elements is fascinating because it’s hard to know what’s possible before the dancers try it. Unlike regular choreography where you have a fairly good idea of what will work and what won’t, I find myself imagining sequences to try with a free barre that are totally and completely impossible. The lack of knowing gives me permission to try unorthodox things with confidence, unlocking new possibilities even if the original ideas don’t work out.” –Lauren Reed
Aerial Dance Chicago presents Road to the Sky Saturday, December 7 and Sunday, December 8, 2019. Both performances begin at 7pm. Performances take place at Aerial Dance Chicago Studio (4028 W Irving Park Rd Chicago, IL 60641). For tickets and additional information, visit www.aerialdancechicago.org/events-and-tickets/road-to-the-sky.