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SF aerial arts fest looks back and moves forward

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East Bay vertical dance troupe BANDALOOP appears in the 2018 San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival. (Courtesy Andy Mogg)

With obvious connections to circus and a vertical movement platform tilted 90-degrees from the norm, it’s easy to dismiss aerial dance as acrobatic antics performed on an upright playground. The third biennial San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival running Friday through Sunday throughout Fort Mason might seem to be largely spectacle.

But a closer look, and insights from Joanna Haigood, artistic director of San Francisco-based festival presenter Zaccho Dance Theatre, reveal sophisticated artistry, centuries-old traditions and highly specialized technology undergird aerial dance.

This year’s three-day festival offers a full spectrum experience.

A Youth Performance Showcase at noon Saturday in Cowell Theater features emerging talent from Zaccho, Oakland-based BANDALOOP/Destiny Arts and other Bay Area training programs, and other ticketed events offer performances by top professionals.

On Sunday, following a 3 p.m. show with Seattle-based contemporary circus company Acrobatic Conundrum, BANDALOOP and Veronica Blair (formerly of Universoul Circus), is “The Routes of Vertical Dance.” The lecture by Wanda Moretti, artistic director-choreographer for Il Posto from Venice, Italy details the history of celebrated vertical movement artists and features 14 short films, some rarely screened. The presentation also includes a discussion with aerial dance pioneers Haigood and Amelia Rudolph of BANDALOOP.

Acrobatic Conundrum, a contemporary circus from Seattle, performs Saturday and Sunday. (Courtesy Emiliano Ron)

In the Firehouse from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday is a book release party with Terry Sendgraff, author of the autobiography, “Can You See Me Flying? Memoir of an Aerial Dance Pioneer.”

Special workshops at 10 a.m. Saturday allow participants to explore flight in low-flying bungees or learn safe practices and skill building.

All of which indicates the remarkable growth of aerial dance from its origins.

“Early forms of aerial dance that are still known are the ceremony/ritual dance of Los Voladores in the Papantla in Veracruz, Mexico,” says Haigood. “Another personal inspiration for me are the Japanese fireman’s ladder drills.”

Aerial arts in 2018, Haigood says, have stretched into everything from high art dance to opera to pop star performances.

In the Bay Area alone, aerial dance staked its claim in flying and theatrical aerial elements in productions such as Peter Brook’s 1970 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Sendgraff’s trail-blazing trapeze artistry in the early 1970s and more.

Training centers and professional companies further established it as a place of creativity and invention through the San Francisco School for Circus Arts (now Circus Center); Rudolph’s BANDALOOP company; artistic director Jo Kreiter’s site-specific, apparatus-based Flyaway; and other companies and independent artists.

More indoor venues with aerial capabilities are helpful, although locating structures appropriate for rigging in nontraditional spaces and out of doors remains a challenge.

“This year we’re expanding into the Cowell Theater and are very excited about presenting work in this beautiful theater,” says Haigood. “More theaters are now being designed with consideration to aerial rigging and some older theaters are being retrofitted to accommodate it.”

Along with supporting safe and increased opportunities, two primary festival priorities are presenting works that highlight vertical dance’s diversity and expanding the opportunities for exchange—artist to artist and artist to audience.

With contemporary aerial dances tracing connections to everything from ballet to Burning Man, Haigood suggests the art form’s “instigator of change” atmosphere is thriving.

Although still using bungees, silks, slack ropes and other traditional tools of the trade, the art form this year invites broader engagement by moving beyond sheer physical prowess and beauty to address issues of social justice, sisterhood and brotherhood, human relationships to nature, architecture or gravity, and making known overlooked stories about aerial artists of color or breaking through gender or racial bias.

San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival
Where: Cowell Theater, Festival Pavilion, Firehouse, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: Performances at 8 p.m. Aug. 10; noon, 3 and 8 p.m. Aug. 11; 8 p.m. Aug. 12
Tickets: $25 to $35
Contact: (415) 345-7575, www.fortmason.org

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