Dancing on Air

Nancy Smith is a motion addict. "I had a childhood love for spinning, for getting dizzy and falling down," she says. "I loved swings and swingsets and motion--repetitive motion that takes you into an altered state." So when the Boulder choreographer first saw aerial dancer Robert Davidson perform on a trapeze back in the mid-Eighties, it was kismet. "I was burned out on dance," Smith recalls. "It hit me at a time when I was ripe for it."

She took a workshop from Davidson, who also built her first trapeze, and she brought her new skills and contraption back to Boulder with her. "I lived locked in the studio for eight months," Smith says. "I was having a delightful time swinging around by myself; then other people started swinging around with me." That's how her own aerial dance troupe, Frequent Flyers, was born. They've been swinging through the air with the greatest of ease ever since.

Smith insists that her genre bears little resemblance to the trapeze performances you see at a circus. In aerial dance, the trapeze is low-flying, or what Davidson describes as "never higher than you can reach." Smith has learned to build her own trapezes--the materials needed for an average triangular trapeze cost about $75. The problem, though, is finding a place to hang it. "You need a place with enough height and no pillars," she notes. "Most dance spaces are not that high. I have a permanent crook in my neck from always looking up."

Once situated in a room of the right dimensions, Smith has other hurdles to jump. Everything is, to a certain degree, site-specific. "The length of the rope affects how it swings, which affects the timing," she says. And since her works feature dancers on the floor as well as in the air, she's always looking for a sense of balance between the two groups. "It's a different dilemma from the usual choreographic problems," Smith says. "That's a challenge. It continues to give me grist for my mill."

For her latest program, Mood Swings, Smith went full circle and invited Davidson, now a movement instructor at Denver's National Theatre Conservatory, to design a piece specifically for her troupe. In addition to three of her own dances, the company will perform Davidson's thirty-minute work, Mosaics: Structures From Silence, which he describes as being deliberately faster, harder and maybe more perilous in places than the typical aerial piece, which tends to move more slowly. "It's always dangerous if you aren't sensitive," Davidson says. "You have to be aware that if the tempo is fast, you have a potential for some huge collisions." And though swinging on a trapeze can look mighty breezy, it's sometimes easier said than done. "The hardest thing to do well is getting on a trapeze," Davidson warns. "The second hardest thing is getting off."

Once those skills are mastered, the rest is just a kind of beautiful witchcraft. "The relationship of being on the ground or in the air is very magical--to do and to watch," Davidson says. "Even when you watch the beginners, it's almost hypnotic or trance-inducing in some way. It's just so sensual--the way it rocks and sways and floats and soars and hovers. People tend to always have a similar reaction--of being somehow transported to a magical place."


Mood Swings, performed by Frequent Flyers Productions with Robert Davidson, 8 p.m. May 15-16 and 2 p.m. May 17, Irey Theatre, CU-Boulder campus, $12, 444-5569.